When All Else Fails

Gatecrashing ‘netroots’ activism

by Sam Ben Gharbia, AlJazeera

This opinion piece focuses on grassroots digital activism in the Arab world and the risks of an inevitable association with US foreign policy and national interests.

My primary concern, above all else, is that by placing internet freedom within its core agenda of foreign policy, the US will be disinclined to engage in ventures which may compromise the ‘stability’ of dictatorial Arab regimes which are complicit in said foreign policy.

It is unrealistic to expect the US to aggressively work to boost political dissent against their closest Arab allies. Therefore we cannot afford the risk of powerful state actors co-opting the internet freedom agenda, essentially serving their own geopolitical strategy which is wholly divergent to the viewpoints of online political activists seeking genuine freedoms for themselves and more so for their fellow citizens – unquestionably, a more noble pursuit to be engaging in.

Another significant concern regarding state department co-option is its effect on already existing bridges of productive discourse – between activist bloggers from the Arab Middle East (AME) and centres of research located primarily in the US. Ties established over time and defined by mutual respect and trust will almost instantly be shed.

Unless something changes, the dynamic between US foreign policy makers and political activists located throughout the AME will inevitably sour. Activists will feel somewhat betrayed as their courage and initiative is being diverted towards an unintended end – US national interests.

When considering that many of the people I refer to are pioneers in forging a virtual public sphere – shapers of Arab public opinion – it is disheartening to see their valid attempts to challenge the political status quo relegated by the sheer fact of association with the state department and other US government agencies. An association that will at present indirectly (but at some point in the future, no doubt, directly) place a straight jacket via a set of ‘Beltway’ created ‘norms’.

Digital activists as new actors for change

It is vital to point out that none of the most successful digital activism campaigns and initiatives – defined by creative means of tackling deeply sensitive topics – have been funded by Western governments, institutions or donors.

In contrast to some of the currently US funded digital activism initiatives, the early ones have the following characteristics:

1. Necessity: Digital activism has been “invented” and rose out of necessity to fill the very gap that was left by traditional civil society constituents.

2. Independence: The digital activism field in the Arab world forms one of the most decentralised, unstructured and grassroots oriented dynamics of change that even most of the cyber-savvy local NGOs and opposition parties have serious trouble in “infiltrating” or exploiting. Consequently, this has made this movement independent, attractive and resistant to control.

3. Complexity: Digital activism is a complex multi-faceted movement which varies strongly from one country to another and is in a constant state of flux, via the adoption of new tools and strategies against resistance.

The effects of co-option

These early characteristics are about to change due to a myriad of factors and actors that need to be understood in order to prevent digital activism in the Arab world from losing its autonomy.

The existential question is how to overcome these challenges and preserve Independence while addressing the needs of building a vibrant, efficient and solid digital activism field.

Caught in the middle between authoritarian regimes aggressively engaged in repression, internet filtering and monitoring on the one side, and growing attention from Western agencies and associated NGOs on the other, digital activists and online free speech advocates in the Arab world are going through one of the most challenging phases of their short history that could alter their ecosystem dramatically.

A new context

In November 2009, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, announced the Civil Society 2.0 initiative which will help grassroots organisations around the world use digital technology, “allocating $5mn in grant funds for pilot programmes in the Middle East and North Africa that will bolster the new media and networking capabilities of civil society organisations.”

Following the above initiative, on January 21, 2010 Clinton during her “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” elevated internet freedom to the status of a major foreign policy objective for the new Obama administration.

Furthermore, giant US based internet companies such as Google, Yahoo! and Twitter realise the value of internet freedom. Such interests at times have and will coincide with those of the US administration.

Google is now working with US and European officials to build a case that would make internet censorship a trade barrier.

Another worrying development is the “invisible revolving door between Silicon Valley and Washington,” if I may borrowthe expression from Evgeny Morozov, as many state department officials are working for Big Web, with four Google employees having gone to work in the Obama administration.

Read the rest at this link.