Could you choose an iconic image for the rebellions of the Arab Spring, a singled out one that comes to mind as defining of the concept that united Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt. The truth is that the most accurate image is probably not the uprisings in Tahir Square, Cairo, nor is it the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Not even Mohammed Bouazizi’s death after setting himself ablaze, an act that ignited the evens that unfolded.
Instead, the image to reflect on the protests is hardly as striking at first sight – it’s an arab person with a smartphone. They’re in the middle of Tahir Square tweeting a picture from the hotspot of events, they’re a nurse in an aid station posting about the serial case of a head injury from the missile strikes held by Mubarak’s supporters.
It is these images that stay in the core of the rebellions.
Indeed if three decades of despotic repression and violent regime were kindling for the Arab uprisings, social media was both a spark and an accelerant for the events that followed.
It is a bit far to say that Twitter and Facebook caused the movement. Those global platforms did speed up the process, though. In many ways did they reach many corners of the world to put the issue in the spotlight.
So in the years that followed, people have almost tried to put the Arab Spring in a category, and compare it to a protest we’re already witnessed: a look alike to the Iranian revolution to topple the Shah in 1979, or even the Eastern European revolutions in 1989.
All of these, are, however, missing out the essence that generated the fire. These comparisons don’t only simply have the tendency to downplay a core element of the movement, but have the potential to be overly sceptical of the fact that social media contributed in the first place.
Except, that it did contribute. To a large extend.
First of all, however, we need to acknowledge that the use of social media was different in each country and, hence, its impact, which is where the confusion comes from.
Tunisia was vulnerable under the Ben Ali presidency. In a landscape where the media were tightly controlled, Tunisia also operated a monopoly on the Internet, where most social media platforms were banned, except Facebook.
And despite the perceptions that Tunisia staged a Twitter revolution – or, as a matter of fact, the claims it was inspired by WikiLeaks – none of these were particularly as crucial. In the pre-revolution in Tunisia, barely 200 active Twitter accounts existed.
Instead, Facebook was huge, where more than two million users were active. So when Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, the world got to see it. In a country, where, as previously mentioned, excess control was exercised over traditional media, Facebook acted as an information source.
If Twitter has a negligible contribution in Tunisia, this is hardly the case for Egypt. A far more extensive social media campaign took place here.
In Egypt, details and information about demonstrations were circulated online by both Facebook and Twitter, as an activists’ guide to tackling the regime was sent via email. It was a growing thread for the Mubarak government, and this pulled the plug on the country’s Internet services.
Egypt was disconnected from the rest of the world after. Yet the movement never stopped, which is where the impact of social media could be easily underrated. Sure, on the inside, we’ve seen, the protests kept on going.
But social media was about the organisation of protests only at first. Then it was much more than that.
Where social media had a major impact was conveying the news to the outside world
Libya and Bahrain
And this has been most obvious in Libya and Bahrain where networking sites have shown and even broadcasted the most graphic, real images from the protests. There were messages from hospital crews asking for blood and requests for sim cards so that Libyans could communicate.
So Facebook and Twiter were certainly a tool for organising the protests, gathering the attentions of citizens and uniting them. But above all, it has been about the ability to communicate.
No, the Arab Spring was nothing like the Eastern European or Iranian revolutions. It was a thing of its own. A new category.
Barricades there did not operate with blades and bullets, but with phones.