Regimes across North Africa and the Middle East were caught flat-footed as the fervour of the popular uprisings spread at the speed of the internet via,and.
Unfortunately for the pro-democracy movements, autocratic states have since caught up in the digital arms race, adding cyber surveillance, online censorship and troll armies to their arsenals.
While the so-called Arab Spring offered a brief glimmer of hope for many, it ended with even more repressive regimes in most countries and devastating, ongoing wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
Nonetheless, say veterans of the period, the revolts mark a watershed moment when digital natives launched the era of ‘hashtag protests’ from Occupy Wall Street to Hong Kong’s Umbrella protests and Black Lives Matter.
Hyper-networked and largely leaderless, such protests flare up like flashmobs, making them harder for authorities to suppress, with grievances and demands decided not by committees but crowd-sourced online.
‘Blogs and social networks were not the trigger, but they supported the social movements,’ said former Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia, who ran a blog from exile and returned home amid the 2010 uprising.
‘They were a formidable weapon of communication.’
Today, say Arab cyber-activists, states have lost much of their control over what citizens can see, know and say, as evidenced by a later wave of protests that rocked Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon in 2019 and 2020.
While the heavy lid of state censorship has come down once more in many places, that free spirit has also brought change for the better, especially in the small Mediterranean country where it all started, Tunisia.
The spark that set off the Arab Spring was the tragic suicide of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, who, having long been cheated and humiliated by state officials, set himself on fire.
If his desperate act on December 17, 2010 expressed a real-world fury shared by millions, it was the virtual universe of online communications that spread the anger and hope for change like wildfire.
Long simmering discontent among the less privileged was harnessed and multiplied by tech-savvy and often middle-class activists into a mass movement that would spread from Morocco to Iran.
Bouazizi’s self-immolation was not caught on video — but the subsequent street protests were, along with the police violence that aimed to suppress them through fear but instead sparked more anger.
Smartphones with their cameras became citizens’ weapons in the information war that allowed almost everyone to bear witness, and to organise, in a trend that has been dubbed ‘mass mobile-isation’.
Clips were shared especially on Facebook, a medium outside the control of police states that had for decades tightly controlled print and broadcast media.
‘The role of Facebook was decisive,’ recalled a blogger using the name Hamadi Kaloutcha, who had studied in Belgium and back in 2008 launched a Facebook forum called ‘I have a dream … A democratic Tunisia’.
‘Information could be published right under the regime’s nose,’ he said. ‘Censorship was frozen. Either they censored everything that circulated, or they censored nothing.’
If previously dissent could only be whispered, some of the citizens’ fear and apathy lifted as online users saw their networks of family and friends speak out in the virtual space.
Online platforms also formed a bridge with traditional global media, further accelerating the regional revolt.
‘International media like Al-Jazeera covered the uprising directly from Facebook,’ Kaloutcha said.
‘We had no other platform to broadcast videos.’
With head-spinning speed, Tunisia’s ruler of more than two decades, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was gone in less than a month.
‘Thank you Facebook,’ read one graffiti sprayed on Tunisian walls, long before the social media giant drew increasing fire for spreading not just calls for freedom but also fake news and hate speech.
‘The camera is my weapon’
The Tunisia victory would soon kick off a political earthquake in North Africa’s powerhouse Egypt.
A key catalyst there to mobilise and organise protests was the Facebook campaign ‘We are all Khaled Said’, or ‘WAAKS’, which highlighted rampant police brutality and widespread corruption.
Said, 28, died in police custody in June 2010. Photos of his battered corpse went viral online while authorities unconvincingly claimed he had choked on a bag of drugs.
The WAAKS campaign brought hundreds to his funeral, followed by a series of silent protests.
By early 2011, the Egyptian revolt had gathered steam, and the movement snowballed into anti-government protests on January 25, the National Police Day.
WAAKS at the time encouraged citizen journalism with the video tutorial ‘The camera is my weapon’.
Powerful online images surfaced including one of a man facing off with an armoured water cannon, echoing the iconic image of an unknown Chinese protester who in 1989 defied a column of tanks on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Volunteers translated Arabic tweets for the international media, even as state broadcasters railed against the ‘criminals’ and ‘foreign enemies’ it blamed for instigating the protests.
Anonymous movement hackers showed solidarity by distributing advice on how to breach state firewalls and set up mirror websites.
On January 28, 2011, the ‘Friday of Rage’, the government ordered an internet blackout and blocked cell phone services, but it was too late.
A critical mass was already reached, and more youngsters left their screens to join the offline action on the streets.
At the height of the protests, up to one million Egyptians were demanding Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. He finally agreed to step down on February 11, ending a rule of nearly three decades.
If the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ echoed the romantic hopes for freedom of the 1968 Prague Spring, it ended as tragically as that brief uprising crushed by Soviet tanks.
Arab states have quickly caught up with their own cyber tools, weaponising social media and cracking down hard on online activists.
‘The authorities reacted quickly to control this strategic space,’ said former Moroccan activist Nizar Bennamate, then with the February 20th protest movement.
Activists, he said, became ‘victims of defamation, insults and threats on social networks and some online media’.
A decade later, Amnesty International charged, Morocco has usedhacking software to spy on journalist and rights activist Omar Radi, before detaining him on rape and espionage charges.
In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government has crushed almost all dissent, blocked hundreds of websites and jailed social media users, including even teenage influencers on the short video app TikTok.
Takeovers of publishing and TV companies by regime insiders has ‘led to the death of pluralism in the media landscape,’ said Sabrina Bennoui of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
‘We called this movement the ‘Sisification’ of the media.’
Gulf countries, meanwhile, have used the Covid-19’as a pretext to continue pre-existing patterns of suppressing the right to freedom of expression,’ Amnesty has charged.
As conflicts are fought increasingly in the virtual space, the standoff between a Saudi-led group of Gulf countries and Qatar has seen the use of bot armies to attack each other.
In Libya’s war, fought with
drones and mercenaries, UN mediators recently urged both sides not just to lay down their weapons but also to refrain from the use of online ‘hate speech and incitement to violence’.
Social media has also been used to great effect by non-state actors such as the Islamic State jihadist group, which employed it as a powerful weapon for propaganda and recruitment.
‘The tools that catalysed the Arab Spring, we’ve learned, are only as good or as bad as those who use them,’ said a commentary in Wired magazine.
‘And as it turns out, bad people are also very good at social media.’
‘Dream come true’
Today, as most Arab countries linger near the murky bottom of RSF’s Global Press Freedom Index, the one place that offers a glimmer of hope is Tunisia, the tiny country where it all started.
Though battered by poverty and now the pandemic, it boasts a long secular tradition, a fragile democracy and relative freedom of speech in a region dominated by totalitarian regimes.
Nawaat, once one of the major dissident blogs subject to state censorship, is now a fully fledged media outlet that runs both opinion and investigative pieces, with a website and a printed magazine.
It has produced several documentaries on environmental and social justice issues and interviewed former prime minister Elyes Fakhfakh earlier this year.
Gharbia, once a refugee who had fled the Ben Ali regime and ran the Nawaat blog from the Netherlands from 2004 to 2011, is now proud to be a force in the country’s media landscape.
‘There was a big debate after the fall of Ben Ali,’ he said. ‘Had we reached our goal, should we continue and in what form?
‘After a transition, in 2013, we decided to professionalise the editorial staff, to produce independent quality information, which is still lacking today in Tunisia’.
One recent day he was running a lively editorial meeting during which journalists discussed which political parties to investigate next.
‘Having offices and a team of journalists working freely in the field was a dream 10 years ago,’ he said.
‘That dream has come true.’