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[liberationtech] Three Myths About The Arab Uprisings

Yosem Companys companys at
Thu Jul 26 11:38:57 PDT 2012

Three Myths About the Arab Uprisings
 As Arab turmoil continues, analysts can’t afford to exaggerate the root
Ellen Lust, Jakob Wichmann
YaleGlobal, 24 July 2012
 Age in Arab streets: Internet savvy youth may be the face of revolution
(top); but, most mainstream protesters are middle aged and elderly (below)

NEW HAVEN: The uprisings that began with pushing Tunisian autocrat Ben Ali
from power in January 2011 have fostered dizzying levels of activism and a
deluge of analyses. The changing times are exciting, though scary; the
information intriguing, though often misleading.

Indeed, much of the current analysis revolves around three myths that fail
to hold up under closer scrutiny. Revisiting these myths sheds light on
recent changes in the Arab world and on where the region may be heading.

*Youth + Technology = Uprisings:***Arabs and outsiders alike have heralded
technologically savvy youth for engineering the uprisings. They argue that
young Arabs used Facebook and Twitter to mobilize people as never before.
Certainly, youth-led social media played a role in the uprisings, but
viewing the uprisings too narrowly in these terms overlooks the breadth and
depth of the popular mobilization.

Many more beside youths poured into the streets expressing longstanding
grievances. In June 2012 the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute, DEDI, and
the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, ACPSS, conducted a
survey of 1200 Egyptian respondents, above 18 years of age, across 21
governorates excluding border governorates. It found that while youth under
the age of 30 were particularly mobilized, they only made up slightly less
than half of protesters over age 18. Moreover, Egyptians 40 to 50 years old
were highly mobilized during the revolution. Only about 12 percent of this
age group claimed they participated in demonstrations before the
revolution, while about 20 percent joined the 2011 uprisings.

Reported Age of Egyptian Protesters in the Midst of Revolution. Enlarge

Similarly, a single-minded focus on social networking technology overstates
its role. The DEDI-ACPSS survey finds that just 8 percent of the general
population claims they use Facebook, although 26 percent of protesters are
Facebook users. Only about one third of the protesters on Facebook say they
use the network a lot for political purposes. Similarly, just over
one-quarter of Egyptians that participated in the demonstrations during the
revolution read blogs, as compared with 8 percent in the general
population. Social media played a role. But Facebook and other internet
tools did not necessarily drive change. Indeed, most of the countries that
witnessed the greatest mobilization in 2011 are among those with poor
internet coverage: Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen are six of the
lowest ranking Arab states in terms of internet usage, according to
the International
Telecommunication Union. <>

Viewing the uprisings as the outcome of suddenly mobilized, internet-savvy
youth overemphasizes the role of the internet and overlooks the role of
older Arabs whose participation was critical. As Egyptian political
scientist and activist Rabab El Mahdi notes – and others examining activism
across the Arab world echo – in a forthcoming edited volume tentatively
titled *Taking to the Streets,* this view “ignores a decade of contentious
politics and mobilization in Egypt, which paved the way for the January 25th

*“It’s the Economy, Stupid”:*  Analysts have also argued that economic
problems are at the root of the crisis. According to many, neoliberal
reforms exacerbated longstanding economic problems by stripping citizens of
safety nets and shifting profits to an ever-narrower circle of elites close
to the regime. These trends combined with high youth unemployment and a
frustrating inability to marry and start households to spur the uprisings,
analysts argued.

Use: The DEDI-ACPSS survey finds that just 8 percent of the general
population claims they use Facebook, although 26 percent of protesters are
Facebook users. Enlarge

Unemployment rates were and remain high, and inequality was palpable.
Egyptians consistently list economic concerns in DEDI-ACPSS
surveys. Similarly, Arab Barometer <> polls
have found that Arabs’ support for democracy is often founded on economic
considerations more than political liberties. Amaney Jamal and Mark Tessler
in *Journal of Democracy,* January 2008, argue that “economic issues are
central to the way that many Arab citizens think about governance.

Yet, issues of dignity and identity also spurred the uprisings. Nearly half
of Egyptian respondents claiming to have participated in the revolution did
so for reasons related to freedom and social justice; a similarly large
percentage did so to end corruption – a goal which combines issues of
fairness and economic inequality. And 7 percent said they did so for the
purely economic goal of ending unemployment. Calls for “karama” and
“hurriya” – dignity and freedom – were as important as bread-and-butter

Debates over identity and freedom thus played a major role in the Egyptian
presidential elections. The DEDI-ACPSS survey found that voters were
largely unable to distinguish presidential candidates’ positions on the
role of the state in the economy, while they had better understandings of
each candidate’s position on the relationship between Islam and the state.
The survey identified three distinct, views in the population: preferences
for no relationship, a moderate relationship and a strong relationship
between Islam and the state.

*Some Regimes “Survived,” Others Didn’t:** *Enthusiasm over the Arab Spring
quickly gave way to gloomy talk of an Arab Winter. Observers discuss the
region in terms of a tally sheet – with countries where regimes fell on one
side and those that survived on another. Syria, engaged in a protracted
struggle, the outcome of which is still uncertain, remains in the center.

*U*prisings are far from over. Domestic, regional and international factors
will continue reshaping contestation within Arab states.

Such tallies overstate the extent to which old regimes have been swept
away. To date, there’s a great deal of variation in change – from Tunisia
and Libya, where the old regime was largely removed, to Egypt, where the
struggle remains intense, and finally to Yemen, where one can question how
much has ultimately changed with the unopposed election of Abdu Rabbu
Mansour Hadi. Moreover, in each of these cases, and elsewhere, long and
tortuous transition processes continue. There is reason to caution against
prematurely declaring the end of regime change – and certainly against
claiming success or failure of democratization.

There is also reason to refrain from proclaiming the long-term survival of
regimes which have thus far been spared. The uprisings alter perceptions of
what is possible and desirable. The fall of Ben Ali erased the widespread
perception that political change was impossible, while the difficult
transitions and bloody, protracted conflict in Syria prompt some to
question the wisdom of pushing for change. The experiences of neighboring
countries, along with the many regional and international pressures,
influence citizens on the sidelines and affect the possibilities of
change. Lebanese and Jordanians, for instance, are divided in their views
on conflict in neighboring Syria, and on the potential for change at
home. Political rupture remains a possibility in these countries, and

The 2011 uprisings were of unprecedented size and impact, but the
discontent was not entirely new nor solely the product of technologically
savvy youth. Moreover, the uprisings were mobilized around governance
failures that were felt far beyond economic conditions, including issues of
national identity and dignity. These issues will play a critical role in
the transitions ahead.

Finally, and most importantly, uprisings are far from over. Domestic,
regional and international factors will continue shaping and reshaping
contestation within Arab states – destabilizing some regimes, strengthening
others and contributing to a fluid regional reformation.  It’s too early to
tell exactly where such changes will lead, but not too soon to know they’ll

Ellen Lust is an associate professor of political science at Yale
University. Her research and publications focus on political participation
and governance challenges in the Middle East and Africa,
including “Governing Africa's Changing Societies,” co-edited with Stephen
Ndegwa. Jakob Wichmann is founding partner of JMW Consulting, which focuses
on countries in transition and social and political research. Since January
2011,  under the auspices of DEDI and ACPSS, he has facilitated a series of
public opinion surveys leading up to the parliamentary and presidential
elections as well as worked with a range of Egyptian political parties.
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