Blog 1- Digital Media and Democratic Transitions

I have chipped away at literature on the Arab Spring for about a month now, and have read a few different accounts of the events that occurred during 2011 in the Middle East and North Africa. My initial goal was to see what impact social media had in instigating and organizing protest, but the more I understand the issues at play, the more I realize that digital media was just a tool in a much larger and complicated progression of events. Digital media played a major role in forming the protests, but the results involved a complicated strategy game between the opposition and governmental regimes.

The Arab Spring is an example of a revolutionary cascade in which one person’s participation in revolution triggers the participation of another and continues on until a protest occurs. In 2011, this cascade affected twenty-two countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and significantly affected Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. I believe digital media played a major role in instigating these protests by creating social networks. Democracy’s Fourth Wave? by Philip N. Howard and Muzammil M. Hussain tracks the growth of digital media in the region and its role in the Arab Spring. The authors show that in most Middle Eastern and North African countries, many citizens started to use the internet and even social media networks like Facebook in the past decade. Furthermore, Al Jazeera, a satellite news network, broke the state sponsored flow of propaganda and false information into people’s homes exposing many regimes to criticism. Mobile phone usage also increased drastically, and the majority of citizens in the Middle East acquired cell phones by 2011. This perhaps was the most significant form of communication during the Arab Spring.

In December 2010, when Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire, he ignited the Tunisian revolution which would spark protests across the region. Digital media that created new networks among Arabs in the decade leading up to 2011 would be called into action. Youth who were upset with unemployment, poor and illiberal economies, unaccountable regimes, and a lack of rights took to the streets. However, only some protests grew enough to topple regimes, and of those protests only a handful were successful. Social media, cell phones, and satellite news brought people with similar grievances together, but once on the streets, these tools did little to help create new regimes. A battle between the regime and opposition began. Sometimes the regime would concede to the opposition’s demands. Other times, the regime would crack down and the protesters would be stopped. In the case of Syria and Libya, insurgency erupted, and the opposition and regime fell into armed battles that have left their countries crippled.

I originally planned to study the progression of revolutions in Tunisia, a successful revolution, Egypt, a partly successful revolution, and Syria, a failed revolution. Now, I’ve added Bahrain to that list. In Bahrain, there were significant protests, but the regime cracked down on the opposition and agreed to minor concessions. By studying these four cases, I hope to learn what factors led to successful protests, partly successful protests, unsuccessful protests, and insurgencies, highlighting the use and impact of digital media as I go. I am curious to see if the type of protest that resulted from digital youth networks actually helped to begin a democratic transition. To do this, I will study the regimes in power today and will track their freedom house scores before and after the revolutions to see if democracy is indeed emerging.