Can Social Media Bring Democracy to the Middle East?

Just over a year ago in Iran, people took to the streets and to the Internet, in order to protest the re-election of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Journalist Omid Memarian, who was in prison in Iran in 2004 for expressing his opinions, said at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) panel “Democracy and Voice” on September 23, 2010 that “if not for the Internet, many more people would have been killed on the streets… Many more people would have been arrested.” And this is absolutely true. With the world following Iranians’ Twitter feeds, the Islamic Republic most certainly felt pressure to scale back the brutal crackdown.

However, as Arianna Huffington, moderator of the CGI panel and Editor-in-Chief of theHuffington Post pointed out, governments, not only in the Middle East but around the world, have quickly learned from Iran’s “mistakes,” and are now censoring the Internet and limiting access to social networking sites and media sources, thereby hindering freedom of expression.

In Saudi Arabia, the government has the right to block access to sites it deems unsuitable and recently tried to ban Blackberry services in the interest of national security. In Bahrain, a gag order has been imposed on the media and human rights groups as part of the monarchy’s effort to consolidate power and crack down on the opposition.

And, governments have also taken action against prominent bloggers who have given a voice to the opposition. Among the many examples: in Bahrain, the journalist and blogger Ali Abdulemam, whose site, BahrainOnline.org, provided a voice for the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, was arrested on September 5 and is being tortured for publishing “false news.” In Syria, nineteen year-old blogger Tal al-Mallohi was arrested for unknown reasons, although the poetry on her site was considered critical of the Syrian regime. She has been detained for nine months and has been denied access to her family. 

As evident from the arrests of Abdulemam, Mallohi, and others, it is obvious that Middle Eastern governments have countered the rising power of social media and digital activism with power of their own.  While the Internet has the power to foster a strong and influential civil society under oppressive regimes, the real predicament is how people will be guaranteed the right to access the Internet under these repressive governments. Moreover, once granted that right, guaranteeing the safety and security of citizens utilizing the Internet living under regimes intent on silencing dissidence remains an enormous obstacle.

Internet activism definitely has the power to make a difference in the realm of democracy promotion in the Middle East, particularly in empowering civil society, but with constant government crackdowns on accessibility, its full potential is severely limited. 

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