Twitter Devolutions

How social media is hurting the Arab Spring.

Tahrir Square launched a thousand dissertations on how social media drove the frenetic mobilization of the Arab Spring. Egyptian activists may rage at the notion that the revolution was driven by technology rather than by their determined efforts, but there's a good case to be made that social media did matter -- at least a bit -- in shaping the uprisings across the Arab world. But the celebratory narrative about social media needs to be tempered by the reality of the struggles that have befallen most of these countries in transition. Whether or not Twitter made the Arab revolutions, is it now helping to kill them?

Don't get me wrong -- I love Twitter (that's me at @abuaardvark). I rely on it for information and the unfiltered opinions of hundreds of Arab citizens every day, and I've written often about how new media forms affect politics -- for good or for ill. The relentless spread of Internet access and social media use represents a genuine structural transformation in how political information flows in the Arab world, and it is only becoming more powerful as millions more Arab citizens come online. But if we take seriously social media's role in the revolutions, how can we avoid asking tough questions about how it might have affected their aftermath?

It's easy to understand why so many people saw "Facebook revolutions" and "Twitter revolutions" during the Iranian uprising of 2009 and the Arab uprisings of 2011. The outsized role of online activists, the reliance of many outsiders on Twitter for instant updates, and the undeniable immediacy of online information proved irresistible to academics and journalists alike. Casual observers felt an unprecedented connection with the activists they followed on Twitter. Meanwhile, academics had a multitude of good reasons to believe that new media forms were enabling radically new forms of political organization and communication that just had to matter. And it did! The effects of social media in facilitating opposition organization and shaping the coverage of protests in the mainstream media may have been at the margins. But much of politics is often waged in those margins.

But even then, many of us saw the potential problems. What should we think about social media today, when the early enthusiasm for the "Facebook revolutions" feels somewhat quaint? What about the difficult politics that followed the rapid fall of Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak? What about the complaints that the world was fooled by the prominence of seemingly liberal, Westernized "Facebook youth" in revolutions that actually empowered very different forces? Should social media take some of the blame for the political disasters that have followed? If the Internet can claim partial credit for the timing and nature of the Arab uprisings, should it also take partial blame for some of the more negative trends of the last two years?

I wouldn't want to take this too far, since there are plenty of completely ordinary, offline political explanations for the ongoing political turbulence in the transitional Arab countries, and plenty of examples of similar struggles in transitional countries long before the Internet allegedly changed everything. But a case can be made that new Internet-based social media has played a role in the post-uprising struggles in many Arab countries. With all those caveats in mind, here are a few ways in which social media has stumbled -- and sometimes done more harm than good.

First, there's the general tendency toward exaggeration and hyperbole, which has arguably cost Egyptian activists (in particular) a certain amount of credibility. There's a reason why the catchphrases "it's never as bad as it seems on Twitter" and "the Tahrir bubble" caught on. I still remember the first time I was driving around a perfectly calm, absolutely normal Cairo while reading a Twitter feed describing apocalyptic clashes and mayhem. So do a lot of others. Social media loves a crisis, and it loves morality tales with a clear good guy and bad guy -- preferably identifiable in 140 characters. Don't forget: The boy who cried wolf did actually end up watching his sheep eaten by wolves -- he just couldn't get anyone to believe him because he had exaggerated once too often.

Second, social media has proved more useful for mobilizing protesters than organizing civil society or political parties. The advantages conferred by new media are skewed toward action, enthusiasm, and loose, issue-oriented networks, not toward the hard, patient work of building organizations. Leaderless movements are great for surviving regime repression and binding together loose coalitions, but less well adapted to formulating a coherent political strategy or mobilizing millions of voters.

In places like Egypt, many of the protesters viewed themselves as the authentic voice of the street, imbued with the legitimacy of revolution and skeptical of anything short of radical change. Many had little interest in democracy, which inevitably requires compromise and empowered leaders who they quickly came to despise. The grind of preparing an election campaign lacked the thrill of street fighting -- and elections tended to reveal that, despite having tens of thousands of Twitter followers, they in fact represented only small minorities of their society. The reality is that many of the protesters will be going to Tahrir five years from now, regardless of whether Egypt consolidates its democracy or the Muslim Brotherhood remains in power.

Third, a strong case can be made that the Internet has contributed to the dangerous polarization that now besets so much of the Arab world. Again, political conflict is driven more by real ideological differences, institutional uncertainty, genuine abuses, and reckless behavior than by anything that happens online. But those pressures seem to be reinforced by the tendency toward polarization and informational bubbles so commonly observed in online environments.

The interactions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the non-Islamist online activists in Egypt could become the model case study for such dynamics. If you follow Egyptian activists on Twitter or on Facebook, you see every story that reflects badly upon the Brotherhood rapidly and uncritically shared, augmented, and disseminated; Islamists do the same to their rivals. While social media boosters envisioned the creation of a new public sphere based on dialogue and mutual respect, the reality is that Islamists and their adversaries retreat to their respective camps, reinforcing each others' prejudices while throwing the occasional rhetorical bomb across the no-man's land that the center has become. This becomes even more dangerous when outside policy analysts follow and take their cues from only one side of that polarized debate.

Fourth, one of the signal achievements of the dizzying first months of the Arab Spring -- the unification of the Arab political space into a single narrative of popular revolt -- has largely been reversed. In those first months, the entire Arab world was tweeting and sharing stories about Egypt, Yemenis borrowed slogans and signs from Tunisia, Jordanians anxiously watched Libya. Over the last year, this pan-Arab unity has palpably broken down. Part of this fragmentation was simply driven by the real stagnation in many of the local struggles: As revolution gave way to political trench warfare, people got bored. Many turned inward as Egyptian activists worried about the health of their own revolution rather than, say, Yemen's.

Just as social media can encourage users to retreat to their ideological camps, it can also encourage a narrow geographic focus. Twitter enabled the integration of the narratives -- but it didn't demand it in the way that Al Jazeera once did by virtue of its commanding presence in the pan-Arab media. Facebook groups, even more than Twitter, tend to be national or even more local, fragmenting rather than unifying. That could be a positive trend, of course, if it leads to focused engagement with local political debates, relentless transparency, and demands for accountability, which democracy requires. But it comes at a cost to regional unity.

Fifth, negatives such as sectarianism, fear, and hatred spread as rapidly on social media as do more positive ideas. The success of the Tunisian revolution inspired Arabs everywhere to believe that victory was possible, and Egypt's success convinced many that victory was inevitable. But the reverse also proved true. The bloodbath in Syria, like the horrors of Iraq in the mid-2000s, had a chilling effect on popular mobilization. By midway through 2011, it was already clear that the end of the story did not have to be partying in Tahrir Square -- it might be butchered women and children littering the streets and massive dispossession and grief. The sectarian hatred and division fueled by the Syrian bloodshed flowed through social media just as effectively as the unifying message of the early Arab Spring.

Sixth, threatened regimes actively pushed back against these independent new public arenas. Bahrain most famously pioneered the active destruction of online discourse, becoming a model for how to pollute and destroy an online public sphere. At the height of its campaign of sectarian repression, Bahrain's regime suddenly found thousands of online defenders, known as "eggs" (anonymous Twitter accounts with few followers and no clear identity), which hurled abuse at anyone who dared tweet about the country. At a certain point, many people simply stopped tweeting about Bahrain simply to avoid the trolls. Other challenged regimes took alternative measures, with Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait all recently arresting and harassing citizens posting critical tweets.

Seventh, Syria really changed the online experience of the Arab Spring. Egyptian social media, even before the revolution, was populated by well-known individuals whose agenda had been clear for many years. This bred a certain level of trust inside the network, while outsiders new to the issues reveled in this newfound community (journalists, for their part, found social media an irresistible way to decide who to interview when they visited). Few had the same experience with the online Syrian activist community. Many Syrian activists were often anonymous, whether by necessity or choice. Some campaigned from the start for international military intervention, a politically divisive strategy.

Above all, Syria's revolution has proved divisive, where Egypt's and other uprisings tended to unify, at least at first. The experience of engaging on Syria on social media was more like engaging on famously unpleasant issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Lebanese politics than it was a warm community of shared interest that so many originally found in the Egyptian or Yemeni online communities.

Syrian activists also circulated extremely graphic videos of violence and warfare. There is something very different about scrolling through pictures and videos of unified, chanting Yemeni or Egyptian crowds demanding democratic change and waking up to a gory image of a headless 6-year-old girl on your Facebook news feed. Again, this reflected Syria's reality -- but that reality was amplified by social media. What's more, for many months, the difficulty journalists faced getting access to Syria meant that these videos became the primary source of information about events for the mainstream media --- but often with little disclosure or scrutiny about where those videos originated or what they really showed. Serious questions of credibility and verification have dogged these activist networks all along, despite their best efforts. Have they been concealing sectarian rhetoric, exaggerating the scale of participation in protests, distorting the nature of local violence?

Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook didn't cause the Arab Spring on their own, and they aren't alone to blame for its struggles. I continue to believe that the Internet and social media represent a profound change in the texture of Arab politics, shattering the monopoly over information and opinion upon which those authoritarian regimes depended. The net effects of the empowerment of diverse voices and the free flow of information strike me as positive. But if we believe in the transformative power of these changes, we really can't avoid considering the negatives alongside the positives. And the current state of the Arab revolutions offers us far too many negatives from which to choose.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

The Egyptian Treadmill

Why Washington isn’t panicking about Egypt’s latest crisis.

Cairo is having yet another crisis. This week's dramatic storming of the Semiramis Hotel just off of Tahrir Square by unknown thugs, the massive unrest and bloodshed leading to the imposition of emergency law in the canal cities, and ongoing clashes in Tahrir Square are fueling a general sense of the collapse of public order. The immediate spark for the surge of violence was the verdict on last year's soccer mayhem, combined with the aftermath of the Jan. 25 anniversary protest. But really, it feels like it could have been anything.

The latest manifestation of Egypt's ongoing political and institutional crisis has many causes. The exceptionally clumsy leadership from the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsy's repeated attempted power grabs. The opposition's rejection of the political transition but inability to offer any compelling alternative. The frustration of revolutionaries and the emergence of violent, anarchic trends on the streets. Intense social and political polarization that neither side seems capable of restraining. The economic crisis and security vacuum keeping everyone on edge. In this context, Defense Minister Gen. Abd el-Fattah el-Sissi's widely quoted comment that the ongoing crisis "may lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of the coming generations" sounds more like sober analysis than veiled coup threat.

The U.S. response thus far has been characteristically low-key. There's almost certainly a sort of crisis fatigue, a sense that the Egyptian political class has cried wolf about the sky falling a few too many times. Still, the White House and the State Department have condemned violence on all sides, and called for an inclusive dialogue to build a consensus that respects the rights of all citizens. As has been the case throughout the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has drawn a line at the use of violence. But it correctly continues to insist that the solution to the crisis must come from Egyptians.

For many Egyptians, and much of the Egypt policy community in the United States, this isn't enough. The United States should do more, do it differently, and do it more boldly (for examples, see this new collection of comments by top experts just released by the Project on Middle East Democracy [PDF]). Most of the critics agree that Washington should do more to support Egyptian democracy (not all, of course -- Mubarak nostalgia has made an ugly comeback, especially among those on the right who always despised the Muslim Brotherhood more than they cared for Arab democracy). This is a bit tricky, though, because the Muslim Brotherhood actually won reasonably free and fair democratic elections. Pushing to bring down this elected government in the name of democracy would ordinarily be viewed as a tough sell. 

The Obama administration believes that it is supporting democracy in Egypt, and it has a pretty good case to make. It isn't just its (still contested) role during the 18 days in helping to nudge Mubarak from power. The Obama team can also point to its quiet role in pushing the Egyptian military to commit to the transfer of power to an elected government, to live up to that commitment, and to not tip the presidential election to Ahmed Shafiq, a retired general and Mubarak loyalist. The administration consistently stuck to its position even when faced with a blizzard of panicked calls for postponement over violence, institutional chaos, legal shenanigans, or the stated or unstated recognition of imminent defeat (even I went wobbly once during intense clashes just before the parliamentary election, when it appeared that an election couldn't possibly be held amidst such chaos; I was wrong). Unlike the Bush administration, which gave up on Palestinian democracy when Hamas won elections, Obama did not back away when the Islamists won. The Obama administration has demonstrated in word and deed a commitment to supporting Egyptian democracy far beyond anything previously shown by an American government.

That does not mean that Obama wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to win the elections. It takes a pretty skewed view of American politics to see any advantage whatsoever for Obama in Islamist electoral wins. Nor does anyone in Washington have any illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood -- if there's anybody here who actually believes that the Brotherhood is made up of liberal, Israel-loving, free-market, evangelical democrats then I haven't met them. Most just don't think that's the point. The Muslim Brotherhood has performed abysmally in power, and has many unattractive qualities, but it won the elections.  Many of Egypt's problems are endemic to transitions from authoritarian regimes and almost every other player on the Egyptian political scene has contributed to the fiasco. Of course, Obama has worked with Morsy as the democratically elected president of Egypt. But that doesn't mean he "supports" or "backs" Morsy, any more than diplomatic relations with Britain means that Obama "backs" David Cameron.

The Obama administration would pretty clearly like nothing more than for the Muslim Brotherhood to get thrashed in an open election. Indeed, it's probably their strategic vision. What could be better for the long-term development of Arab political culture than Islamists entering into the democratic process and then, for the first time in their history, being called to account by voters for their mistakes and over-reach? Could anyone doubt the value of a genuine balance of power between opposing political trends in the presidency and the Parliament for the first time in Egypt's modern history? There's a reason outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the crucial significance of the "second election" in democratic transitions.

It's not a terrible bet. The mountain of troubles produced by Brotherhood rule, the movement's relatively limited electoral base (probably around 25 percent, going by Morsy's share of the first round of the presidential election), and the high levels of mobilization against them during the constitutional crisis, should have put the Brotherhood in a world of political hurt. Indeed, the opposition to the Brotherhood could not possibly have been better teed up for electoral success this spring: economic catastrophe, security vacuum, governance failures, a hostile media, a mobilized population, the Salafis feuding with the Brotherhood, a skeptical international community, temporary unity around the common cause of beating the Brotherhood. 

Of course, for the Brotherhood to lose, somebody will need to beat them. And it would be difficult to express how fully, completely, absolutely baffled and depressed Washington is by the ineptitude of the Egyptian opposition. The opposition appears intent on blowing its chance. The National Salvation Front, the leading coalition of opposition figures, remains bedeviled by personality conflicts and individual ambitions, incoherent strategy, real programmatic differences (particularly over economic policy) and an evident unwillingness to get down to the dirty work of building a political machine and winning votes. Their cause is not helped by the ongoing temptation to boycott or the ever-deepening antagonism to the entire system among many of the most motivated youth activists.

Many of Obama's critics argue that democracy means more than elections and that Egypt falls far short of a democratic outcome despite its elections. This is almost certainly correct. A slim electoral majority does not give the Egyptian government carte blanche to impose a narrow Islamist agenda on an intensely divided population. The Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian democracy must be judged through a wider lens of pluralism, transparency, accountability, inclusion, and respect for minority rights. To the best of my knowledge, nobody in Washington disagrees about any of this. 

The disagreement is over how to best support such values. Most want the administration to speak out about these issues more often instead of just backing Morsy as an elected president. Presumably, they would like the administration to urge Morsy to "take steps at this historic time to advance national unity by reaching out to all parties and constituencies in consultations about the formation of a new government. We believe in the importance of the new Egyptian government upholding universal values, and respecting the rights of all Egyptian citizens -- including women and religious minorities such as Coptic Christians." (Oh wait, it did.) Maybe they wanted to hear Clinton say that Morsy should "pledge to serve all Egyptians, including women and minorities and to protect the rights of all Egyptians" because "real democracy means that no group or faction or leader can impose their will, their ideology, their religion, their desires on anyone else," and to forcefully state that "democracy is not just about reflecting the will of the majority; it is also about protecting the rights of the minority." (Oh, wait, that was July 14 and in Alexandria on July 15.) If only the White House understood that "the principle that democracy requires much more than simple majority rule. It requires protecting the rights and building the institutions that make democracy meaningful and durable." (Yup, Dec. 25.)

So yeah, the Obama administration has said virtually everything its critics want it to say, consistently, repeatedly, and at every appropriate occasion. But few Egyptians (or Washington policy analysts) seem impressed. It may be that virtually everything which the United States says or does gets rapidly spun and processed in the hyperactive Egyptian public sphere. It may be that Egyptians just don't want the United States involved in their affairs and have no interest in the leadership American pundits yearn to provide. It may be that they want to see deeds matching the words and simply don't believe what the United States says about such things. It may be that they are more interested in receiving support for their own agendas than they are in abstract statements of principle. Whatever the case, the American words are there, but they aren't having the intended impact. 

So what should the United States do? Here, we come to a core analytical difference about the nature of the problem facing Egypt. For one camp, the problem is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is entrenching its domination of state and societal institutions and revealing its true repressive face. The most popular solution based on this diagnosis would be to distance Washington from an inherently hostile Islamist government and do whatever possible to weaken its grip on power. Concretely, this might mean more support to liberal groups, though you have to wonder what form that might take, whether such groups really want the support and are willing to take it publicly, and how American backing would play in an intensely polarized and nationalistic Egyptian arena.  It might also be complicated by the open antipathy which many leading activists and liberals frequently express towards the administration. 

The other popular recommendation is the conditioning of bilateral and multilateral aid to force the Brotherhood to be more democratic and inclusive. That always sounds good, though just try telling a diplomat that it's easy to implement this kind of leverage. Conditionality is a blunt instrument, poorly suited to micromanaging political developments, and a wasting asset that loses value each time it is threatened. Nobody in Egypt should get a blank check, of course --not the Muslim Brotherhood, not the military, not a future democratically elected Parliament. But such a nuclear option needs to be reserved for the big things, such as canceling elections, large-scale violence, violation of universal rights, or the return of military rule. 

For the other camp, the core problem is the economic crisis and failure of governance that fuels social and political polarization. Rather than an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood relentlessly establishing its domination everywhere, this camp tends to see a weak, ineffective and paralyzed government that doesn't control the bureaucracy, can't appoint a new minister of the interior, can't enforce a curfew, can't police the streets, can't conclude a deal with the International Monetary Fund, can't take the military's support for granted, and can't get anyone to take its prime minister remotely seriously. For this diagnosis, this is hardly the time for lengthy conditionality talks.  They would argue that the best way to help Egyptian democracy is to stop the bleeding, stabilize the economy, restore order, and give normal politics a chance. Rather than a tough line in conditionality talks, they would likely prefer to get significant economic aid into the system as quickly as possible to staunch the crisis and calm things down before the country spirals into an irrevocable cycle of collapse.

Ideally, the IMF/World Bank and Egypt would quickly come to an agreement that includes commitments on governance and democracy. But since when has the ideal happened in Egypt? Given the need to make choices, I generally fall into the latter camp: Stop the crisis, fix the institutions, stabilize the economy. That does not mean backing away from democracy, though -- far from it. Morsy is not going to be able to overcome the recurrent crises without a more inclusive and real dialogue with the country's political forces, a less polarizing way of governing, and (probably) a more respected government. I'd demand that the Obama administration to push for all that, except of course that's exactly what it's already doing. The reality is that Morsy, like Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki before him, isn't going to become inclusive and accommodating because of American advice. He'll do it when he feels that he has no other choice and that inclusion best serves his interests --- a conclusion which should be hastened by this latest round of unrest. 

One of the Obama team's key insights about the Arab uprisings has been that the United States should as much as possible avoid playing an active role in the internal political affairs of Arab states. U.S. officials often say that Egyptian political solutions must come from Egyptians, and they're right. Washington should stand up for its values and for its very real interest in seeing Egypt make a transition to full democracy, but it should not be trying to micromanage Egyptian politics. Few Egyptians want it to try, and let's face it: We're bad at it.