Use of ICT in the Arab Spring

Transnational Use of ICT

The youth revolution leapfrogged via rap songs, Twitter, Facebook, and satellite dish broadcasting news since 1992. Satellite news includes Al Jazeera TV (since in 1996), BBC Arabic (2008) and CNN Arabic (2002). The proliferation of media and phones made it difficult for governments to censor news. Facebook was used to organize groups, and texting was used to post real-time information on cell phones, thereby bypassing the need to access a computer. A Libyan young woman reported, “Especially during the Tunisian revolution, Arabs, academics, and journalists were saying that had Twitter in one ear, and Al Jazeera in the other. Suddenly, tweets were very important.”[i] She noted that anti-Gaddafi websites multiplied. Evidence of government corruption was provided by videos posted on YouTube and Twitpic, etc., and blogs discussed issues in more depth. Cyber attacks were used to disable government websites and governments used the same tools against rebels.

Only about 29% of people in the Middle East and MENA used the Internet, but the majority of users are youth who access it outside their homes as in Internet cafes. Internet access in the region expanded from almost nothing in 2000 to 40% of the population by 2010, with youth of both genders the majority of social media users.[ii] (By the end of 2012 the Middle East had 23,811,620 Facebook subscribers and by June 2014, 48% had access to the Internet.[iii]) A survey of youth-created websites found the most widely discussed political issues were workers’ and women’s rights, freedom of expression, and of course unemployment is a popular discussion topic. ICT enabled young women to become more politically active from their homes, resulting in the movement for women’s voting rights in Kuwait and progressive changes in Moroccan family law. In Egypt, Asmaa Mahfouz (age 26) was called “the leader of the revolution” due to her online video challenging men to come to Tahrir Square. Tawakkol Karman (age 32) was the “mother of the revolution” in Yemen. Youth goals are secular, wanting freedom and economic opportunity. A pan-Arab youth movement for dignity was created, a reference to the Koran’s statement that Allah “dignified mankind.”

An example of international exchange, on Facebook Tunisians advised Egyptians to counter tear gas with onions and vinegar kept under their scarfs, wear shields made of plastic bottles or cardboard to deflect rubber bullets, use black spray paint to obscure police car windows, stuff rags in police vehicle exhaust pipes, and build barricades. They shared tactics with youth movements in Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Iran, etc. “If a small group of people in every Arab country went out and persevered as we did, then that would be end of all the regimes,” said Walid Rachid, a member of Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement.[iv]

Using the Internet and cell phones, youth activists can organize quickly and get around government emergency laws about assembly and other restrictions, as they stated at a meeting organized by the Carnegie Middle East Center.[v] The Internet can be used for alternative education and for right-wing causes as well as progressive ones, as explained in Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East (2014).[vi] Youth consider unions and leftist groups too slow and obsolete, although unions supported the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In turn these youth activists were criticized by older activists for lacking commitment to sustained planning for the future. This deficiency resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood and then the military filling in the vacuum after Mubarak’s downfall in Egypt.

Some of the Arab Spring leaders received training and financing from US groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, all said to receive CIA funding, as discussed in Chapter 1.[vii] For example, some Egyptian youth leaders were trained in social networking and mobile technologies at a 2008 workshop in New York City sponsored by Facebook, Google, MTV, and the US State Department. Egyptian leader Bashme Fathy reported, “We learned how to organize and build coalitions.” Entar Qadhi, a young woman who attended US training sessions in Yemen, reported, “They helped me very much because I used to think that change only takes place by force and by weapons.”

Tamarod youth groups spread in the Middle East, connected on Facebook and Twitter. Guadalupe Martínez, a researcher at Spain’s University of Granada explained that Tamarod members are often young, urban, educated activists united in a movement for democracy active in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Palestine, and Iraq.[viii] The Tunisian Tamarod group criticized the country’s Islamic Al Nahda party, accusing it of hijacking the revolution, and the Egyptians advised them.[ix] Tunisian leader Mohammed Bannour reported that Tamarod collected more than 180,000 signatures to influence the Constitutional Assembly and helped get over 34 million people to the streets on June 30, 2013. Tamarod Bahrain’s didn’t focus on petitions but on uniting pro-democracy groups. Libya Tamarod’s Facebook page proclaims, “Revolution is our unity and parties are our division.”

Another example of the pan-Arab youth movement, the Arab Youth Climate Movement demonstrated at the UN climate talks in Qatar in 2012. Of course they have a Facebook page.[x] They chanted “It’s Time to Lead” and “We Want Change,” in the first public demonstration in Qatar’s history. At the same time, a Qatari poet was imprisoned in a maximum-security prison for his poem titled “Tunisian Jasmine,” saying, “We are all Tunisians in the face of the repressive.” His crime was “insulting the emir” and inciting overthrow of the royal family (the emir owns Al Jazeera.) The emir of Qatar turned rule over to his 33-year-old son to “usher in a new era where young leadership hoists the banner.”


Previous Years Organizing Protests

Despite the impression of spontaneous protests in 2011, the previous decade saw thousands of demonstrations, strikes, and protests about economic and political grievances that paved the way for change in the Arab world. The Carnegie Center reviewed these protest movements, pointing out that in Egypt, for example, more than 2,000 “episodes” took place from 1998 to 2009.[xi] Protests were led by labor groups, youth organizations and bloggers, leftist movements, and political parties but not by Islamic groups. Mosques were often the only space to meet in countries that prevented public assemblies, although most youth didn’t organize in the name of Islam. Noam Chomsky stated that the Arab Spring began in November 2010 in the Western Sahara, the last African colony.[xii] Uprisings by the Saharawi movement against Moroccan control included a tent city destroyed by Moroccan soldiers. Palestinian uprisings were also quickly crushed. Chomsky noted that neoliberal policies backed by the US are the root cause of the uprisings around the world and that Latin America was able to free itself from them. The Arab Spring uprisings that had some success have a history of labor movement activism.

A large demonstration was held on February 15, 2003, in over 600 cities around the world against the US invasion of Iraq, generating an uprising of anger in the Arab world. Three young Egyptian men decided to generate a “mindquake” to alert other Egyptians on their website “The Change.” They were inspired by the Iranian Revolution, the color revolutions in Eastern Europe, the Allende presidency in Chile, Sudanese politics and Gene Sharp’s books.[xiii] They were among the first to portray President Hosni Mubarak as a pharaoh and the website hosted music and films. The site evolved into an organization to train cyber activists called the Academy of Change headquartered in Qatar. They provided their first training in civil disobedience to Kefaya members in Cairo in 2005. The leaders wrote free books and manuals on the subject in Arabic and English available on their website.[xiv]

[i] Alhassen and Shihab-Eldin, p. 178.

[ii] Courney Radsch, “Women, Cyberactivism, and the Arab Spring,” Muftah, December 10, 2012.

[iii] “Internet Usage in the Middle East,” Internet World Stats

[iv] David Kirkpatrick and David Sanger, “A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History,” New York Times, February 13, 2011.

[v] Marina Ottaway and Amr HamzawyMarina,”Protest Movements and Political Change in the Arab World,” Carngegie Endowment for International Peace, January 28, 2011.

[vi] Linda Herrera, ed. Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East. Routledge, 2014.

[vii] Ron Nixon, “US Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” The New York Times, April 14, 2011.

[viii] Ismael Pena-Lopez notes on a conference presentation, “Global Revolution,” ICT4D Blog. October 23, 2013.

[ix] :


[xi] Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy, “Protest Movements and Political Change in the Arab World,” January 28, 2011. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[xii] Noam Chomsky. Power Systems. Henry Holt & Co., 2013, p. 46.

[xiii] Linda Herrera. Revolution in the Age of Social Media. Verso, 2014, p. 18.

Eric Stoner, “The Role of the Academy of Change in Egypt’s Uprising,” Waging Nonviolence, April 19, 2011.



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