Oh God!” were the first two words that appeared on the profile page of an Arab Facebook acquaintance as thousands of people set out for the Tahrir Square in central Cairo last month to demand an end to president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
From there on he regularly updated his page, at times wondering where the revolt was headed to and at others expressing solidarity with his Egyptian friends. So did millions of other Arabs, as they worked to bring down the second long-lasting president in the region.
The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, which ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, lasted 28 days. Mubarak’s rule wilted in just 18 days after thousands of Egyptians connected on Facebook began their vigil to oust him.
In a region ruled by monarchs and many leaders who simply won’t go away (remember Libya’s colonel Gaddafi?), where media is mostly owned and controlled by the government, and where public expression of political opposition is unacceptable, people have found a powerful tool to demand the political, economic and social reforms they think are overdue.
It’s a new awakening that is threatening to demolish traditional political norms in the Middle East in more ways than one, raising concerns all around. For the rulers, battling what some have termed World Web War I, a civil movement triggered by digital interaction is a new, dangerous beast they don’t know how to handle. For the common man and woman on the streets, it is the realisation of an aspiration they have long held but were unable to fulfil.
So on the streets of Cairo it was not an opposition political leader or a cleric who was being hailed as the hero of the revolt, it was a young Google marketing executive who was the new icon. Wael Ghonim played a big role in mobilising the popular uprising through a Facebook page.
Ghonim, who was detained by the Egyptian security agency for 12 days, is as old as Mubarak’s rule. Most of the Facebook-inspired revolutionaries in Egypt are even younger. Mubarak was the only president they saw, and they had no love for the man.
“This is the revolution of the youth of the Internet, which became the revolution of the youth of Egypt, then the revolution of Egypt itself,” Ghonim said, weeping in a television interview soon after he was released from his blindfolded detention.
These could turn out to be messianic words in a region where a Facebook generation battling high unemployment rates and lack of opportunities has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. Egypt’s and Tunisia’s was a politico-digital revolution of a scale unheard of before.
A recent study of social media platforms by the Dubai School of Government categorically says that Facebook and Twitter will continue to play a critical role in organising social and civil movements in the Arab world, especially among the youth.
The first Arab Social Media Report released this month says that the penetration of social networking tools was soaring in the Arab countries with growth highest among the youth between 15 and 29 years of age, a segment that makes up for one-third of the total population of these countries.
According to the report, the number of Facebook users in the Arab world increased by 78 per cent in 2010 to 21.3 million, with 75 percent of the Facebook community in the Arab region belonging to this demographic and driving its growth. Egypt has 22 per cent of these users.
At a time when the Middle East youth are seeking social inclusion, jobs, development and entrepreneurial opportunities, Facebook has fast become the universal prov-ider — a platform that goes beyond smart one-line status updates and family photos. It is the new great equaliser that brings professionals, teachers, students, artists, government officers, soldiers, housewives and school children together in a society divided in archaic sub-texts.
How do you manage aspirations of 225 million Arabs under the age of 30 who feel empowered by using social media platforms to connect, argue, and voice their opinion? It’s no more about engaging with each other socially; the beast has taken on a primarily political shape.
These are questions rulers in the volatile Middle East need to find answers to at a time information flow has changed and there is very little governments can do to control that despite their usual habit of filtering and blocking websites, or even cutting off the Internet.
It is yet early to say how the Facebook-fuelled revolts will pan out for other countries in the region, but there are strong signals that unless rulers quickly introduce political and economic reforms and give people more freedoms, more of them could face the wrath of the young. The ruling elite need not be scared of this new people power; they need to adapt and change.