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Lawrence of E-rabia: Facebook and the New Arab Revolt

[Image from www.cliohistory.org] [Image from www.cliohistory.org]

As the growing tide of protest, resistance, and insurrection across the Arab world began to threaten regimes once considered permanent fixtures of the region’s political landscape, it was almost as if everything had been turned upside down. That which always seemed so fixed and constant suddenly appeared temporary, vulnerable, and fragile—not concrete but conditional, dependent entirely upon the people’s willingness to tolerate it, and tolerate it was precisely what they would do no longer.

For a Western audience, long trained to view North Africa and the Middle East through an Orientalist prism, news of the mass upheaval was difficult to fathom. It did not match the preconceived stereotypes. When an ideology runs up against its limits, a choice must be made, and, as is so often the case, many chose to remain wedded to obsolete ways of thinking. Indeed, how else can one make sense of the moronic spectacle of the rightwing blogosphere suggesting that we interpret these events as a sign of Biblical prophecy? Mistaking a reflection of the light in a video of nighttime demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for a ghostly apparition, bloggers for WorldNetDaily and the Fox News Channel-associated Fox Nation asked readers if the green glow on their screens might actually be one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. If reality is a bitter pill to swallow, they seemed to be saying, then why swallow it at all?

Most commentators searching for an appropriate interpretive framework within which to make sense of the new Arab revolt managed to resist the tantalizing lure of Biblical revelation. Yet, many still manufactured their own fictions to help them digest a news story for which old stereotypes and prejudices proved too powerful to overcome. Thus, the apparent spontaneity of the events and the completely noncompliant actions of a supposedly compliant people were made sensible by conjuring up a rather different illusion. Alas, the fantasy of the Facebook revolution was born.

People, when pushed hard enough and long enough, will use whatever means are at their disposal to fight back. Thus, it is only logical that in organizing the protests and communicating the events to the world, demonstrators across the region have utilized the new media—not only social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, but also the mobile phone. Consequently, the old was traded in for the new, flyers and pamphlets replaced by texting and YouTube videos, the bullhorn by the blog.

But it is one thing to acknowledge the role of the new media and quite another to glorify them as the primum movens of the rolling revolutions. Before Ben Ali had even fled Tunis, the new media was already being extolled as the harbinger of the upheavals. On 13 January, a writer in Foreign Policy declared that in Tunisia, “WikiLeaks acted as a catalyst: both a trigger and a tool for political outcry”—a sentiment apparently shared by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who went so far as to suggest that his organization was responsible for the ongoing events. Similar was the view of New York Times editorialist Roger Cohen. For him, however, the catalyst was not WikiLeaks but Facebook. Cohen proclaimed in his 24 January editorial that the Ben Ali regime “had fallen in perhaps the world’s first revolution without a leader. Or rather, its leader was far away: Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.” Thus, just as the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran was hailed in the West as a “Twitter revolution,” the uprisings of North Africa and the Middle East have been variously understood as a reaction to Western technology.

Quite tellingly, the view of technology as agent provocateur is not employed evenly across the board. Indeed, when social media sites like Twitter have been used to coordinate demonstrations by protesters in the West at events like the 2009 G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, the newswires do not usually come alive with talk of how Facebook and YouTube caused the unrest. No, technology is assumed to be the cause of upheaval only when it is used in their protests, not ours. It is the logic of a supremacist; we use technology, but they are used by technology. As Mahmood Mamdani observed in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, “It is said that our world is divided between those who are modern and those who are premodern. The moderns make culture and are its masters; the premoderns are said to be but conduits.” Thus, in Middle Eastern hands, the new media are thus mistaken for the agent of change itself.

Denial of Arab agency is part and parcel to Western approaches towards the Middle East. Today it is Facebook, but in years past, there have been other mythical instigators. “Arabs,” as a certain writer once observed, “could be swung on an idea as on a cord; for the unpledged allegiance of their minds made them obedient servants.” The author of these words was not some neoconservative lackey dwelling in the subterranean depths of the Pentagon, wickedly planning the invasion of yet another Arab state. No, the writer in question was actually a person who considered himself to be a friend of the Arabs—an Arabophile and not an Arabophobe. These words are to be found in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the autobiographical tome of T.E. Lawrence, that much venerated “Lawrence of Arabia” who has so often been celebrated over the years in the Eurocentric historical imagination as the British agent who, like a latter-day Pied Piper, organized the docile dwellers of the desert and led them in battle against the Ottoman Turks nearly a full century ago. In this way, the Arab Revolt is taken out of its historical context, and the people who participated in it are treated not as active players but as pawns, as clay on the potter’s wheel, being shaped and molded by Lawrence’s expert hand.

Like a ghost that refuses to leave this world but continues to return again and again to haunt the living, the phantom of Lawrence is still very much with us to this day. With the new Arab Revolt of 2011, it is as if Western commentators needed a new piper in order to make sense of the people’s actions. Alas, new life was breathed into that hideous, old archetype of the Great White Hope, and a digital reincarnation of the famed Lawrence was conjured up and imagined as being responsible for organizing the slumbering rabble once again; only this time, he came armed not with a camel and a keffiyeh, but with Facebook friend requests.

Thus, to construe the Arab Spring as a response to Facebook and the new media is not as innocent of a gesture as it may initially appear. It is, in fact, the latest method of perpetuating an old stereotype. To suggest that these events were heralded by the new media is to give in to an old, racist fiction and to resurrect the fabled figure of the primitive who, having no agency of his or her own, is compelled to action as a response to superior Western technology. Twitter becomes to the Arab populace what the Coke bottle was to the “bushman” of The Gods Must Be Crazy (dir. Jamie Uys, 1980). The new media become not a conduit for change but the acting agent itself. In this way, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi is replaced by the digital wizardry of Julian Assange and Mark Zuckerberg, and the people actually taking part in the protests are denied their own voice and their own will. The perpetuators of this fantastic delusion are thus no better than those hyperbolic bloggers at Fox Nation. While one points to the ancient scriptures to explain Arab actions, the other looks to Western technology. In both cases, the people who have risen up to oppose their dictators are marginalized, their contributions forgotten, their brave acts relegated to the sidelines of history. Like Lawrence’s “obedient servants,” they are treated as secondary actors who are easily manipulated and controlled by foreign stimuli. The Arabs, it seems, know not what they do.

There is yet another danger in exaggerating the role of the new media. Intentionally or not, by turning Facebook into a kind of new Lawrence, one effectively obscures the class dimension of the revolts. Participation in the protests has not been limited only to a tech-savvy youth, and indeed, to pretend otherwise is to neglect all of those people that have bravely put their bodies and lives on the line who cannot afford a computer, who were never allowed an adequate education, or whose long days of restless toil do not easily permit the leisure of a Twitter account.

As Rabab El-Mahdi has argued with Western media coverage of the uprisings, “the class composition of dissent has been cloaked by a new imaginary homogenous construct called ‘youth.’” For El-Mahdi, such depictions signify nothing less than a new form of Orientalism—a Western embrace of those elements of the uprisings most “like us” and a disavowal of the rest. Yet, despite the force of her argument, there is perhaps another reason why Western commentators would want to fixate on the tech-savvy youth, especially in the case of Tunisia. Focusing on Facebook allows one to conveniently disregard what protesters in Tunisia were rebelling against: a neoliberal success story. Thus, one can talk about the protests without placing the blame where it truly belongs, on a government that had implemented IMF and World Bank-sanctioned economic reforms and structural adjustment programs. To talk of a Facebook revolution in Tunisia, then, functions as a way to avoid recognizing that the people were rebelling against the Western-imposed economic model itself.

“Class,” as Michael Parenti put it in Make-Believe Media, “is the colossal reality right before our eyes that we Americans are trained not to see.” That is, like one of Houdini’s illusions, class is often made to simply vanish. The media play an important role in the execution of this magician’s parlor trick, and U.S. journalists have a long history of scrubbing news stories clean of their class content. People protesting against Western-style economic policies and Western-supported authoritarianism are imagined instead to be protesting in favor of Western-style democracy.

Can we not see this exact same agenda at work in the corporate-owned media’s coverage of the Arab Spring? Indeed, there has been a tendency to frame these rebellions purely as protests against political repression, as struggles only to attain democratic rights. One can catch a glimpse of this journalistic inclination in the wordy moniker chosen by Thomas Friedman to describe the events in Tunisia and Egypt: “relatively peaceful Arab democracy revolutions.” Once again, the economic plight of the majority of the people—even in those “successful” countries like Tunisia that had so closely followed the neoliberal path—is conveniently obscured.

The attention given to the role played by the new media in these protests is part of this whitewashing operation. When the new media become the main headline, the story of the tech-savvy, well-educated, English-speaking, middle class youth overshadows the struggle of other protesters in the street—namely, those people at the absolute bottom. The eruption of the Arab Spring represented a collective cry from those impoverished masses in North Africa and the Middle East who have so tragically been forgotten by their governments, their leaders, and by the neoliberal advisors of the jetsetter capitalist class. By focusing only on the demonstrators with blogs and active Twitter accounts—that is, by resurrecting that old spirit of Lawrence—do we not run the risk of forgetting these people yet again?

2 comments for "Lawrence of E-rabia: Facebook and the New Arab Revolt"

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Very interesting article. Could the same also be said of the coverage in Western media of events in Iran in 2009? Then the story was obscured by a focus on the role of Twitter, not about the actual demonstrations/protests.

Terry wrote on October 17, 2011 at 12:01 PM
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I don't agree that it's a denial of Arab agency. Certainly the US has a massive problem with Twitter fueled dissent at the moment, which has spread to many other nations. You could look for example at the distinction between the coverage of the first and second Gulf War internally for example. The hermeneutic seal of broadcast media has been ruptured by the internet and citizens can now talk back.

I do agree that there is a focus on the social networking middle classes, but this is because they have actively incorporated transnational symbols such as the V for Vendetta masks or the Zenga Zenga Libya videos and ensured that videos were translated for the most part in English, which demonstrates a high awareness of the current skewed mediascape. In journalism, this has meant that people are relying less on state spokespeople for information and more on activists on Twitter. I follow a couple of hundred journalists and activists on Twitter and the general impression I get is that there is much more of an effort to try and understand and overturn stereotypes. Perhaps not in some of the mainstream media in the US, but the fact is that citizens are turning increasingly to social networking over broadcast networking meaning that these stories get out. One such example is the alternative story of the Coptic Christians in Egypt last week as being an artificial SCAF line to generate sectarian conflict, as people outside the nation could clearly see that there were Muslims running to protect Christians.

Personally, the uptake of images of the Arab Spring and the circulation of pamphlets from Tahrir Square at Occupy Wall St to cite another example tells me that the Huntington narrative of a Clash of Civilizations is being overturned. This is the first step in an education process that involves the dissolution of stereotypes on all sides.

Phoebe wrote on October 22, 2011 at 06:16 PM

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