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The Middle East has met the enemy, and he’s online

Social media’s strength was irresponsibly and uncritically exaggerated

Haroon Moghul

Published: Updated:

It all happened so fast. Tunisia was in America’s peripheral vision; we’d read, from time to time, of mounting protests, huge crowds straining the grand avenues of Tunis, the Arab street finally out on the street.

But then the dictator fell, and so did many a pundit’s career. There rose in their place new voices, closer to the ground, more sympathetic to the reality, more optimistic about the possibilities. Everybody had told us this could not happen. Except it did.

On Jan. 25, when Tahrir square became the center of massive protest, you can bet we were all glued to screens of various sizes.

Drunk on the Kool-Aid

The first revolutionaries knew how to sell themselves, and we were primed to buy. We believed in social media. We got drunk on the Kool-Aid. We worshipped at the altar of technology. What had started in Tunisia wouldn’t stay in Tunisia.

After some three weeks, Mubarak was forced to resign, and the crowds went home, for reasons unfathomable today.

There was an almost messianic fervor to the dispatches I’d get. It was young Arabs, not the stodgy Islamists, who’d change things. Political parties were so 20th century.

Social media would free everyone. Google, Facebook, Twitter. Who needed ideologies?

Blood would flow

In Egypt, many came out less than one year ago to overthrow the only democratic government their country has ever enjoyed. This time, the more hopeful voices were the most delusional. Blood would flow in Raba’a.

Social media’s strength was irresponsibly and uncritically exaggerated. We got caught up in a story we were telling

Haroon Moghul

The Brotherhood would fall, and then other activists, with far less formidable resources and next to no experience in institutional suppression, would, too. Except it’s probable the Brotherhood will weather the storm.

They’ve been there before. As for everyone else who stood up to the dictatorship?

Social media’s strength was irresponsibly and uncritically exaggerated. We got caught up in a story we were telling. The rapidity with which networks can be built is, as we now see, paralleled by the ease with which they can be monitored.

The more people use these new technologies, the more easy it is to understand who they are, who they talk to, what they do, and why they do it; the more who sign on, more complete the panopticon. Advertisers knew this before governments, but governments are good at playing catch-up.

Real oversight

Once Edward Snowden had revealed the full extent of the NSA’s intrusion into private non-spaces (from telephones to tweets), do any of us honestly believe any real oversight will ever be accomplished? It is too tempting a power to have, and too hard for civilian oversight to keep track of absent radical change, but the radical change required is subverted by social media’s seductiveness--and its necessity.

The internet may well be the force that does not enable freedom, but disables it—through the enticement of permanent distraction. We can post our pictures, ping our friends, poke—in case that’s still a thing, and not a restraining order—and tag.

Tunisia is the one success story in the Arab Spring, but its success comes less from the freewheeling space of virtual communication than from the patient willingness of all parties—including the remarkable generosity of the Islamists—to hammer out a compromise in real time. Some speak of the contradictions at the heart of Tunisia’s constitution; on the one hand, “respect for the sacred” and on the other “free speech and individual rights.”

But a meeting point halfway must contain tensions; the pendulum, we can expect, will swing from one end to another. In Egypt, meanwhile, many of the “secular” revolutionaries—who, incidentally, often support state control of religion—have offered no such concessions.

Echo chamber

Too many of them would rather lose democracy than lose in a democracy. It’s the downside to the echo chamber. They were unwilling to talk--one could say the same about the Brotherhood--but why? Social media shelters us, locks us into our own boxes, too eager to see and hear what we want to see and hear—while governments, far more ecumenical in their maintenance of power can see and hear what the rest of us can’t, or won’t.

Maybe social media isn’t the cure, but the problem. Of course, there’s no putting the genie back in his lamp. (Pardon the expression.)

So where do we go from here?

The Middle East and North Africa is on a road, moving away from outright colonialism, through neo-colonialism and potentially toward that messy, murky, muddled place where sovereignty may be achieved. Except perhaps busied in the race for national sovereignty, for the chance to dictate democratically, we neglected to see that technology has rendered anachronistic the goals.

It is remarkably easy for governments—like drones, always buzzing overhead—to watch. What if technology exchanged political freedom for social freedom? What if it was easier to have the freedoms afforded by interconnectivity, the access to activities and proclivities once taboo, the chance to be entertained anywhere and everywhere, and we preferred this?

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Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He is a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon’s writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, Today’s Zaman and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and serves as an expert guide to the Muslim heritage of Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. Twitter: @hsmoghul

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