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June 01, 2012, Friday

Revolution by social media: sustainable democracy by whom?

Last Wednesday, while participating in a roundtable discussion at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) about business and investment after the Arab Spring, comments made by Canadian-based Middle East expert Professor Bessma Momani piqued my curiosity.

Citing in particular Egypt’s role during the Arab Spring, Momani, originally hailing from Jordan, argues that it was indeed in a large part kick-started by educated yet unemployed, hence frustrated young Egyptian citizens. She calls that element of the events a “youth-quake,” then added that this youth-quake is not short-lived but will become so much better and long-lasting.

She attested that the initial revolts channeled via social media such as Twitter and Facebook eventually led to street protests and more, arguing that the change of government from authoritarian to democratic occurred at least partially because of online mass mobilization. So I wondered whether anyone at the time of unrest had a masterplan about how to install a full-fledged democracy once the dust of revolution and civic uprising settled?

Many months into the Arab Spring and after the recent elections in Egypt, one must be allowed to wonder whether the course of the next two years will run smoothly. This week’s lifting of the emergency rule is most definitely a key step in that direction.

But what interests me most is whether the youth element of the Arab Spring is simply economically inspired -- which ultimately fades away once demands for better access to the labor market have been met -- or whether it is a real protest movement linking economic rights to civic rights?

In this regard, participants at Wednesday’s meeting in İstanbul discussed the state of interconnectivity and globalization. Momani once more highlighted the importance of the Internet here. Whereas parents and grandparents made do with two or three radio stations or television channels, today’s Arab youth has access to breaking news from all corners of the world including their own and including alternative lifestyles and news about democracy, too. Electronic communication and mobile phones have changed the way not just peaceful societies communicate with one another but countries on the verge of a civic uprising aimed at establishing democracy. However, not every segment of Arab society has access to these tools and not every adult has a Facebook or Twitter account.

If it is true that the youth element played a key role in toppling authoritarian rulers and if it is correct to say that social media and mobile technology greatly facilitated all of this, someone out there must not only be willing to reap the benefits of this movement and mold it into a mainstream political movement but must be experienced in dealing with a blossoming democracy, too. At least in theory this is a Catch-22 situation. Asking for democracy and obtaining it on paper is one thing, knowing how to manage it in a sustainable manner it is an altogether different matter.

Another interesting point derived from the results of Wednesday’s exchange of viewpoints is linked to Turkey. It is of course hypothetical to discuss if the advent of social media and the internet occurred 20 years earlier whether the last military interventions in this country would have been thwarted by a similar technology-inspired uprising or counter-revolt. Much more valid is reflecting about how today’s Turkish civil democracy, which still needs fine-tuning, can benefit from social media and the Internet in general.

On a very optimistic and hopefully realistic note, Momani concluded her talk by saying that every day brings progress and that “someone like Hosni Mubarak can never come back.” If what is true for countries of the Arab Spring holds for Turkey, too, I dare add that no authoritarian or military-inspired junta can ever return, as democracy and progress are here to stay. What the countries of the Arab Spring might perhaps wish to take onboard from Turkey’s own spring turning into summer is that not only young people, but particularly the emerging middle classes will guarantee a sustainable, economically viable society that embraces the values of individual liberties.

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