The Impact of the Internet on the Sociopolitical Changes in the Arab World
Oussama Raqui is a high school teacher of English. He got his BA from Chouaib Doukkali University, Eljadida. He writes articles and modern essays.
When Tim Berner Lee invented the World Wide Web, he brought a success that has changed people’s way of life. The Internet technology has become a necessity in the modern world. Factories, organizations and institutions rely on the Internet in their interrelations. We cannot talk about an economic revolution without the use of the Internet because it is the appropriate way of communication between countries. This relationship makes it necessary for the Arab developing countries to use the internet so as to benefit from the economic development. In fact, the use of the internet by a large number of people has brought positive as well as negative effects to the sociopolitical scene in the Arab World because of the way the Internet technology has been used and the characteristics of Arab societies.
The way of life in the Middle East, as well as in North Africa, is different from the rest of the world. The norms of most countries are shaped by the Islamic tradition. The relationship between family members is of great importance in these societies, especially that between parents and children. In addition, the way men and woman interact with each other is regulated according to certain principles. From another point of view, the political life in the Arab world is undergoing a big change nowadays; the citizens who have suffered a lot from oppression and neglect are now asking for reforms in so many domains which have been corrupted by tyrannical governments. Moreover, Arab societies have been highly influenced by the development of Western societies. This led to the emergence of the Internet in the life of Arabs, but it has been used for additional purposes.
The need for much more freedom, democracy and social reforms make a great number of people rely on the Internet to achieve their aims. As Deborah L. Wheeler points out ‘‘the latest estimates suggest that internet use in the Middle East and North Africa is growing at a rate higher than any other place in the world. Between the years 2000-2005 internet access rates grew at a measure of around 411% (compounded growth)’’ (p5). So, this expanded access to the Internet must have changed the behaviours and values of a large number of people, which has brought a big social change to the Arab societies.
Although most countries in the Middle East and North Africa are conservative, the Internet is making people behave in new manners in their lives. ‘‘ Given strict social sanctions against crossing gender boundaries outside of marriage and the family, the Internet is widening the interactions and experiences of men and women in the Middle East and North Africa’’ (Wheeler,12). A recent study of the impact of the Internet on Saudi Arabia shows that “ new forms of private communication, like electronic mail and chat, but also online public areas…for the first time enable communication between males and females in this gender-segregated society’’(Yasslem al-saggaf qtd in.Wheeler). Through social networks or chat rooms, the opposite sexes can share their views and opinions without knowing each other face-to-face. In many societies, there are couples who met thanks to social networks and got married afterwards. In this respect, the relationship between teenagers is highly influenced by their excessive use of the Internet.
The period of adolescence is characterized by a sort of rebellion against the norms of society, and the persons undergoing it might not differentiate between what is good and what is bad. A girl and a boy can easily build a relationship through chatting these days. ‘‘One such factor might be developmental changes in adolescence, which could cause teenagers to withdraw from social contact and to use the internet as an escape’’ (Robert Kraut et al., 1028). But the fact that this online interaction can be easily moved to the offline world has changed the manner through which teenagers behave towards each other and will affect the structure of even more conservative societies.
According to the Islamic tradition, children must look after their parents, especially when they grow old. This helps to create integration among family members. But if the children are going to spend too much time on the Internet, their parents will be left alone. ‘‘Use of internet, such as watching T.V, may present a privatization of entertainment, which could lead to social withdrawal and to declines in psychological well-being’’ (Robert Kraut et al., 1029). Meena Kumari Rajani and M.S. Chandio suggest a solution to make old people help themselves: “Through the internet they (old people) can get information related to their health and religion and can communicate with their friends and do online shopping and consult with doctors without being dependent on their children” (160). But the obstacle is that old people need computer literacy. The problem is going to be worst if they are uneducated because foreign languages, for example, are necessary to manipulate computers. Indeed, there is nothing that can make parents happier than being with their children who take care of them. This establishes integration among family members. The use of the Internet may hinder this relationship inside the family. However, does it have any positive effect on peoples’ lives outside their homes?
The Internet technology has enabled its users to know about different cultures and to create new social interactions on online communities. When Wheeler says, ‘‘ The Internet café users in Jordan and Egypt celebrate the tool’s ability to give them new opportunities to develop their knowledge and opinions of politics and social issues, especially on those topics which might be taboo in face to face interactions,’’ she illustrates that the Internet users can act more freely through the Internet without boundaries. Individuals from different geographic places can learn about other cultures thanks to simple websites. This ability was almost impossible before the emergence of the Internet. The only means to be informed about other civilizations was to read lengthy books or to visit the places where people live.
Chat rooms, instant messaging and social networks are now increasing the interaction between individuals and groups. Using the Internet, people succeed in building online communities. The matters discussed on online networks emerge first in the offline world. We might even say that there are some phenomena which exist primarily online; such as brides planning international weddings and composers of computerized music. Social networks have given space for people to discuss political issues more freely. Individuals with different backgrounds have become able to express their opinions without chains; ‘‘ this ability to share and develop opinions, to extend social networks, and to grow in one’s political consciousness, and commitment to engage in world and Arab affairs represents one of the most powerful political effects of the web’’(Wheeler,14).
Most Arab governments have accepted the principles of human rights, including the right of freedom of speech. But there have been so many constraints on people to express their opinions. Those who oppose the mainstream of political affairs are often put in prison, exiled or killed like what has been happening in Syria, Yemen and many Arab societies. However, ‘‘ the global pressure to join the knowledge economy means that states in the region can no longer afford to keep their politics digitally muzzled and blind folded’’(Wheeler,17). Citizens in oppressed countries are relying on the computer mediated communication because it provides security for them to express their opinions. As it is stated in Peter Steiner’s famous New Yorker drawing, ‘‘on the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog’’ (see Wilson and Peterson, 458).
Facebook, Twitter and other social networks played an important role in the recent uprisings in the Arab World. Tunisia was the first country to use the Internet technology among Arab societies. As time passed by, access to the Internet reached an important rate among Tunisians. When the uprising started in Tunisia, the tyrannical government of Ben Ali prevented people from expressing their views. More than that, the uprising was suppressed by using violence against the protests. The only means to communicate between each other and organize their actions were the social networks.
Malcolm Gladwell starts his article ‘‘Social media can’t provide what social change has always required’’ with an important event that happened on February 1, 1960. It is a civil right war that started when four collage students from North Carolina were maltreated at a lunch counter by a waitress because of their black colour. Gladwell argues that this was a kind of activism that happened without Facebook or Twitter, and social networks can’t provide this kind of activism. Some of his arguments are as follows:
Social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.
In fact, we would say that social networks are an important step toward hierarchical organization, especially in oppressive countries where people’s gathering at the heart of the uprising is controlled by the state. People who opt for change meet on Facebook or Twitter, discuss their strategies and goals, and then go to the streets where organization can be easily settled. Both the Tunisian and Egyptian governments made bans on the access to the Internet during the Arab Spring. This shows the critical role social networks played in organizing the demonstrations which led to the decline of both governments. Given these facts, are we going to consider online communities as being divorced from the real world? I agree that the ties that bind people online may be loose, but the real ties are the ones built when people meet in the street. Bit by bit, people start to trust the online interactions because they are now the successful way that leads to increasing participation and organization. ‘‘It is hard to sustain freedoms to be creative and entrepreneurial digitally speaking, while at the same time, keeping these same concepts and roles from being used to re-engineer political and social life, from the family, to the community, to the state’’(Wheeler,17).
In short, the Internet has affected both the social and political aspects in the Arab world. The interaction between males and females is going to be different in many societies. The two sexes are communicating with each other much more than before. The integration within the family is badly decreasing because of the excessive use of the Internet. On the other hand, the Arab governments no longer control the political changes in their societies. People have become aware of the importance of the Internet to make a change in their lives. ‘‘Whether Arab societies like it or not, increasing levels of education…,and the rise of new communications media are turning the Arab street into a public sphere in which greater numbers of people, not just a political and economic elite, will have a say in governance and public issues’’(Dale Eickelman.qtd.in Wheeler).
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