Arab Spring and the social media

By Sashi Kumar

, by Frontline

The buzz generated online at momentous junctures, such as the uprisings in the Arab world, is certainly more than mere static.

[...] The nature and scope of the agency of the social media in the Arab Spring are, given the continuing flux in the region, a developing story. But the reading in Western capitals that this leavening of aspirations across the region, leveraged by cutting-edge digital media, is ipso facto a popular demand for the Western liberal democratic model is proving premature and misplaced, with Islamist parties best placed to win the elections marking regime change in each country. The medium is clearly not the message in this case. Are the assorted social media manufacturing a public sphere, or people-hood, that cuts across the traditional categories of the ummah (or Islamic nationhood) or the millet (for the minorities) or that challenges the assabiyah (tribal or clan affiliation) factor even while upholding the sharia as the ultimate arbiter?

The distinction between liberalism, with its emphasis on individual liberty, human rights and the rule of law, and democracy, understood as combining the principles of equality, majoritarian rule and sovereignty of the people, may make a difference to that question. The rhetoric of the social media has, typically, been stridently Western liberal and impatient with the deliberative representative process organic to the political ethos of the Arab states. The street scuffles breaking out in Egypt and Tunisia between the Islamists, who probably see themselves as the democratic heirs of the Arab Spring, and the freer-wheeling protesters – many of them poster boys and girls of the social media – who are wary of a “counter-revolution” by the remnants of the old regime in league with the Islamists, keep the margins of the movement, even where it has been successful so far, restless. The social media, as is their wont, flock to the dizzy fringes of the movement and root for dramatic and drastic changes. In the process, they may well be getting ahead of themselves and not helping the transition they have helped usher in crystallise.

Read more on Frontline