The Bahraini government seems to understand freedom of expression a bit like Lance Armstrong understands clean cycling. Like Lance, it prefers to play by its own rules and attack critics rather than accept normal standards. The Kingdom has invented a curious definition of free expression where criticizing members of the ruling family on Twitter can land you in court. The Bahraini regime's credibility is as damaged as that of world cycling -- the government needs to implement drastic measures that go beyond public relations to restore international trust.
Bahrainis can't say they weren't warned. On September 9, Bahrain's Ministry of the Interior announced it would "soon tackle crimes related to defamation and abuse on social media networks." A senior official in the ministry noted that "some people were using the communication technology to abuse national and public figures through the Internet," and that the ministry "had received many complaints from public figures affected by such acts who have demanded action against this."
As pressure increases on western governments to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria, "non-lethal" assistance has become the promise of the hour. The term is ubiquitous, cropping up in White House press briefings and the European Union's arms embargo on Syria.
Yet despite the pervasive nature of the term, it does not yet have a widely accepted legal definition. Broadly speaking, it is used to describe equipment and intelligence that cannot be directly used to kill. This can encompass anything from helmets and body armor to more facilitative assistance such as encrypted radios and satellite imagery. In practice, the lines between non-lethal equipment and its lethal counterparts are more blurred. In fact, both are required for a soldier to maximize the use of his weapon. As Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, points out, "a guy with a helmet and a radio is more likely to use his gun effectively because his protection increases his survivability and his radio [improves] his targeting through better communication."
In a region home to governments with a long history of Internet censorship, Jordan has long stood out as a model of relative freedom. Since its arrival in the kingdom in the mid 1990s, free and open access to the World Wide Web has not only been maintained but indeed championed by King Abdullah II, since he came into power in 1999. An unfiltered Internet has been largely credited for cultivating a burgeoning IT sector that has come to represent roughly 14 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), as well as a new wave of youth-driven, Internet-based entrepreneurship in a country where unemployment ranges between 13 percent (official) and 30 percent (unofficial).
With such context in mind, many Jordanians were surprised at the government's announcement this August that it would be amending the country's notorious Press and Publications law to include articles that would seek to restrict Internet freedoms. The draft legislation includes articles that would hold online media accountable for any comments left by their readers, and would prohibit them from publishing any comments deemed irrelevant to the published article. Moreover, online media organizations would also be required to archive all comments left on their sites for at least six months. However, the most troublesome amendment essentially requires online media to register with and obtain a license from the Press and Publications Department, paying a fee of roughly $1,400 (lowered from an initially proposed $14,000), and giving the government the ability to block sites failing to comply. Bringing online news sites in to the folds of the Press and Publications law would therefore require them to be mandatory members of the Jordan Press Association, and undergo the same regulations governing print publications, including appointing an editor-in-chief who has been a member of the association for a minimum of four years.
On the top floor of a towering apartment block in Cairo, half a dozen Syrian activists are hunched over their laptops. Each man organized demonstrations in his home town before escaping the Assad regime's intelligence agents in the last few months. Now, armed with a list of trusted contacts that stretches across the borders from southwest Syria to Lebanon and Jordan, they have become a key link in the supply chain of an opposition movement that is struggling to outmaneuver a brutal crackdown. Donations collected from Syrians and well-wishers in Cairo are used to purchase cell phones, satellite communications equipment, medicine, and money, which is smuggled to friends and family members on the inside. In turn, protesters send out video evidence of attacks, which the men in Cairo catalogue, upload to YouTube, and forward to media outlets.
The men work with close contacts in their own villages and neighborhoods, independently of organizing committees or opposition bodies. Abdel Youssef fled from Ad Dumayr, a city northeast of Damascus. Syrian authorities went door to door there searching for military defectors on Wednesday night and he spent the day following their movements through eyewitness accounts. As he tells the story of how he fled, a Skype window flashes up on his screen. A woman he knows tells him that security forces attempting to arrest a man have captured his daughter instead. "Now I'm looking out the window," the message reads. "She is being beaten up by the security forces because she is saying ‘Allahu Akhbar'." Abdel Youssef passes on information like this to a contact in the Free Syrian Army, who he says use this information to block roads and set up ambushes in an attempt to protect demonstrations.
Miriam can't stop talking. And when she does, it's mostly to look down at a torrent of emails, SMSs, and tweets flooding her smartphone. It's been a heady nine months for the soft-spoken but sharp-witted 24-year-old Egyptian student turned activist. She's juggling the ordinary demands of a heavy course-load at Egypt's top university with a slew of extracurriculars (she's embarrassed to admit she's an avid squash player), but also working through the existential hangover of heavily participating in a leaderless revolution that's now causing more of a headache than a thrill. While polishing some academic work on the role of social media in Egypt's uprising, she's been ferociously tweeting on the country's virtual front-lines, fielding 140-character blows left and right. And she's doing it for the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Miriam" (she prefers to use a pseudonym, for "security reasons") is one of the admins of @Ikhwanweb, the official English-language Twitter page for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most prominent Islamist organizations in the world. Ikhwanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood's official English website, started the twitter account @Ikhwanweb back in 2009. For years, the account was a robotic-curated Twitter feed which did little more than link to the website's posts. But Miriam has recently helped transform the account into a virtual coliseum for some of Egypt's most heated debates.
Lauren E. Bonn
Armed security officers wearing balaclavas led Nasser Abul, blindfolded and shackled, into a courtroom in downtown Kuwait City on July 19. Accused of crimes against the state, he answered the judge's questions from a wood-and-metal cage in the courtroom. His mother, watching the proceedings, hoped her 26-year-old eldest son would finally be released after nearly two months in detention. The judiciary has refused to grant her wish.
Abul found himself in jail because of a few tweets. Twitter was wildly popular in Kuwait even before protests began in Tunis and Cairo, and its use in Kuwait surged as the Arab Spring provided daily inspiration for news updates and commentary. Between January and March, people in Kuwait wrote over 3.69 million tweets -- more than any other country in the Middle East, according to a June report by the Dubai School of Government.
The spectacular downfall of President Hosni Mubarak has cast a spotlight on a great many facts about the Middle East: the contempt and hatred that the masses harbor toward the dictators of the region; the wanton brutality of police forces and regime-sponsored thugs; the deliberate manipulation of fears-foreign and domestic-about the Islamist threat; the popular yearning for democracy and dignity; and the energy and inventiveness of the region's youth.
Also starkly apparent is the dire predicament that Israel is in, largely as a result of its own doing. This predicament is not, as many in Israel and the American pro-Israel lobby fear, a growing encirclement of the country by the forces of radical Islam led by Iran. Rather, the predicament is simply that the only ‘friends' that Israel has in the region are autocrats whose support-overt and covert-for Israeli policies is deeply unpopular. As such, Israel is basically an opponent of democracy in the region, except of course when it can undermine its enemies, as in the case of the current regime in Iran.
CAIRO — Most of the world got a crash course in the Egyptian opposition movement this month, as mass protests broke out on the streets of Cairo. From all appearances, the movement emerged organically in the wake of the overthrow of the government in nearby Tunisia, as hundreds of thousands of angry citizens turned out to demand President Hosni Mubarak immediately step down. Several days after the marches began, former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei arrived on the scene to give the marchers in the streets a nominal leader and media-savvy public face. And shortly after that, Egypt's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, joined in, lending its political heft to the movement.
But the groundwork for the Egyptian uprising was set well before these high-profile figures and organizations became involved. Nearly three years ago, a group of youth activists with a strong sense of Internet organizing and more than a little help from abroad was preparing for a grassroots, high-tech opposition movement.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
If the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak falls, the tipping point will have been mid-afternoon of January 28. For several hours after the conclusion of Friday noon prayers, the police and Central Security Forces successfully kept demonstrators away from the center of Cairo. About 2:00 pm, 20,000 protestors broke through the blockades and took over the Qasr al-Nil Bridge connecting Giza and Zamalek to Tahrir Square, the hub of the downtown district. Two hours later the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party, which President Mubarak leads, was on fire.
Earlier in the afternoon, crowds stormed regional NDP headquarters in the Suez Canal city of Isma‘iliyya and the Delta provincial capital of Mansura. The provincial NDP headquarters in Fayyum was torched a few hours later. Hundreds of thousands of protesters throughout the country defied the 6:00 PM curfew proclaimed by the regime and remained in the streets throughout the night. In Alexandria, Egypt's second city, demonstrators drove the police and Central Security Force out of town. By the time President Mubarak addressed the nation that evening and announced he had requested the resignation of the entire cabinet, the army had begun to assume security responsibility for Egypt's major cities.
The targets of angry crowds are rarely accidental. In this case, assaulting the offices of the ruling party, and other official buildings in Alexandria, Suez, and Tanta underscored one of the main chants of the demonstrators: "The people want an end to the regime." Not "reform" and the resignation of the cabinet, which is a technocratic and administrative body with limited powers, but a regime change and a transition to democracy which would only begin with the resignation of President Mubarak.
An interesting discussion has already broken out over whether Tunisia should be considered a "Twitter Revolution" -- a far more interesting and relevant discussion than whether it was a "WikiLeaks Revolution" (it wasn't). I've seen some great points already by Ethan Zuckerman, Evgeny Morozov, Luke Allnut, Jillian York, and others. I'm looking forward to being one of the social scientists digging into the data, where I suspect that both enthusiasts and skeptics will find support for their arguments. For now, I would just argue that it would be more productive to focus more broadly on the evolution of the Arab media over the last decade, in which new media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, forums and blogs work together with satellite television stations such as Al Jazeera to collectively transform the Arab information environment and shatter the ability of authoritarian regimes to control the flow of information, images, ideas and opinions. That feels like a sentence which I've written a hundred times over the last decade… and one which has never felt truer than the last month in Tunisia.
Al-Jazeera Screen Capture, January 14, 2011
Writing for Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel, Jonathan Guyer recently panned "P@lestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn from Palestinian Social Media," a study I co-authored with Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Guyer's review is wrong on several critical points, and necessitates corrections.
Dubowitz and I
undertook our study to explore the relatively new realm of Palestinian social
media. Our study found that, in their discussions online, Palestinians are
generally opposed to diplomacy with Israel. We also found that the Fatah
faction, the most prominent party representing the Palestinians in U.S.-led peace talks, is
divided somewhat evenly over the utility of violence against Israel. We also found
that Hamas supporters online do not waver in their jihadist view of violence
against Israel. Indeed, they appear to be in sync
with a growing
contingent of Salafists on this point.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
On June 6, a pair of police officers entered an Alexandria Internet cafe and began asking for the identification documents of everyone present. When 28-year-old Khaled Said objected to being searched without a warrant, the officers began to attack him, beating his head against a table and kicking him in the chest. They tied his hands behind his back and dragged him to a nearby building where they continued to smash his head, first against an iron door and then against the building's marble steps. Witnesses heard Khaled begging them to stop, screaming "I'm going to die," to which the officers responded: "You're going to die anyway." The officers dragged Said into their police car and drove him away, only to return several minutes later to leave his lifeless corpse in the street.
The Ministry of Interior immediately attempted to blame the gruesome incident on "drugs": The young man had died when he choked on a joint he was trying to hide as he was approached by the police. Any injuries sustained -- his fractured skull, dislocated jaw, mangled face -- were the result of his resisting arrest, they claimed. The bloodied pictures of the victim from the morgue, widely circulated on Facebook and through other networks, were likewise dismissed. Outrage has built across Egyptian political society, culminating in today's massive demonstrations in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. Protesters were assaulted and "kidnapped" by security officers in plainclothes from amongst the crowds in a well-orchestrated but unsuccessful attempt on the part of Ministry of Interior officials to make the incident go away.
The Khaled Said case has offered a graphic demonstration of the emptiness of the pledge by the government of Egypt when it renewed the country's decades-long period of emergency 'aw that it would limit its application to terrorism and drug-related crimes. Khaled Said's brutal murder is a chilling reminder of what emergency law -- and Interior Ministry impunity -- means for Egyptians. Frustration with that impunity is what leads protesters to take to the streets.
During last year's election turmoil in Tehran, the Iranian regime's biggest foe often seemed to be 21st-century technology. While the regime cracked down on supporters of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi -- the so-called Green Movement -- with decidedly pre-Web 2.0 tools like truncheons and tear gas, protesters used Twitter, YouTube, and other Web-based applications to publicize their cause, and the regime's brutal response, to the rest of the world. A year later, however, Iranian dissidents' techno-euphoria is mostly a thing of the past.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
As the one-year anniversary of Iran's June 12 election approaches, the feeling on the ground, at least in major cities, is that the current political and economic situation cannot continue. Although many people are disappointed that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains in power and that the groups behind the coup continue to try to increase their political and economic hold on the country, the general feeling is that "There is fire under the ash," as we say in Persian. In other words, the popular rage and fury over the rigged election and the use of violence and rape and the popular demands for change remain. Any spark can set this fire off once again. The coup government knows only too well, judging by its own actions.
Surprisingly, despite the disturbing news of more arrests and continued use of torture, there is a general relative sense of optimism that we are witnessing the slow, gradual breakdown of the Ahmadinejad government. For Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Moussavi, the first anniversary is important in as much as it underscores the fact that despite the most pessimistic predictions, the Green Movement is still a force seriously threatening the coup government. At the same time, unlike some Iranian diaspora figures who predicted a quick demise of the Islamic Republic in the months after the June, 2009 presidential elections, Karroubi and Moussavi understand that they and the Green Movement are involved in a relatively protracted struggle to achieve their goals. Both men are confident of their ultimate victory.
As someone who is living in Iran, it is important to counter the many myths that are often perpetuated in the West.
Will Internet diffusion and enhanced citizen communication capabilities help to open up the "closed societies" of the Middle East? U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is banking on it. "Internet freedom had become a fundamental principle of American foreign policy," she said in a well-received speech in March. "Even in authoritarian countries," she argued, "information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable." Do Arabs themselves think that the diffusion of the Internet will make their societies in the Middle East more open and "more accountable" as their publics become increasingly politically aware and socially networked? A survey of Internet users we conducted in Kuwait last summer suggest that they do: More than 80 percent stated that the Internet has a definite impact on Arab politics. That's a tantalizing sign that Arabs do see the potential for the Internet to drive change … even if they may turn out to be wrong.
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