Dounia Mahlouly, Digital Political Cultures in the Middle East since the Arab Uprisings: Online Activism in Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon (I. B. Tauris, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Dounia Mahlouly (DM): My PhD thesis, submitted in 2014, explored the evolution of the online debate in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt. This initial work focused on the politization of the local social media sphere during the first electoral campaigns and constitutional referenda following the 2011 uprisings. As part of this project, I had collected fieldwork interviews with local media activists and analyzed insightful cases of pro-revolutionary blogs and e-deliberative platforms administered between 2012 and 2014. My findings eventually revealed that social media were reappropriated to be used as a traditional means of political campaigning during the post-revolutionary transition. As such, it was no longer conducive to grassroot activism and was likely to become disconnected from the political praxis of the streets. At the time, my research contributed to challenge the narrative of “Twitter revolution” and was in line with a postcolonial critique of technological determinism.
The book I recently published incorporates this earlier research into a broader reflection about the evolution of media activism across the region. In the last decade, the challenges faced by independent journalists have become increasingly more complex. As a result, media activists are becoming ever more creative in their application of digital tools, as well as in the way they frame their message. The book specifically focuses on these inventive skills, shifting the focus away from the “hardware” of technology to acknowledge the social creativity of subaltern and informal communication networks.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
DM: The book comments on the evolution of digital activism in MENA by drawing on interviews with media activists, bloggers, and civil society actors involved in the independent media sphere. Simultaneously, it shows how the political discourse surrounding media activism shifted between the two series of protests that sparked across the region between 2011 and 2019, each referred to as the first and the second waves of the “Arab Spring.” It offers a retrospective analysis by comparing the experiences of media activists in three MENA countries, namely Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon. This approach allows me to examine the challenges that independent journalists are facing in different contexts. Simultaneously, it brings me to reflect on the chronology of these events and consider how these two waves of uprisings (2011 and 2019) were each framed and interpreted by foreign analysts.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
DM: The book expands beyond the scope of my earlier research by exploring the case of Lebanon’s 2022 general election and its implications within the context of pro-revolutionary media activism. This additional case study shows how Lebanese media activists navigated the politization of the social media sphere following the civil movements of 2019.
Conceptually, the book also brings a new perspective to the academic debate on media activism in the 2011 Arab uprisings. I argue that the representation of the “Arab Spring” has evolved, evoking the same hopes and fears as the technological revolution of digital media. This analogy reveals that we have not yet fully demystified the role of digital technologies in civil activism. Whilst social media were initially regarded as conducive to pluralism and freedom of speech in the early 2010s, they are now increasingly viewed through a dystopian lens. Yet these two perspectives are similar in assuming that communication technologies are central to public engagement.
This transition from digital utopianism to cyber-dystopia mirrors the framing of the “Arab Spring” as well as the way it was reframed and remembered. The Western audience initially received the events of 2011 with romantic hopes, welcoming the engagement of a young and tech-savvy community of activists from the urban middle class, who were viewed as “modernized.” In comparison, the second wave of the Arab Spring—in spite of its significance—aroused little interest, instilling a sense of greater disillusionment for grassroot protests. With the priorities of European policymakers shifting towards global security and regional political stability, the Arab uprisings of 2019 were hardly acknowledged and arguably overlooked by social movement theorists.
Indeed, the uprisings of 2011 initially received a lot of attention from foreign observers, who endorsed the narrative of “Twitter revolution” by emphasizing the use of social media in street mobilizations. In contrast, the 2019-2021 mobilizations that took place in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq sparked at a time of growing concerns over state-surveillance, disinformation, and declining public trust. Today’s disenchantment with the digital mainstream partly explains why these events did not generate as much international interest as the first wave of the Arab uprisings.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
DM: The main objective of this book is to show that civil activists and opposition voices constantly reinvent the rules by which media operate to reach their audience and circumvent traditional communication channels. I refer to these skills in the book as the art of “informal communication.” I propose that we can disregard the affordances of a media and its effects in the context of civil activism, by drawing attention to these organic forms of communicative resilience.
This argument certainly contrasts with today’s conventional wisdom about online public engagement. In recent years, the rise of online populist rhetoric has introduced a greater skepticism about grassroot information channels and their emancipatory potential. However, these concerns are commonly articulated from the vantage point of the Global Northwest—where the political scene is seemingly divided between right-wing conservatives and liberal elites. This Eurocentric perspective has shaped a new political discourse, which calls for tighter media regulations and the restoration of traditional gatekeeping processes over the public sphere. My research shows that this liberal agenda is in fact detrimental to civil activists in the MENA region, because it dismisses the value of informal communication. The book is therefore particularly relevant to anyone interested in challenging the liberal critique of populism from a postcolonial perspective.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DM: I am currently working on a range of more theoretical academic papers, which examine the concept of “post-truth whiteness” and intend to critique the emerging political discourse on “disinformation.” I find that this concept is particularly useful when it comes to reconsidering the value of grassroot, informal networks of communication in the sphere of activism. My new research also shows how the agenda of countering disinformation is conveniently used to repress media freedom in countries like Egypt.
J: How do you apply the concept of “informal communication” to study civil activism in MENA?
DM: I believe that contemporary media theory has overlooked peripheral communication networks and the role they play in supporting everyday life expressions of political resistance. These practices should be studied as a constitutive part of civil activism because they engage the popular language of the grassroots. Informal networks of communication become particularly creative in a highly repressive political environment and have proved to be particularly resourceful when experimenting with emergent media using innovative art forms and satire as a form of cultural and communicative resilience.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, pp. 1-5)
When I undertook this research in 2012, my objective was to study the evolution of the social media sphere in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt. I examined the online campaigning strategy of those leading political actors, who intended to restore their legitimacy in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings. This drew my attention to the rapid politization of the social media sphere that became visible over the course of the post-revolutionary transition. I relied on both online and fieldwork ethnographic research to show how digital platforms had benefitted these well-established political groups in the context of presidential and constitutional debates. This approach eventually led me to formulate a structural critique of digital media and demystify the idea that it was instrumental to the civil movements of the revolution. When I completed my initial research in 2014, I concluded that these new communication technologies were just as likely to serve the actors of the counterrevolution. In the following years, this argument was corroborated by a larger body of research that presented a structural critique of digital technologies. Many of these theories in fact recently gained traction by outlining the downside of online political engagement. They indicated that networked activism was not the best way to achieve long-term political change, arguing that opposition voices needed to resort back to well-organized political structures. This idea certainly resonated with many young people, who witnessed how the practice of web activism transitioned from the emergent to the mainstream. It reflected a growing scepticism and a general sense of disenchantment about decentralized channels as well as the informal communication practices of the grassroots.
Prior to the global pandemic, the world witnessed a wave of civil protests in countries like Chile and India, as well as in Sudan and the city of Hong Kong. However, with the exception of the Black Lives Matter movement, this recent wave of mobilizations generated little interest in grassroot communication networks. That is surprising considering the fact that this topic has been extensively researched in the past. Back in the late 1990s, a number of transnational anti-globalization movements triggered the curiosity of communication scholars, who began to study early forms of web activism. Ten years later, a new wave of protests sparked around the time of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This later case of civil mobilizations raised questions about the role of social media as a logistical tool and a platform for political dissent. In comparison, it appears that the worldwide protests of 2019 did not generate as much interest for the communication tools used by activists and their reach amongst the grassroots. This may be due to the shock of the 2020 pandemic, which created a sense of disconnect with the rest of the world. Or perhaps another possible explanation is that we became more cautious about assuming that grassroots networks can effectively apply these tools to bring progressive change.
Our experience of communication technologies is indeed not the same today as it was ten years ago. Digital media rapidly expanded into the mainstream, eventually reaching a mass audience. In the last ten years, it has proved to be conducive to populist rhetoric and instrumental to political leaders whose message is designed to appeal to ‘the masses’. In Europe and the United States, the increasing popularity of the far right became visible across both mainstream and encrypted social platforms. This ultimately generated more scepticism with regards to grassroots communication networks. Popular online channels are now viewed as likely to circulate disinformation and conspiracy theories as was the case during the ‘info-demic’ of the Covid-19 crisis. Grassroots audiences are accordingly assumed to be receptive to these types of online messages, which are tailored for the masses. Yet this perspective remains very much centred on the experience of Western neoliberal societies. It specifically pertains to growing concerns over the decline of public trust, which has been described as the crisis of liberal democracy. In the West, this point of view supposes that liberal elites need to restore their legitimacy, in order to save the grassroots in distress from the pernicious influence of evil populists. This argument does not, in other words, attribute much agency and critical thinking to the audience. Instead, it tends to focus on what the progressive wing of the liberal establishment can do to inform the public debate and restore our faith in democracy. Because in the context of the Global North, populism often belongs to a more conservative wing of the political leadership, which deceitfully portrays itself as an alternative to the establishment in claiming to represent the voices of the grassroots.
Yet in many other parts of the world, ruling conservative elites indulged in a more outward and perhaps less insidious form of populism. Many authoritarian leaders have capitalized on the post-colonial identity crisis to construct a narrative of national (or sectarian) identity. They historically relied on symbolism and populist rhetoric to create a facade of religious or national unity, by imposing themselves as charismatic father figures. In such contexts, the voices of the progressive opposition were often marginalized and limited to the peripheries of the public sphere. The obstacles they face when trying to challenge this form of reactionary populism are therefore significantly different from the concerns of Western liberal elites. In these other political environments, the progressive opposition has no choice but to rely on decentralized communication channels and find creative ways to engage with the grassroots. This approach alternatively starts from the assumption that grassroot audiences are able to exercise agency and informal power. As such, it offers an original angle to rethink the potential of bottom-up communication practices. Most importantly, it allows us to question Eurocentric assumptions about those communication tools that become popular amongst the grassroots.
One would thus expect that public concerns over the recent rise of populism in the West would raise more awareness about the challenges faced by the progressive youths, who have tried to overthrow their own populist leaders elsewhere in the world. However, the resurgence of Western populism often encourages the liberal establishment to advocate for the recentralization of the public debate. As I will argue, this discourse has been exported elsewhere in the world and weaponized by other governments to justify the ongoing securitization of the online space. Such argument has significant implications for other parts of the world and may indirectly restrict avenues for peripheral communication in the Global South.
This book precisely addresses this conundrum, by considering how the Arab Spring and the coincidental media revolution of the digital came to inspire conflicting feelings of hope, fear and disillusionment to a Western public. It reflects on the antagonism between the elite and the masses, as well as the process through which a media transitions from the emergent and the mainstream. In doing so, it also asks the questions of who is expected to formulate the message of a revolution and examines how this message can be expressed in the popular language of the grassroots.
This reflection expands way beyond the scope of my initial study, drawing on ten years of research and interviews with activists and civil society actors. It further investigates the challenges related to the securitization of digital media and re-examines the latest evolution of the online debate in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt. This book specifically reports on the emergence of a new market for media development, which is internationally funded and supported under the banner of ‘countering violent extremism’. It shows how this new market is conditioned by the Eurocentric argument of recentralization and argues that this approach to media development disempowers civil society actors involved in the local independent media sphere. Besides the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, the book also discusses the impact of this security-lens on the 2019 wave of protests that became known as the ‘second wave of the Arab Spring’. In order to introduce this discussion, it lays out the findings of a new research, which explores the most recent case of the Lebanese revolution. This part of my updated research features additional fieldwork interviews with members of the Lebanese pro-revolutionary opposition, which I conducted between the civil mobilizations of 2019 and the parliamentary election of 2022.