Linking online activism to offline political change

Events currently unfolding in Egypt and Tunisia are momentous.  After decades of authoritarian rule and closed government, established landscapes of political power and control are rupturing.  It isn’t yet clear what long term effects the protests in Egypt will have; whether Mubarak’s grip on power will be loosened in any meaningful or sustainable way.  What is clear, however, is that everyday citizens have joined committed activists and campaigners in their protests on a scale unprecedented in recent history.  This suggests that the balance of power has tipped slightly away from the government and towards the people.  Whether long-lived or not, this is a significant development.

Analysts are unanimous in their assessment of the importance of the role that digital social media are playing in initiating and sustaining protest.  Activists and fellow citizens have coordinated via Facebook and Twitter, with real time information being released about the issues at stake, protest dynamics and retaliation by the authorities.  The very power of digital media platforms is illustrated by the speed with which the government of Egypt moved to block them as protests escalated.  In Tunisia, announcing that the Internet would no longer be blocked was one of the concessions offered by Ben Ali in what was to be his final speech as President before he fled the country.

Seeing the role that digital communications are playing in North Africa and elsewhere, donors and democracy practitioners are starting to look at how they can support democracy and accountable governance through assisting digital activists.  However, we have to be careful in our assessment of the role that digital communications are playing in processes of democratisation and political transition.  It is clear that the Internet in general, and social media in particular, are having considerable influence on offline politics.  But the exact nature of this influence is not yet fully understood.  Global attention tends to focus on moments of political crisis, with relatively little analysis of longer term work by journalists, activists and everyday citizens to push open spaces for expression and association online.  Moreover, debate tends to focus rather simplistically on whether or not change was driven by social media.  We need a much more nuanced analysis of contemporary processes of political transition – one which places social media in the wider political, economic and social landscape and considers the interplay between these different factors over the long term.

The concept of “political settlement”, discussed in a previous blog post, is useful for analysing current events in North Africa.  Political settlements are bargains that are struck between groups contesting for power, or agreements about how to share power.  They represent the balance of power between different individuals and groups in society, resulting from economic and social relationships, incentive structures and the distribution and use of levers of influence.  Settlements change over time, either through slow and incremental evolution or through disruptive events, such as political coups or electoral defeat.

In Tunisia, a definite shift in the political settlement has occurred, at least for the time being.  Former President Ben Ali has fled the country.  The newly established cabinet includes committed activists such as blogger Slim Amamou who had initially been arrested as protests escalated this month in an attempt to chill dissent.  However, rather focusing on the short term, we need to consider the longer term balance of power between citizens and the state.  Will the new powers of voice and active citizenship that the people of Tunisia have found in digital communications be enough to forge meaningful and accountable democracy in the long term?  Or will the scales of political power remain tipped away from citizens, with long-established power holders finding new ways of co-opting and co-existing with digital media?  Protests in Tunisia are currently continuing as citizens call for sympathisers of the previous regime to be barred from the new government.  People clearly fear that, once the dust settles, the temporarily ruptured political settlement will heal, and won’t end up looking much different from the settlement of old. 

The development and strengthening of democracy in Tunisia will depend on the parallel strengthening of active citizenship.  Digital communications can play a role in this.  In addition to being used to mobilise and sustain protest, citizen uses of digital communications in countries across the world are also having less obvious, longer term impacts on state-society relations and political settlements.  People with internet access have new powers to search for information, to monitor government activity, and to engage in public debate.  These activities may not appear to have immediate impact on the established political settlement.  However, anecdotal evidence suggests that they cause minor shifts in political power or instigate particular governmental responses that have significant longer term ramifications on state-society relations.

Egypt is a particularly relevant example, given the ongoing political protests that are taking place across the country.  It is clear that young, digitally literate people have driven these protests, and that social media played a role in helping them to organise and mobilise.  However, digital communications were also used by people to prise open spaces for political debate and action online in the years running up to the protests.  During a recent consultation with civil society groups on freedom of expression in Egypt, activists suggested that the internet has played a role in tipping the balance of power away from the Egyptian state over time.  For example, the longstanding taboo around discussion of the degrading treatment of women in public has been eroded by an initiative that encourages women to report incidents of sexual harassment on the street via their mobile phones and then logs them on an online map. The project helped to promote public awareness and debate around the issue.  Cases began to be reported in the offline media, the police started to pay greater attention to reported incidents, and draft legislation to prohibit sexual harassment is now under discussion. 

In the media sphere, the small number of independent newspapers that exist in Egypt report that they have significantly more freedom over what they can publish online than they do offline.  Because of this, the news outlet Al-Masry Al-Youm has invested significant resources in an online, participatory version of its site, on which citizens engage in active debate around a range of social and political issues.  Despite the Egyptian government’s regular harassment and monitoring of online journalists and bloggers, online communications persistently pushed the boundaries of politically acceptable expression in the country.  Activists are adamant that this longer term opening of democratic space via digital media helped to tip the balance of power away from the state, laying the grounds for the current revolutionary, broad-based citizen movement for democracy.

Governments across the world have proved highly efficient at clamping down on online communication.  Pre-revolution Tunisia had a highly sophisticated regime of internet censorship and control in place, and Egypt is notorious for effectively encouraging self-censorship through techniques such as intimidation and propaganda.  States are also increasingly using digital media to maintain established political settlements, fighting back through digital propaganda and covert surveillance of dissenters.  However, in neither Tunisia or Egypt did state use and control of digital media deter citizens from innovating with technology to push for change.  This suggests that digital media are not straightforward tools for political repression or liberation; they are part and parcel of the shifting terrain of power and negotiation between citizens and the state.

In short, in our assessment of the relationship between digital communications technology and democracy, we should we careful not to either undersell or overstate the role that they are playing in shifting power relationships between citizens and the state.  In order to help build accountable and effective democracy in the long term, we need a realistic, evidence-based understanding of the ways that the internet and mobile phones are being used, both by citizens to challenge established political settlements and by power holders in an attempt to maintain the status quo.

We’ve yet to see what the long term outcomes of political turmoil will be in Egypt and Tunisia.  But whatever happens, the drivers of change won’t be found solely in the online or offline world, but rather in the interaction between the two.  As one Tunisian Tweeter put it when the president fled the country,

“It’s not over… The revolution is not gauged with our ivory-tour-Tweets, but with people’s determination on the ground”.


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1 Response to Linking online activism to offline political change

  1. Pingback: Linking online activism to offline political change | Towards … -Political Fund USA

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