WASHINGTON, July 14, 2011 – Despite U.S. media portrayals of the Arab Spring as spontaneous and enabled by social media, Middle East experts said Wednesday at New America Foundation that the revolutions were part of a decades-long train of events.
Future Tense, a project of the D.C.-based think tank, held a conference to discuss the role of new media in the Arab revolutions of the past year. The afternoon was filled with several different panels and speakers, all experts on the Middle East or social media that presented to a room overflowing with students, embassy and government officials and media professionals.
Several of the speakers delivered their remarks to the conference remotely.
Sami Ben Gharbia, Advocacy Director of Global Voices, spoke to the conference via Skype from his home country of Tunisia. Gharbia was finally able to return home after having been exiled for several years. Cuban blogger and human rights activist Yoani Sanchez delivered her remarks via pre-recorded video, and was represented at the conference by her translator. Sanchez is currently not allowed to travel by order of the Cuban government.
Middle East youth activist bloggers also delivered their insights on the Arab Spring and the role of new media.
“People are actually not allowed to practice politics in Saudi Arabia,” said Ahmed Al Omran, a twenty-something Saudi blogger held in high esteem by Foreign Policy Magazine. “It wasn’t until I started blogging that I learned about politics."
Omran, who originally began blogging as a way to practice his English, said that technology and the Internet has given the youth a space to speak openly in a way that the older generation did not have before.
“We know it’s risky,” he said, "but to us, it’s worth it."
Oula Airifai, who fled Syria in 2005 but has stayed closely involved with Syrian politics, also shared her insights and experiences, as did Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist who shared his insights on protests of the Iranian elections that were broadcast via Twitter.
New America Foundation has garnered recent attention in the spotlight thanks to media coverage of its project with the State Department that would allow activists in repressed countries to set up alternative mobile mesh internet networks – popularly called the ‘Internet in a suitcase.’
“The suitcase was a visual-aide gone out of control,” said program director Sascha Meinrath. Meinrath, who has been developing this type of technology for more than a decade.
Ian Schuler, Senior Program Manager for the State Department’s Internet Freedoms Program emphasized that the point of these programs not regime change, but to facilitate freedom of expression and to allow activists to communicate not just with the outside world but with each other.
“We should not determine who should have what freedom at what time,” said Schuler. “Facilitating basic rights is the right approach at the end of the day.”