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“Challenges, silences and cyberactivism: Arab Springs in transition”

gigi-ibrahim

One day in December 2010, discontent, the lack of liberties and frustration in the face of a life with no prospects lit a fuse that is still burning today. A young Tunisian called Mohamed Buazizi committed suicide by setting fire to himself, thereby becoming the symbol of a whole generation brought to its knees. Since that 17 December, the Arab world has seen the fall of four dictatorships, while autocrats in other countries are tottering on their thrones. What has become known as the Arab Spring, which began with the uprising of the destitute, has become a citizen movement by means of which Arabs are protesting for their rights and the ability to decide their future for themselves.

Far from being a finished process, the Arab Spring has spread throughout the region and is advancing at a different pace in each country. To a greater or lesser extent, all regimes, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, from the Gulf States to the Levant, have been rocked by the tsunami of protests that had its epicentre in Tunisia. Just as when the Berlin Wall fell triggering a process of change in Eastern Europe, the domino effect of the Arab Spring has left no Middle East leader untouched. So, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have put an end to their dictatorships; Syria is fighting to throw off Bashar Asad; other countries, like Bahrain, find themselves with an opposition that is crushed by the regime and a position of stalemate. And other states, like Jordan and Kuwait, are trying to adapt their model of state to these new times. But the shock wave is still advancing.

The situation today

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and, to a lesser extent, Yemen are countries undergoing different processes of transition. The challenges facing them are very similar: finding a model of state in keeping with Muslim tradition and democratic standards, fighting against political and economic corruption, establishing transparent institutions and promoting the social fabric, solving the serious economic crisis besetting them and achieving a level of progress to bridge the technological gap with the West. But each country has a different point of departure according to its historic processes and international relations in the geopolitical context.

It is vital here to avoid the most common clichés in the world of news: that all Arab countries are the same and that, because they are Muslim countries, they will never be democratic. To eradicate these ideas, it is important to remember, firstly, that historically and culturally each country is different and, therefore, the processes of transition will produce correspondingly different results. Secondly, that it is up to the citizens of these countries to decide what kind of state they want and what form their constitution will take.

Media silences

How do we explain the media silence surrounding the Western consumer of news, now the revolutions are over? Quite simply, it has to do with the very essence of what is newsworthy. When the situation calms down and ceases to be spectacular or violent, the media turn their attention elsewhere. The focus is constantly changing in a world with a need for non-stop consumption. The international agenda is written by the big media (agencies such as Reuters and France Presse or media conglomerates such as CNN) and the most powerful nations. The media in Spain, in this case, follow the agenda written by other parties. A way of getting round this approach is to follow local media and go to the source. This can be difficult, though. New technologies certainly give us a window on the world, but they are no panacea, as we have to find, amid a vast quantity of information, the local media and figures that offer good, proven information. Blogs and Tweets are useful, but we still have to be careful in our selection.

The best option is to trust to the work of lots of journalists, whether freelance or associated with a specific medium, who, independently of the slant chosen by the big international media, are committed to the task of informing and offering in-depth reports and information in context.

Social networks and freedom of expression

There has been a great deal of speculation on the impact of the new technologies on the Arab revolutions and the influence of media such as Twitter or Facebook on the democratic processes in the Middle East and the Maghreb. The Western media have exaggerated the role of social networks in these countries, where Internet access, the number of users of social networks and the necessary training to handle these tools are all very limited. In many cases, cyberactivists were acting outside the countries in question, or their work was so isolated that they did not represent the mobilized majority. Sometimes, their role was to convey information and act as a bridge between what was happening in the most remote places and the news desks. Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni recognises that the role of cyberactivists has been exaggerated in the West. The uprisings did not succeed thanks to Twitter or blogs, and the dictators did not fall because of the power of social networks. It is the people who must take credit for raising its voice against autocracy and it will be the people, the citizens, who have to construct the society that they want.

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Rosa Meneses >

Journalist for El Mundo
Rosa Meneses (Barcelona, 1975) is a journalist for El Mundo newspaper, specializing in the Middle East and the Maghreb. Since 2011, she has covered the Arab uprisings and transitions, and provided in-the-field reporting on the revolution in Tunisia and the conflicts in Libya and Syria. She is Ochberg Fellow of Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism (New York), a centre devoted to ethical reporting of conflict and violence.