The Role of Digital in MENA Protests

Published November 16th, 2022 - 11:39 GMT
Arab Spring protests
An Egyptian protester holds his national flag as he shouts slogans against President Hosni Mubarak at Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011. Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images

The Arab Spring showed the raw potential of social media as a tool of political protest and today it is a central component of popular dissent. However, the merits of social media in protest seem increasingly tenuous as the real world of MENA politics continues to resist challenges inspired by the virtual.

One merely needs to stroll down a street of any regional city in the evening to see the dazzling influence of social media amongst younger generations – be it YouTube, TikTok or Facebook. The boundary between the real and virtual is fuzzy; and social media touches every aspect of contemporary life in the Middle East.

Political mobilisation is one of social media’s many functions. Its role in protest movements has become so large that it is now inconceivable that significant expressions of protest do not draw on it heavily. There is no question of its potential to touch and summon emotion. 

This was exemplified in the 2021 video of a Palestinian woman shouting “You are stealing my house” at a heavy-set Jewish man in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, to which he replied with jarring callousness, “If I don’t steal it, someone else will steal it.” Local protests erupted in a fury whose mood infected the globe.

This was exemplified in the 2021 video of a Palestinian woman shouting “You are stealing my house” at a heavy-set Jewish man in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, to which he replied with jarring callousness, “If I don’t steal it, someone else will steal it.” Local protests erupted in a fury whose mood infected the globe.

In Iran, the hashtag #mahsaamini was tweeted and retweeted more than 250 million times in Persian (and more than 50 million times in English) in the first month after her death, raising awareness of the initial incident which called up nationwide protest. The spread of this story mobilised tens of thousands of protesters into organised rallies of public dissent against the regime.

Once popular agitation has taken to the streets, social media offers accountability. This carries a significant risk of fuelling tension and emboldening protest through the repeated recording and sharing of crimes by regimes – which inevitably multiply when trying to muffle dissent. Iranian streets are not the only locations cluttered with contests; a discursive battle is raging on social media between the regime and protesters. With platforms suspended in the country during internet blackouts, the diaspora has picked up much of the slack battling bots and regime supporters.

Social media has also enabled the Iranian youth to bring protests to international consciousness. (Secular and political enmity towards Iran’s theocracy in the West has influenced this disproportionate media coverage in contrast to regional protests elsewhere.) 

Iranian streets are not the only locations cluttered with contests; a discursive battle is raging on social media between the regime and protesters.

The global reach of social media, however, offers only a verisimilitude of support to protesters by a helpless international community; and consumed by the singleness of purpose to reconsolidate power, regimes care little about the outrage won by social media abroad.

Tweets like #تسقط بس  ( ‘just fall’) are among the most popular chants in Sudan which have saturated local social media to perpetuate the pulse of protest since the coup d'état in November 2021, puncturing hopes to remove the military from governance. Like Iran, it is used to connect with the sizeable Sudanese diaspora who, at times of blackout, have continued the conversation, such as through the hashtag #BlueForSudan in June.

Agitation in Khartoum and elsewhere in the country continues to rely heavily on social media’s practical capacities to mobilise and organise protests. This has enabled Sudan to reach a scale of collective action unimaginable during popular protests in 2013. With 70% of Algeria’s population under the age of 30, the Hirak in Algeria has also been empowered by social media. 

Tweets like #تسقط بس  ( ‘just fall’) are among the most popular chants in Sudan which have saturated local social media to perpetuate the pulse of protest since the coup d'état in November 2021

Its decentralised online activity on Facebook and other platforms, run by members of various socioeconomic groups, invited greater participation amongst the public.  It offered space for protesters to express dissent and build solidarity across virtual spaces, evolving the Hirak into a cultural movement. Some Facebook pages encouraged people to submit their experiences and emotions in a ‘diary of the revolution.’ Other pages promoted the dissent of comedy; political memes, jokes, and caricatures were used to lampoon the regimes.

Social media has a breath-taking capacity to mobilise people, but this, paradoxically, can hamstring the ability of protest movements to achieve meaningful political change. 

Like protests in Sudan, the Hirak’s successfully used social media to mobilise the population at a dizzying pace but only at the expense of its long-term aspirations; it discouraged the formation of formal leadership and lent only a fleeting unity to its diverse ideological membership, whose unresolved tensions spoiled its ability to unite around political alternatives to Le Pouvoir. 

Citizens in the Middle East have not withdrawn from struggle nor abandoned their hopes of change.  However, the resistance of regimes, the unmaking of revolutions, and the paralysis of protest movements, suggest that social media is a far blunter instrument of political change in the region than 2011 first promised.


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