Français   |  

Subscribe to the whole site

Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2012 > January 2012 > The Role of Information and Communication Technologies in Shaping the Arab (...)

The Role of Information and Communication Technologies in Shaping the Arab Spring

Saturday 31 December 2011, by Wesley Ellis

2011 has proven to be a volatile year for the Arab world; The death of a single man in the desert sparked regime changes and protests that have authoritarian governments scrambling, and in some cases, failing to react in time.

Here, I limit my focus to four countries: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Of these, three have experienced regime changes, while Bahrain’s elites have managed to remain in power. Egypt and Tunisia have seen relatively non-violent and fast-paced transitions. Libya, on the other hand, was seen devolving into a civil war that lasted from February to October 2011. Bahrain witnessed massive protests and a Tahrir square style occupation of Pearl roundabout, but these protests were forcibly disbanded by the government.

ICTs and usage rates

Usage restrictions exist for every social media technology and determine both the kind of message sent and the kind of user sending it. Note that there are important structural differences between a satellite TV show, a one-to-many medium; SMS, essentially a one-to-one medium; and Facebook, which can facilitate many-to-many interactions. Any examination of the effects of these technologies assumes that citizens have access to them.

Cell phones saturate the region, with some countries having more active cell phones than citizens. Meanwhile, Internet usage rates remain relatively low. Surprisingly high numbers of people have Facebook accounts, with only Egypt failing to beat the rate in Canada.

Using Facebook as a proxy indicator, social media is consistently seen as having comparatively low rates of usage amongst the general populations.. This may be seen as an argument against any significant role for social media, but it is important to note that good data does not yet exist for social media use amongst the crucial actors in the regime changes. Additionally, high profile users may have a disproportionate effect because they may reach a much larger global audience.

Television is clearly ubiquitous with over 90% of households reporting that they own one in the 3 countries. Therefore, any impact that television has on individuals and societies should be especially broad. It seems clear enough that citizens do use the technologies in question, which allows for an examination of their political impact.

Technology has a long history of being used in revolutionary movements. During the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini produced and distributed tapes of sermons denouncing the Shah helping to grow dissent in the country.

Parallels are also found with the Cedar Revolution of 2005 in Lebanon, where protests occurred after the Lebanese Prime Minister was killed. Citizens demanded an investigation and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. Associated protests occurred mainly in a central square of the course of several days.

The existence of a recent precedent for the Arab Spring allowed events to spread quickly: The people of the region had live through similar occurences before. Further, television now played an important role in mobilizing and helping protesters articulate and communicate their demands to a large Lebanese audience.


The main grievances of the Tunisian population were linked to the failing economic conditions, rampant corruption amongst the ruling elite, abuse at the hands of the security forces, and demands for a more democratic system of governance.
Sidi Bouzid is a relatively remote part of Tunisia, yet somehow protests spread from there across the entire country. A similar event had occurred in Monastir three months earlier but nothing came of it. What changed with Mohammad Bouazizi’s self immolation was that his story was posted to Facebook, the only social networking sites not blocked by the regime.

Bouazizi’s story spread quickly and elements of the story were changed along the way. Initial popular belief was that he was a university graduate, which was not the case. This allowed his story to resonate more strongly with young Tunisians and allowed for a greater mobilization of people.

Protests against the regime grew in size and intensity upto January 14, when President Ben-Ali fled the country, leaving a caretaker government in charge. When protests did not abate, the government was forced from power a few days later.

The Takriz, a digital network of political active Tunisians, was central in encouraging and spreading protests from rural communities to large urban centres. Their ability to do so was facilitated by ICTs, which were used to produce and disseminate videos and other materials. The group has been around since 1998 and most of its communications take place online.

Members of Takriz travelled to Sidi Bouzid to capture and broadcast events.. The salient political fact here is that Takriz was able to exist and grow because of the Internet. Without it, opposition to the regime in Tunisia would have lacked coordination, and Mohammed Bouazizi may just as well have remained just another dissatisfied youth in Tunisia. Additionally, citizens were only able to report events because of their access to cell phones and other technologies capable of capturing images and video.

Satellite TV penetration is extraordinarily high in Tunisia, allowing citizens access to news reports from networks such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, both of which aired extensive coverage of the protests. Significantly, satellite broadcasts were not influenced by the Tunisian government, further allowing them to broadcast unbiased reports.


Egyptian bloggers had risen to the forefront of political activism in the leadup to the 2005 presidential elections. The very fact that they were able to mobilize to any extent in a regime exerting heavy control over political opposition cannot be stressed enough.

Facebook created a space for citizens to express their political beliefs without state interference. Some of these discussions eventually led to the formation of citizen networks with political aims. The April 6 movement emerged from Facebook and staged protests as early as 2006.

Facebook permitted any individual with the inclination to participate in this political movement, allowing the youth who make up the majority of Facebook users in the region to develop political aspirations, while granting them a feeling of empowerment that is strikingly absent among the Egyptian population.

On January 25, 2011, thousands of Egyptians took part in a national protest against the Mubarak regime. Ironically, Egyptians were able to participate without missing school or work as the day was officially a holiday called "Police Day" designed to celebrate the police force.

Many of the calls for this protest were made by activists who had already been fighting the regime for some time, such as as Wael Ghonim, of the "We are all Khaled Sa’id" Facebook group.

Many of these initial activists admit to having been inspired by events in Tunisia.Watching events unfold next door via Satellite TV changed the political arithmetic for citizens of Egypt. The Ben-Ali regime resembled Mubarak’s regime in many important ways.

An individual’s choice to partake in or organize protests must be partially based on the cost of acting and the likelihood of success. Pre-2011, the likelihood of toppling the Mubarak regime was very low, as there was no precedent. Further, the cost of participating was high given the methods of repression employed by Egyptian security forces in responsive to anti-regime activity, such as the labour strikes of 2008.

Yet, when the Tunisian protesters brought down the government, the calculations alterd. Now, there was not only a precedent, but the very nature of the medium through which some Egyptians experienced these events made simiar actions at home imaginable. The readily available nature of firsthand accounts on satellite TV and online inspired many Egyptians, as these stories felt more personal.

The occupations of Tahrir square were pivotal moments in the uprising. They allowed a critical mass of Egyptians to participate in the demonstrations which forced Mubarak out of power. Protesters were able to mislead the regime by posting incorrect times and locations for protests and sending out mass SMS messages at the last minute to disclose actual plans. Thus, ICTs allowed protesters to congregate and to foil regime attempts to suffocate demonstrations.

The street battles between protesters and riot police between January 25 and 28 demonstrated that the police force didn’t have the power to contain them. Once the police force’s power had been neutralized, the downfall of the regime was inevitable, as it had no way to dissuade the protesters.

But why did so many people show up to Tahrir square? Some of this motivation came from the circulation of videos depicting police brutality and the bravery of indiivduals in the face of tactics designed to disband protesters.

When internet access and cell phone service was shut off for give days in Egypt—in a government attempt to quell protests—had ICTs been absolutely essential to the mobilization of protesters, the protests would have ended. Clearly, this is not what happened as some of the largest gatherings in Tahrir and other Egyptian cities occurred during this period.

Cellphone and the Internet seem to have a larger effect on nurturing actors before events begin to unfold. Once protests reach a critical mass, ICTs become much less important.

Note that these protests showcased little sectarian tension, as disparate opposition groups cooperated in a mutual defiance of the regime. The convergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, labour unions, leftist parties and other anti-Mubarak groups in opposing the regime was both striking and crucial to the success of the demonstrations.


The regime change in Libya was much less of a revolution than a civil war. Protests against Qaddafi began in Benghazi after witnessing the departure of both Mubarak and Ben-Ali. Demonstrations also occurred in other parts of Libya.

Unfortunately, the country quickly dissolved into a civil war, with the Eastern part of the country coming immediately under rebel control and the rest of the country under Qaddafi. There were isolated pockets of resistance in Misurata and in the Nafuzzah mountains. The rebels managed to successfully overthrow Qaddafi, but not without significant fighting and loss of life.

NATO intervention had a profound impact on the outcome of the civil war. Qaddafi’s forces were unable to retake Misurata because NATO bombed the column en route, disabling this initial thrust, and forcing battles to be fought in cities.

The UN and NATO were quick to take action against Libya partly because Qaddafi’s regime had very few international allies, but another reason was the international pressure in response to reports of atrocities being committed by Qaddafi’s forces.Reporting on these events occurred primarily through social media services, as professional journalists were banned from Libya.

The crimes were serious enough to warrant the attention of the ICC. Shortly afterwards, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1973, authorizing the use of force in preventing civilians from further hard. Here, ICTs publicized events that would have otherwise remained unreported.

Aside from this, the impact of ICTs on Libyans has arguably been relatively limited. Of the four countries, Libya has the lowest number of Internet users. Cell phones may have helped organize rebels, but have had relatively little political impact. The absence of ICTs in assisting this regime transition shows the possibility of political change without the aid of ICTs.


To date, Bahrain has not experienced a regime change despite a series of large popular protests beginning on February 14. Interestingly, these protests were just as publicized as the ones in Egypt and Tunisia but limited international pressure was exerted in favour of the protesters.

Bahrain’s government posted images on Facebook, requesting help in identifying people from the demonstrations, and received relevant information from some citizens. Clearly, regimes are capable of co-opting social media for their own purposes.

Bahrain demonstrates how even in a country where citizens have access to the same tools that helped topple other regime, they may not be able to affect political change. Regimes may prevent mobilization through a variety of techniques such as Rentierism or by playing up political divisions. In other words, the presences of ICTs is not a sufficient condition to cause a regime to collapse.

General Analysis

Athough text-messaging has been used extensively in the Arab Spring, it has had a limited effect and has not led to direct political change. As a tool, it helps individuals to communicate and coordinate which can have some impact, but this impact is indirect.

From a political science perspective, the interesting change is that cell phones provide a ubiquitous image and video capture device. Anyone armed with a cell phone can document and transmit footage instantly. Without camera-phones, the only actors capable of documenting events are professional journalists, whose coverage is lacking in dynamic situations such as the Arab Spring.

The technology also helps to include citizens who are watching events unfold, as they are seeing video and images captured by regular citizens. This mobilizes individuals, who now feel like they too can take part in protests and have a political voice.

The ubiquity of capture devices has also meant that traditional reporting becomes much richer. Al- Jazeera has made extensive use of non-journalistic recordings and images in their reporting of the Arab Spring, allowing the world audience to feel more connected to the protesters.

Satellite TV has had more subtle and varying effects. Firstly, regional broadcasts by non-state actors allows citizens across the region to witness major events without imposed government biases. Still, it cannot be assumed that Al-Jazeera is not influenced by the Qatari government, or that Al-Arabiya doesn’t respect the wishes of the Saudi government.

However, Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan and Bahraini governments are unable to significantly influence those broadcasts, allowing citizens access to information that domestic governments would have censored.

While Egyptian state TV has remained relatively influential,it is no longer the only voice that Egyptians hear. The ultimate effect is that the regime’s actions are now constrained because they must work within the realties that these broadcasts create instead of fashioning their own.

Secondly, Satellite TV helps to create the echo-chamber of the Middle East, as it helps sustainin a common Arab identity amongst citizens of different countries. This shared identity is partly responsible for the contagious nature of the uprisings: Events were close to home and those actors shared identities.

If the effects of satellite television are complex, then the impacts of social media and the Internet are even more complicated.Immediate influences include the ability for any citizens to post, share and discuss any information or data that they wish. This creates a space for individuals to express and develop political viewpoints unhindered by regimes.

Social networking sites like Facebook have structural features that promote participation and mobilization. When a user interacts with a story, or a call to protest or a video, it is because somebody they know has shared it with them. This is crucial because it is predicated upon there being a connection with the other person which frames the item in a personal context facilitating participation.

Further, users can quite easily view the reactions of other individuals to the item in question. This can help to build the sense that a collective effort holds the potential for a great impact than a single individual.

Finally, sharing the item with more friends means messages can propagate quickly across a social graph. Combining these structural features results in social networking becoming a very important source of political mobilization, especially given that few other outlets exist for such views. The effect is further compounded amongst youth who report that they feel disconnected from traditional state-sponsored avenues of participation.

Malcolm Gladwell argues that social media will not play a significant role in regime changes, for only coordinated movements where individuals experience strong ties to other participants cause large scale change. Social networks excel at promoting and maintaining weak ties, which provide insufficient motivation for participating in the kind of dangerous activities necessary to bring about change.

This ignores the effects that social networks have on strong tie networks and also fails to address the fact that a weak tie can be the infant stage in the development of a strong tie. By existing in spaces that invite interaction, individuals that may have otherwise not been a part of a movement can become involved.

Internet connectivity has allowed for opposition groups to become better connected and integrated in the global landscape. This connection has meant that groups can cooperate and be supported by organizations outside the country in question.

Technical training was provided by several Western NGOs to political activists in Egypt which helped them to organize demonstrations. In terms of the Arab Spring, peaceful opposition techniques were learnt from Gene Sharp, author of the From dictatorship to democracy: A conceptual framework for liberation. Such facilitation of cross-border communication can have a profound effect on the shape that activists groups adopt.


Firstly, the mere presence of ICTs in a country will not guarantee that political opposition will emerge. The cases of the UAE and Qatar which have very high rates of ICT penetration have experienced little increase in opposition in 2011.Secondly, the use of ICTs by protesters does not guarantee their success. Bahrain clearly demonstrates that regimes can take actions to keep themselves in power. Finally, it would be wrong to assume that presence and usage of ICTs are a necessary condition for regime change.

The case of Libya and countless historical revolutions demonstrates that individuals can overthrow a regime without much use of technology.

Ultimately, the primary impact of ICTs has been to facilitate and inspire action against the regime. In acting as a conduit, ICTs have shaped the way in which actors respond, but further investigation into the precise nature of these effects is required, to determine whether the relatively horizontal nature of social networks has influenced protesters demands for democracy or whether ICTs hold the potential to bring about greater transparency. Regardless, ICTs have made their mark on the Arab Spring in 2011and arguably, will continue to do so in 2012.