- Framing the Internet in the Arab Revolutions:Myth Meets Modernity
With the exception of the Palestinian intifadas, the Middle East and North Africa region is witnessing its greatest popular uprisings of recent times, challenging the dreadful "regime change" approach of US and NATO imperialism. Contrary to conventional analysis about ideology and resistance—namely as belonging to the past—present politics in the region manifest anticapitalist and anticolonial continuity.
The Palestinian comparison provides interesting insights about the dialectics of technology: namely that the Internet is both inherent within military strategies and an organic part of resistance. Mounir Maqda, of the Palestinian Al-Aqsa group in the Ein al-Hilwe refugee camp, gave an insightful hint during our meeting at the time of my fieldwork in Lebanon (March 2004): "When Salah al-Din liberated Bait al-Maqdis [ Jerusalem] he used pigeons to exchange information with his army leaders because it was the fastest means of communication. Now Internet technology is." Referring to Salah al-Din and the reconquering of Jerusalem, perhaps the most poignant of all comparisons, Magdy takes the Internet's role within political struggles seriously. As his reference to the pigeons suggests, one simply seizes on the best communication alternative available in his or her time.
Technology is essential for modern capitalism: economic survival without the Internet is unfeasible. Time and space are constructed as part of the "condition" of capitalist globalization (and technological [End Page 148] advances are a key factor), as David Harvey has argued.1 And this is why, for instance, the only available ISP left operational when the Egyptian regime cut off the Internet was the one providing the stock market connection. Helga Tawil-Souri discusses the spatial implications with reference to the revolution's technological infrastructures in this In Focus. In terms of political protest, too, nothing substitutes for people in the street; this is where we discover our common ground, and this results in the most effective activism. Kimmelman identifies two particular features of space and place.2 First, localities house our memories and energy; second, public protest and (physical) assembly, crystallizing the rules of the games, reveal themselves. The geographic power of Tahrir, via Madrid and Barcelona, then reaching the Occupy movement (covering more than nine hundred cities) in the United States in less than one month, is therefore significant. In other words, when the parameters of political change are grounded and confrontational, we should actually question the very premise of wanting to bypass material-geographic features in discussions about the Internet helping to overcome time and place challenges. If a social media community is about being together alone, than being off-line comes down to being commonly together; it is in this dynamic that people experience directly the "praxis" of revolution.
Time matters, too. If we fast-forward from Salah al-Din in the twelfth century to the present, today's metaphorical pigeons are traversing cyberspace and mobile phone networks, tweeting and texting, because this offers the fastest mediation across time and space. An important characteristic of the Internet is the combined effect of speed and easy sharing, and thus instant communication. In this fashion, mediation allows those outside to view or tap back into the local. Bypassing time-space constraints permits the inclusion of global publics in local affairs, thus enabling the shared construction of collective memory.3
Confusion of Technology and Modernity.
Studies into Middle Eastern Internet have all too frequently fallen into fearmongering, considering the Internet as a tool to recruit, propagate, and organize terrorist threats.4 This essay refutes such assumptions while also challenging Islamophobic postulations about Arabs, especially postulations that take Western experiences as the model for modernity. An example of modernity stimulated by technology in the context of the Arab revolutions can be found in the following comment: "They pronounced themselves as 'the Facebook generation,' signifying that they were no longer the non-modern Egyptians of the past."5 These views ignore how strongly Arab or Muslim politics are shaped by historical, political, and [End Page 149] economic transformations, and they forget that modernity does not imply secularism.6 When modernity, technology, and Islam are juxtaposed, it does not take long for technology...