Should we support internet activists in the Middle East?

 I spoke yesterday at the Open Society Institute about the political impact of new media in the Middle East.  Thanks to everyone who showed up, and the great questions and discussions which followed. In many ways it was a pessimistic talk, which pushed back against expectations that new media technologies like blogs, Facebook or Twitter were going to radically change politics in the short or medium term.  Over the longer term, there is a more real transformative potential, especially for the individuals who use the technologies.  But analysts need to not be confused by the bright sparkling lights of fancy new technology or assume that it will have effects independently of the real lines of power and politics. 

Episodes like the failure of the April 6 Facebook strike in Egypt shouldn't really surprise anyone who takes even a cursory look at the structures of power and the limitations of political opposition in that country. But if that's the case, then what should outsiders -- whether the U.S. government, individuals or  NGOs -- really be doing to support such internet activism?  What are the ethics of encouraging risky activism in authoritarian countries where the costs of such actions can be extremely high -- particularly when those doing the encouraging have neither the ability nor the intention of protecting the activists from the consequences?  

Much of my talk would be familiar to regular readers, and I don't want to really repeat it here.  The very short version: politics come first, and that technology alone can have only a very limited impact in the face of authoritarian states.  Where internet activists have had a significant impact in Arab countries, it has usually been tied to distinct political opportunities – such as the Kwuaiti royal transition or elections --- or else led by people who were activists first and used technology as a tool.  New media did help activists in Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere to punch well above their weight for a while... but eventually the regimes caught up and the real balance of power showed. 

 I argued that the real impact of political blogging is still likely to lie in the longer term impact on the indivduals themselves, as they develop new political competencies and expectations and relationships.  The impact of the new media technologies will likely be best measured in terms of the emergence of such new kinds of citizens and networks over the next decades, not in terms of institutional political changes over months or years.  The rise of young Muslim Brotherhood bloggers through the ranks of the organization may well change that organization over the years.  Veterans of the Kefaya movement may over time figure out how to create lasting, popular political movements (with or without using new media).   

 A word about Facebook, since it comes up often and gets lots of media attention.  From a political scientist's perspective, the failure of the “Facebookiyin” to organize significant strikes on April 6 this year should have surprised no-one.  I have a hard time thinking of a communications technology more poorly suited for organizing high-risk political collective action than Facebook.  Joining a group is perhaps the lowest-cost political activity imaginable, involving none of the commitment and dedication necessary to go out to a protest – to say nothing of engaging in the hard work of organizing required for real political activity.  For all their faults, the bloggers of Kefaya were already committed and often experienced political activists ready to pay a certain degree of costs for their activities.  But people who joined Facebook groups? Not so much. Marginally raising the costs of participation, as authoritarian governments can easily do by selectively repressing a few members or beating up some protestors  Its public nature makes it easy for the authorities to identify leaders to repress, or for provocateurs or spies to join up and see what’s in the works.   And finally, Facebook – with its brief Twittery status updates and forum-ish discussion threads – offers less of the ‘public sphere’ potential of blogs.  

 At any rate... here's the question which I posed several times last night:   should we in the West support these internet activists, if we are not prepared to protect them from the consequences of their actions?  This is an issue which has haunted me for years, as I’ve seen a succession of friends and acquaintances assaulted, arrested, harrassed, even tortured for their political activism.  Abd al-Monem Mahmoud, the Muslim Brotherhood blogger, arguably owes his arrest and ongoing legal problems at least in part to the prominence I gave him in an article I wrote for the Guardian (raising his profile in the West enough to make him worth going after by the regime's guys).  He never complained – indeed, he told me that he knew the risks and appreciated the help and the publicity – and neither have any of the other dozens of such activists I've talked to over the years. 

  But that does not alleviate the ethical problem in my view. Neither the United States as a government nor civil society-based supporters of the activists have been able to do much to help them when they run afoul of the authorities.  And the more that they are encouraged to develop political strategies, the more likely they are to run into such problems.  We often have a habit of issuing bad checks to these people, egging them on and encouraging them to take risky actions but then failing to effectively protect them.  If the Facebook groups had actually managed to get people out into the streets earlier this month, what were their fans in the West prepared to do when the police started beating them up and getting them fired from their jobs or expelled from school?  Not much.  If citizen journalists expose corruption in a local government office, who is going to protect them when they are sued for libel or beaten up for their efforts… keeping in mind that they enjoy no legal protections whatsoever as ‘citizen journalists’. 

Take the recent article in World Policy Journal by my friend Mona Eltahawy.  Meant as a celebration of the new generation of internet-based activists, Tahawy’s article sketches a future scenario in which various bloggers emerge as political leaders of their country.  She sketches out a scenario, for instance, in which the Muslim Brotherhood blogger Ibrahim el-Houdaiby (also a friend of mine) returns from his job in Abu Dhabi to take a teaching position at the American University of Cairo and then emerges as the center of  a new political trend demanding effective political reform. In her story, he ends up as Prime Minister.  Thrilling… and, for Houdaybi, the equivalent of painting a bullseye on his forehead.  What could be more threatening to the current Egyptian political leadership than such a scenario, and what would be more likely to prompt them to single out Houdaybi for rough treatment?

 This is not to say that I think that we in the West should back away from promoting political reforms and democratization.  Far from it. Indeed, I’ve argued repeatedly that the United States should insist on the meaningful guarantee of human rights ‘bill of rights’ freedoms such as  freedoms of speech and association and opinion.  I favor human rights and political freedoms conditionality on aid packages to Egypt, Jordan, and any other country which receives U.S. support – and I would make the consequences high (increments of 10% perhaps) and the trigger low (the torture of an unknown blogger should count as much as the harassment of Ayman Nour), and keep the conditions completely unmuddied by unrelated issues (like the policing of the Gaza border).   But the point should be to create the kind of legal and political environments in which internet activists – and all citizens – can operate without fearing the worst consequences, rather than encouraging them to take such risks without any protection.

 But I throw this out for discussion.  What do we owe the activists who we encourage?  What is the best way of paying that debt? 

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.