What seems to be the most common word in headlines as of late? “Protests.”
Tunisia’s demonstrations have set off a wave of protests against oppressive regimes across Northern Africa and the Middle East over the past couple of months. It seems that every few couple of days adds another country’s name to the list of places where citizens are publicly organizing to visibly demand that their governments respect their rights: Libya, Yemen, Bahrain… Which state will join the list tomorrow?
Followers of this blog know I am biased, but two themes in particular seem to come up in coverage of the protests:
- The Internet
I have already written about the woman who used YouTube to spark the protests in Egypt that drove Mubarak out of office and, according to a TIME article, she has a Yemeni counterpart in Tawakul Karman:
“‘The spark started in Tunisia,’ says Karman. ‘What stabilized this revolution was Egypt. It gave light and hope and strength to people everywhere. Now there’s a race between Yemen and Algeria to see who will be next. And if we succeed here, and I believe we will, revolutionary movements in every Arab country will grow stronger.’ And more revolutionaries will start looking like Karman.”
According to Karman, she and her supporters have used slogans from Tunisia as well as the social media tactics that were successful in Egypt.
As a woman who is very interested in negotiating the line between stereotypically feminine traits like beauty and compassion and those like ambition and bravery thought of as more “masculine,” the description of Karman at the beginning of the piece pleased me:
“Sometimes revolutionaries don’t look the part. Tawakul Karman, Yemen’s most active activist, favors long, loose-fitting gowns and coordinating headscarves. The 32-year-old mother of three looks, well, like a mom. And she acts like one too.”
I wish the pre-teen Hannah who was always perplexed by how to reconcile her desires to defeat her opponents on the soccer field and achieve high grades in school with looking pretty and feminine had read this excerpt! (It is probably quite telling that one of my favorite t-shirts during my Abercrombie & Fitch middle school phase read, “Pretty in pink. Wicked in uniform.” Yes, thank you A&F for being one of the first to tell me I could be both pretty and strong.)
As for the internet, I cannot tell you how many blog posts I have read entitled, “The Revolution is Being Tweeted.” Although social media seems to be a common thread in igniting these protests, I am wary of giving it too much credit. After all, as Mahfouz reminds us, you do your country no good if you just sit in front of your computer screen and watch protests take place. What generates the images and pressure on these regimes is people physically turning out in the streets. Furthermore, we Westerners must take into account the digital divide. Although it the gulf between internet use in the developed world versus the underdeveloped world may be decreasing, there are still substantial portions of populations living under oppressive regimes that do not have regular internet access. Unfortunately, New York Times reported Tuesday that Egyptian authorities had successfully limited internet access.
It remains to be seen what social media’s role will be in these protests. Perhaps forums like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube will be most useful in disseminating an initial cry for protests. However, they may also have the capacity to act beyond a spark and fuel the fire. Only time will tell.