Nicosia, 30 Nov 2020 (AFP) – Never has a revolution shone so brightly. Thanks to social networks and to smartphones, the spirit of the Arab Spring swept the Middle East and contributed to overthrowing dictatorships. Since then, the digital counter-offensive by authoritarian states has silenced many activists.
At that time, not being able to master these tools, the regimes in North Africa and the Middle East were surprised by the speed with which the fervor of these popular uprisings spread on the internet.
Hyperconnected and mostly without leadership, these mobilizations caused the Arab Spring to fire in all directions, with flashmobs difficult for the authorities to contain or demands arising from public meetings on the Internet without steering committees behind closed doors.
“Blogs and social networks were not the trigger, but they followed the movements”, estimates former Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia, author of a blog in exile and who returned to his country during the 2011 uprising. “They were a weapon formidable communication. “
Since then, authoritarian states have filled in the blanks, armed with an arsenal of cyber surveillance and censorship on the web, as well as armies of trolls.
The hope born of the Arab Spring, in turn, died quickly under attack from new regimes that were even more repressive or devastating wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
However, pro-democracy activists see these revolts as a major digital shift, which has been followed worldwide by “hashtag demonstrations” such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter in the United States or the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.
Today, according to Arab cyberactivists, states no longer have as much control over what citizens can see, know and say, as shown by the waves of discontent in 2019 and 2020 in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon.
Despite the increase in censorship in many countries, the breath of freedom has improved daily life. Especially in the country where it all started, Tunisia.
The Tunisian spark
On December 17, 2010, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, fed up with poverty and police humiliation, set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, the center of the country.
His desperate act illustrated the suffering of millions of people in the real world, but it was thanks to the virtual world that his ordeal sparked a protest movement that spread like wildfire.
Smartphones, by making it possible to capture photos and videos, have become citizen information weapons, allowing everyone to witness and mobilize, a trend called “mass mobile-isation” in English.
“Stories” are published on the Facebook, beyond the reach of repressive authorities that have been muzzling the traditional media for decades.
“Facebook’s role was decisive,” recalls Hamadi Kaloutcha, who returned to Tunisia after studying in Belgium and who launched in 2008 the forum “I have a dream: a democratic Tunisia”.
“We could publish the information under the eyes of the regime,” he says. “Censorship was blocked, either they censored everything that circulated or they censored nothing.”
Until then, the contest was just whispers. Fear and apathy ended up leaving among Internet users who saw their loved ones express themselves freely on the web.
Internet platforms also served as the gateway to traditional media, fueling the revolt even more. “The international media, like Al-Jazeera, covered the uprising directly from Facebook,” points out Kaloutcha. “We didn’t have any other platform for streaming of video”.
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s police regime was overthrown at the speed of light. In less than a month, the Tunisian president left power after 23 years at the head of the country.
The graffiti “Obrigado Facebook” popped up the walls of the country. It took years before the social media giant was questioned for its role in the distribution of infox.
‘The camera is a weapon’
This shock in Tunisia quickly led to a political earthquake in the region’s most populous country, Egypt.
The Facebook campaign “We are all Khaled Said” or “WAAKS” (acronym in English) served as a catalyst. The blogger, 28, was tortured to death by the police in 2010.
Photos of his swollen and deformed face went viral – while authorities unconvincingly claimed that he had suffocated after ingesting a package of drugs during his arrest.
Alerted by the networks, hundreds of people attended his funeral and, later, the silent demonstrations. In early 2011, the movement gained momentum and turned into a wave of protests against the government.
The WAAKS Facebook page, denouncing police brutality and widespread corruption, encouraged citizen journalism, notably with a tutorial video “The camera is my weapon”.
Throughout the Egyptian uprising, memorable images multiplied, like that of a man facing the water cannon of an armored vehicle, echoing the Chinese protester who defied a column of tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The hacker group Anonymous went on to provide advice on how to break firewalls and create mirror sites to attract censorship.
Volunteers translated the tweets into Arabic to foreign media, while state media accused “criminals” and “foreign enemies” of starting the protests.
After a “rabies Friday” on January 28, 2011, the government ordered the blocking of the Internet and mobile phone networks. Too late: the crowd was huge.
Young blogger Khaled Saïd became an icon of the revolt and Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign in February 2011, after almost three decades in power.
If the expression “Arab Spring” recalls the hopes of freedom for the Prague Spring in 1968, it ended almost as irreparably as the brief mobilization crushed by Soviet tanks.
States in the region have been quick to strengthen and refine their cyber paraphernalia, leading a merciless counter-offensive against Internet activists.
“The authorities reacted quickly to control this strategic space,” recalls former Moroccan activist Nizar Bennamate, one of the leaders of the “February 20 Movement”, the Moroccan version of the Arab Spring.
According to him, the protesters were “victims of defamation and threats on social networks and in some media on the Internet”.
This offensive does not seem to have ended: Amnesty International said in June that Moroccan authorities have been spying on activist journalist Omar Radi since January 2019 through sophisticated hacking software deployed on his cell phone.
In Egypt, the power of Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sissi has muzzled almost all the protest, blocked hundreds of websites and arrested Internet users, including young influencers of the social network Tiktok.
The control of publications and television channels by people close to the regime “caused the death of pluralism in the Egyptian media landscape”, laments Sabrina Bennoui, of the organization Reporters without Borders (RSF). “We call this evolution ‘media split’.”
According to Amnesty, several Gulf countries use “the pretext (of the covid-19 pandemic) to pursue their plan to suppress the right to freedom of expression”.
Conflicts between states are also increasingly fought in cyberspace. Thus, the diplomatic dispute between Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar since 2014 has generated cross attacks by armies of bot (automated computer programs).
In Libya, UN mediators have recently asked parties to the conflict to abandon their weapons in the real world, but also their “incitement to violence” in the virtual.
“The tools that catalyzed the Arab Spring (…) are as good or as malicious as their users,” pointed out the specialized magazine Wired. “And it turns out that bad people are also very good on social media.”
The jihadist group Islamic State (IS), in particular, has used these platforms a lot as a space for propaganda and recruitment.
Today, while most Arab countries languish on the RSF World Press Freedom Index, little hope emanates from small Tunisia.
Nawaat, which was once one of the most important anti-establishment blogs subject to state censorship, is now a totally non-partisan means of communication on the Internet and with a printed magazine.
Sami Ben Gharbia, who ran this blog from the Netherlands, where he fled the Ben Ali regime, is proud to be a recognized actor on the media scene in his country. He got an interview with an acting prime minister.
“A great debate followed the fall of Ben Ali,” he points out. “We achieved our goal: how should we continue and how?”
“After a transition in 2013, we decided to professionalize the newsroom, to provide independent quality information, which is still lacking today,” he says.
“Having offices and a team of journalists working freely (…) was a dream for 10 years,” he says. “This dream has come true.”