Wired for change: Millennials, hashtag activism and today's new Arabs

From sex and politics to video games, the amazing story of millennials, Islam and the Internet

Published July 27, 2014 12:00PM (EDT)

Protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Sept. 30, 2011       (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Sept. 30, 2011 (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

Excerpted from "The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East"

The New Arabs Are Wired

The role of the Internet in the revolutions that began in 2011 has provoked debate. Some observers argue that calling them “Facebook revolutions” is inaccurate and that traditional street politics was far more important, point­ing out that only a little over half of the revolutionaries even had access to the Internet. Others question whether the revolutions could even have oc­curred had the youth been captive to state newspapers and news broadcasts that neglected to report protests or denigrated them as the insignificant acts of a few malcontents or paid agents for shadowy foreign interests. In order to assess these arguments it is important to understand the communication networks in which the millennials were embedded.

The older members of this enormous stratum were in their late teens when the Internet was introduced on a significant scale in the Arab world, and they were its pioneers. As will be shown, the dictatorial regimes devel­oped cyber-police to track and imprison or exile dissents. Unlike in previous generations, however, exile did not end their involvement in Tunisian poli­tics. Because of the Internet, expatriate dissident websites such as Nawaat, founded by Sami Ben Gharbia from the Netherlands, could benefit from the talents of young activists in several countries yet focused on Tunisia. Tunisians could access these sites if they knew the necessary workarounds that allowed them to bypass Ben Ali’s censors.

The Internet was regulated by the Tunisian Internet Agency, which re­ported to the Ministry of Telecommunications. The managers of Internet cafés tracked patrons’ activities online and could disconnect them at any time. Ben Ali’s police were also involved in monitoring those who surfed the web, with plainclothesmen visiting the establishments and recovering the navigation history of patrons from the browsers they had used. The cyber police looked for subversive sites, which they then blocked. They also tried, without much success, to close down proxy sites that allowed users to evade government filtering of sites and to limit licenses for new Internet cafés. In fact, any hope Ben Ali and his fellow dictators had that they could slow the penetration of the Internet among youth, or closely monitor and control it, rapidly slipped away.

Not all Arab youth, by any means, were wired by the end of the first decade of the century. Although cyber cafés were common in Cairo and Alexandria, the rural areas of Egypt were not as well served. In many gover­norates at this time computers were still rare in Egyptian schools. In some rural provinces in 2007 only 10 percent of the people had access to com­puters. But note that if each person in that 10 percent had two hundred family members, friends, and acquaintances with whom to discuss informa­tion gained from the web, the effect could be significant. Moreover, access increased rapidly after 2007, even in the countryside.

The Internet was only one of many new forms of connectivity encom­passing large numbers of youth. At the beginning of 2009 a little over half of Egyptians had a cell phone. By early 2010, nearly three-fourths had one, and there were hundreds of thousands of new connections each month. In Tunisia by 2009 almost everyone had a cell phone. Even many relatively poor and rural youth had a mobile connection in these two countries. The young people I have talked to in the Arab world often mentioned the importance of cell phones for their activism. News received initially via the Internet was then spread by calling around or sending SMS texts to friends. When the Libyan Internet was cut off for half a year during the revolution, one young Libyan in Misrata explained to me, the cell phones and SMS were still available to activists. Satellite television was also widely available and opened many horizons. In 2009 19.5 million Egyptian households had televisions, the highest TV penetration in Africa. Of these, some 38 percent had free satellite, and another 4 percent had paid satellite service.

Gen Y eagerly took to the Internet. A 2005 article on marketing to Arab youth in a web-based magazine out of Dubai spoke of the Arab Generation Y and how advertisers could reach its members. The author wrote that studies had shown that these youth spent more time surfing the Internet or on their mobile phones each week than reading print magazines or watch­ing TV. Search engines offered advertisers an opportunity to piggyback on the inquiries that had become popular with youth obsessively looking for their favorite “celebrities, video games, music and movies.” Linda Herrera, a pioneering researcher on the Arab Gen Y, was told by her informants that they felt as though the ability to download text files and films changed their personality. Those dissatisfied with the education they were receiving could supplement it on the Internet. They could use torrents to download Hol­lywood films with subtitles and improve their English. A young Egyptian, Haisam, told Herrera, “Having this knowledge pumped into your head is like the Matrix. . . . Maybe someone who lived for seventy years wouldn’t have the chance to know what we were able to learn in two years.”

Another opportunity arose from portal sites such as Maktoob, “per­haps the world’s biggest community of Arabs aged between 16–26.” The site provided subchannels on music, soccer, and social encounters. Other portal sites, such as Mazzika, concentrated on offering MP3 files of pop music, and as the Web 2.0 unfolded, it became possible for sites such as Melody to offer music videos. The “video clip,” as young Arabs called it, was to the Middle East what MTV had been to the West’s Gen X in the 1980s. In the Middle East, because of cultural conservatism, many popular clips were banned from television by governments, but they circulated freely on the web. The ecology of the Internet allowed easy sharing of text, music, and (from about 2005) video and permitted some items to go viral, shared by millions.

Marketing researchers found that younger Internet users were the ones likely to share online content with their peers. Apparently older readers growing up in the 1950s and 1960s with inert print media or television thought of information consumption as private and individualistic, whereas the Arab Gen Y wanted to share what they were reading or viewing, see­ing information as an interactive group experience. Sultan al-Qassemi, an Internet activist based in the United Arab Emirates, pointed to another key part of the interactive media: “Readers of newspapers couldn’t argue back.” Comment sections and various forms of communication among those experiencing a news item together allowed the emergence of a co­operative critique and what some have called “symmetrical participation.” The wired generation played “an active role in the production, alteration, consumption, and dissemination of content; their relationship to the media is more interactive.” New media and the Internet sharpened critical facul­ties and encouraged a healthy skepticism. Young people online take apart an urban legend or a propaganda point the way Upper Nile crocodiles strip the flesh off a gazelle that falls into the river. The various forms of media and communications newly available to the millennials were used for many purposes, not just (or even primarily) politics. Still, they made it more dif­ficult for youth to drop out of current affairs because of what those who study the Internet call “crisis informatics,” in which friends intensively share news updates on social media and the penetration of information becomes inescapable.

Chat rooms and Internet forums also attracted millions of young Arabs. The anonymity of the web perhaps allowed for more frank discussions of relationships and religion and for interactions across the sexes. The market­ing article enthused about the advent of “instant chat,” which “caused a near revolution across both teenagers and adults alike.” In 2005 over 1.5 million consumers in the Middle East were logging on to MSN Messenger every day.

Let us flash forward to 2010, when there were tens of millions of young Arabs on the Internet. In that year, throughout the Arab world, the number of Facebook users alone almost doubled, from about 12 million to over 21 million. Tunisian journalist Henda Chennaoui wrote that when she gradu­ated from journalism school in 2007, she discovered Facebook, which she called a “turning point” in her life: “It permitted me and other young dissi­dents to better organize and structure our networks of struggle. That did not prevent me from retaining a strong contact with the blogosphere through my blog.” Youth between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine made up three-quarters of Facebook users three years later. Nearly a quarter of these Facebook accounts belonged to Egyptians. Young men predominated over girls and women by two to one. Still, by the end of 2010 seven million young Arab women were updating their status, joining pages, and sharing items of interest from their friends. Never before in history had that many young Arab women been visible and active in a public sphere. If the govern­ments’ secret police Internet units were often outfoxed at the beginning of the century, when they had only relatively small numbers of connections to monitor, imagine how overwhelmed they became in 2010. By December 2010 over 17 percent of Tunisia’s population was on Facebook; that same year some 58 percent of Egyptian youth between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five had access to the Internet. While social media and the Internet did not cause anything to happen by themselves, they had a multiplier effect when deployed by activists. In the week after the fall of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali (the third week of January 2011), one-sixth of Tunisian blog posts treated revolution, and one in ten centered on liberty.

In assessing the impact of the Internet and other forms of electronic communication on the youth movements of the Arab world, it may be use­ful to consider the idea of the multiplier effect, as explained by economists. Let’s say you had a company worth $1 billion, and because it did very well last year you put another $30 million into it. That does not seem like a lot of extra funding. That money, however, would raise salaries and produce bonuses and perhaps result in some new hires. So the money would go into the economy when the employees spent it. Then the people working at companies making the things bought with that money would also get raises, and new hires would be made. These people would then buy goods and pass the money on yet again. The money would go through at least five sets of hands before the multiplier effect tapered off. So putting $30 million into the company had a much, much bigger effect than it looked like on the surface. Likewise the Internet produces a multiplier effect, recognized implicitly when we speak of an Internet posting “going viral,” meaning that it is intensively forwarded to ever larger circles of people, until it reaches a saturation point and subsides in popularity. Virality is the way the multi­plier effect works with regard to online communications.

The New Arabs Are More Literate

One of the reasons the Internet and social media were so much more popu­lar among the youth than among the older generation is that users must be literate. In the beginning of the century they even needed to have a basic grasp of Latin script, since web protocols did not yet allow for web addresses or URLs in Arabic script.

The literacy of the Arab Gen Y upset social hierarchies. Many sons could read and write, while their fathers could not, allowing the sons to take charge of certain areas of life for the family. Many sisters became an intellectual match for their father or brothers in a way unexampled in the generation of their mother and aunts. Anthropologist Farha Ghannam tells the story of Zaki and Zakiya, a brother and sister in a working-class neighborhood of Cairo. Zaki was allowed to run around the neighborhood doing errands and got a part-time job when only seven years old. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade. He was expected to lead a responsible, sober life, forsaking his late-night forays with friends into the city. Because of his limited literacy his prospects were few. In contrast, Zakiya was kept at home or in the neighborhood in her youth and on two occasions was beaten by her brother for staying out too late or going too far away. She studied hard and finished high school, and in her twenties got a good job as an overseer in a factory in a middle-class neighborhood about an hour away from her home. She shopped in malls and could afford more expensive clothing. Her income and mobility actually increased as her brother’s declined, in part because of her greater literacy. Literate, urban young women are likely to use birth control and limit family size, helping them achieve a middle-class lifestyle.

Gen Y are far more likely to be able to read and write than their elders, giving them greater access to the Internet. In 1980 only about half the citi­zens of the Arabic-speaking states had these skills. By 2000 the average literacy rate was 61.5 percent in seventeen Arab countries, but among those fifteen to twenty-four, the rate was much higher, around 80 percent, for both men and women. Although in some countries as many as 50 percent of older women still could not read and write in 2000 to 2004, in those years the average literacy rate of Arab women age fifteen to twenty-four in the six countries where there were significant political upheavals, was 82 percent. In three of those countries—Tunisia, Libya, and Bahrain—it was over 90 percent! There is an enormous difference between expecting 50 per­cent of the people your age to be able to read a newspaper and expecting 80 percent of them to read. Generation Y is the most literate cohort of Arabs ever to exist. This large pool of educated young people in Egypt fueled the rise of newspapers that, despite the country’s censorship regime, often demonstrated a streak of independence. The four most popular among the youth tended to have a secular orientation and often took their cues from bloggers and human rights NGOs regarding which stories to pursue.

Psychologist Muhammad Khalil told Al Jazeera television in a 2002 interview on the generational divide, “The ability of the older generation to work with computers, the Internet and other modern communications technologies is far less than that of their children in the young generation. It leaves them, really, unable to follow the preoccupations of their children and makes them feel as though the gap has increased, that there is a dis­tance, not just in knowledge or in the sources of knowledge, but rather they feel that there is a distance between the social circles in which they live.” The program introduced a young woman who told the anchor, “There isn’t good communication between my family and myself. Only on the Internet are there a lot of people my age who understand me better. I know how to talk with them in my own style, but with my family I am more reserved when I speak.” The expert guests pointed out that a literate, Internet-savvy child quickly figured out the limits of what an illiterate mother could teach him or her, compared to the information available through independent reading or interactions on the web. These reversals were all the more significant in heavily patriarchal societies that insist on respect for age and strict obedi­ence to family norms and that usually marginalize the young, as well as guarding the prerogative for parents of choosing a lifestyle, a mate, and an occupation for their children.

An Arab satellite news account illustrated the importance of literacy to social advancement when it told the life story of Muhammad Abu Jaus, an Egyptian born into a poor family whose father died before he was two. At five he began working in a thread-making workshop in his village, as well as in the fields growing and harvesting vegetables. In his late twenties Abu Jaus attended a wedding in his village, and when the notary asked him to sign as a witness to the marriage contract he sheepishly confessed that he was unable to read or write, provoking laughter and ridicule among the wedding guests and the presiding officials. He made a private vow then and there that he would not get married until he had gained an education. He entered an anti-illiteracy program and in a few months had graduated with basic literacy skills. He then went to night school and completed a high school degree. He got married as he was finishing his degree, working in the fields during the day and studying at night. He ultimately went to law school, though after he graduated he had to scrimp and save to afford a license to practice. He managed to sign on as an intern to a law firm and specialized in commercial law. Abu Jaus gradually emerged as one of Egypt’s foremost corporate attorneys. One of his three sons became an engineer, while the other two became attorneys. This story of a determined peasant who transformed himself into a successful urban professional through lit­eracy and education is unusual in this generation only because he began so late and achieved such stunning success. But his experience mirrors that of tens of millions of young Arabs.

Majdi Abd al-Azim, also an illiterate peasant, tried to run for president of Egypt in spring 2012. He maintained that all the other candidates were ignoring Egypt’s still substantial rural sector and were not attending to the country’s agricultural crises. He insisted that being illiterate was no bar to running the country, since he could employ someone to read to him, and, besides, he said, Egyptian peasants have natural street smarts superior to those of urban people. In a country that is now largely urban and literate, however, his inability to read and write was seen as a fatal liability to a politi­cal career. Only a small minority of Egyptian youth are illiterate, and they face prejudice from young urban populations. The novelist Alaa Al-Aswany, convinced that illiterate peasants are easier for the Muslim Brotherhood to manipulate, demanded on Twitter in advance of the referendum on the new Egyptian constitution in late fall 2012 that the vote be taken away from anyone who could not read or write. (Al-Aswany’s argument is hard to countenance, given that many rural residents of the Egyptian Delta are hostile to political Islam and did not vote for the Muslim Brotherhood can­didate Mohamed Morsi in the June 2012 presidential election.)

Literacy has long had implications for political mobilization. One of the keys to the long period of European rule in the global South, from the eighteenth century until after World War II, was that these empires largely presided over territories consisting of small rural villages, the inhabitants of which were unable to read or write and therefore were hampered in uniting against their foreign overlords. Some imperial rulers, such as Lord Cromer, British controller-general of Egypt from 1883 to 1907, were suspicious of educated “natives,” and consequently they underfunded education. Cromer was cruel, but his theory was correct: an illiterate Egyptian popula­tion was much less likely to be able to unite for anticolonial activities.

The vast increase in literacy in Modern Standard Arabic in this genera­tion over previous ones allowed the millennials to communicate beyond the small groups that use their dialect. Literacy also bestowed on them the confidence to challenge their elders, born in part of a realization that they possessed competencies their parents and grandparents did not. Sometimes these skills gave women advantages, including on the Internet.

Excerpted from "The New Arabs" by Juan Cole. Copyright © 2014 by Juan Cole. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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