The Spirit of Change Has Gone Viral

The impact of Facebook and Twitter cannot be underestimated.

Mosque 521 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Mosque 521 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
WHEN I FIRST WENT TO IRAQ IN March 2003, I interviewed many average Iraqis about what they thought life after Saddam Hussein would look like. What would freedom mean to them? “We’ll get Internet,” one young man in Kirkuk told me, though he didn’t yet know what that meant – he’d never been online or used a computer. At the time, most Iraqis had never touched a mobile phone, but they’d seen them in movies. Many were thrilled at the prospect of getting international TV channels; the brave few had hidden satellite dishes among the trees in their gardens at the risk of imprisonment.
About a year later, an Iraqi I’d befriended made her way to a rudimentary Internet café, opened her first e-mail account, and excitedly began writing to me – a correspondence that continues until this day. For a time, I became Alia’s window on the rest of the world, and she became mine into Iraq.
What became clear to me then is that leaders, however brutal or savvy, can only control the gateway to the globe for so long. The ongoing stream of Wikileaks shows that it’s difficult even for the world’s superpower to keep a lid on some of its most guarded diplomatic secrets. Of course, a democratic government whose officials have said outrageous things or made poor policy choices stands to be embarrassed, not deposed. But a regime which oppresses, neglects or tortures its citizens, as many Arab regimes have for decades, stands to be overthrown – as we’ve seen so far in Tunisia and Egypt, and are now witnessing, albeit in bloodier form, in Libya.
Much has already been written about Facebook and Twitter as a catalyst for the Arab Spring. Contrarians argue that the centrality of such social networking sites may even be overblown. After all, Iraqis didn’t need Facebook to channel their rage when they overthrew the king in 1958, nor did they need to tweet their plans for the successive coups that brought the Ba’ath Party to power. And while Egypt has a higher rate of Internet penetration (21.2 percent) than Libya (about 5.5 percent), Yemenis are still pushing forward with their mass protests even though their rate is a mere 1.8 percent.
And yet, the impact of such media cannot be underestimated. What is less important than whether pro-democracy protesters are twittering with details of the next demonstration is that the very spirit of change has gone viral. The term means that a tweet, video, or blog – anything electronic, really – has hit critical mass by reaching an unexpectedly wide audience, and like a virus, knows no borders.
At this point, the Middle East has no king, emir or president who does not fear for his political longevity. In this dump-the-dictator swell, even Saudi Arabia, the very heart of oil, stability and Sunni Islamic conservatism in the Middle East, began to face protests on March 4-5. The authorities tried to quash any gatherings by reminding Saudi subjects that all forms of demonstration are illegal. Despite that, several thousand people have also joined Facebook groups calling for a “day of rage” in the kingdom on March 11. Formerly sleepy Gulf countries like Bahrain have seen large protests. Oman’s government responded March 5 to continuing demonstrations with its second cabinet reshuffle in a week. In Morocco, a youth movement that boasts over 19,000 fans on Facebook has called for nationwide protests on March 20.
From Rabat to Muscat, the uprising stretches across the Arab world – and is also inspiring young Iranians to give it another go after their failed uprising last year.
There are some pockets of almost eerie quiet, namely in Syria. Knowing it is not entirely immune, the Syrian regime has begun working to put a democratic-looking veneer on locked-down media outlets. Social networking sites have recently been unblocked.
This is a regime which, when “Time” or “Newsweek” would do a story on Syria and its negotiations with Israel in the 1990s, would collect the few hundred copies allowed into the country and distribute them only after the offending article was artfully sliced out.
Excising a page from reality is no longer so easy. But the mukhabarat, or intelligence agents, themselves more electronically literate, are watching so closely that many Syrians remain fearful of taking a stand. With the government monitoring Internet activity, some fear that web forums simply make it easier for President BasharAssad to eavesdrop on what Syrians are saying.
For years, Jerusalem and Washington were sold an either/or equation by Egypt’s now-deposed president, Hosni Mubarak: It’s either me or the Islamic fundamentalists. It was accepted as gospel. It became an excuse for successive governments to close their eyes to Egypt’s treatment of its own citizens.
The winds of change are now pushing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move with haste toward an agreement with the Palestinians, or at least to advertise that he is. But Arabs now know – largely because this brave new world of online expression is virtually ungovernable – that not all Israelis think alike.
That became apparent when Israeli music writer and mix-man Noy Alooshe made a video that parodies Muammar Qaddafi’s speech, named “Zenga Zenga,” to cheer on the protesters. The catchy trance tune went viral, with millions of views on YouTube, and was adopted as a new theme song of the revolution. Some loved it, while others were upset to discover that the creator was sitting in Tel Aviv.
Alooshe, meanwhile, says he’d been contacted by young Iranians, asking him to write them a song, too.
My friend Alia in Baghdad knows I’m in Jerusalem, and it makes our connection that much more precious. Of course, she hasn’t written about that on Facebook, where she posts no pictures of herself and where she and her friends use fake family names or handles. Only a few weeks ago, the faces of the revolutionaries in Egypt were nameless, too