Two years after the beginning of the Arab Spring, the promise of revolutions remains unclear.
Earlier this year, I was taking part in a panel discussion about social media in the Arab world. One panelist was actually from the Arab world; the rest of us were Europeans and Americans. The lone Arab voice stood silent for much of the discussion until he declared timidly at the end that, in his opinions, Al Jazeera played a bigger role than social media. People talked about TV coverage of the rebellions, he said, not about tweets. TV beat texting as an enabling force of revolution.
This is not news. Islam scholar Bernard Lewis already said as much in a 2005 essay for “Foreign Affairs”, in which he wrote: “Television also brings to peoples of the Middle East a previously unknown spectacle - that of lively and vigorous public disagreement and debate. In some places, young people […]sometimes see even Israeli Arabs arguing in the Knesset, denouncing Israeli ministers and policies - on Israeli television”. Or even that “Modern communications have had also another effect, in making Middle Eastern Muslims more painfully aware of how badly things have gone wrong.”
TV retains the advantage of still being somewhat of a “communal experience”. The fact that millions of people can watch the same program at the same time provides a common ground on which people can discuss issues the following morning. The limit consists in the access barriers to TV. It is not by chance that the presidential guard in Egypt was dispatched to protect the presidential palace and state TV when clashes erupted between supporters and opponents of President Morsi in November. During the past sixty years, every single coup d’etat in the Arab world was soon broadcast from the occupied studios of state-owned TV and radio stations.
Social media might not be as important as TV, but it can’t be neglected either. Actually, the use of social media is more widespread than we might think. According to a recent survey by PEW Research, 34 percent of Tunisians use social media websites (In Egypt, it’s 30 percent. In Jordan, 29 percent). We can expect that most of the users are young and live in urban areas - i.e. in the centers of the rebellions. A relatively high percentage - between 60 and 68 percent - also told PEW pollsters that they use social media to share political content.