Arab Spring was the name given by the Western media to the series of protests that sprang up in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region after a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself ablaze outside a municipal building in Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010 (The Guardian, 2011). The countries that experienced the “Arab Spring” were Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and even Jordan. But only two of these uprisings were in fact successful i.e. Tunisian and Egyptian. It will not be wrong to claim that the 2012 Arab Spring was, to a great extent, propelled through cellular phones and new communication technologies. However, its importance must not be overstated and it must be kept under consideration that cellular phones were only tools that facilitated the process. Humans were the main driving force behind the mass movements. Cellular phones or cell phones (for short) acted as mere accelerants or catalysts that propelled the Arab Spring forward.
Before furthering any discussion on the role played by cell phones during the Arab Spring, the technological advances that have taken place in this particular field in the recent past must be understood first. Simple cell phones have now evolved into sophisticated smartphones. The latter have more to offer than the former in terms of access of internet, use of apps, better-integrated interfaces and high quality display touchscreens to name a few. While smartphones offer more than cell phones, they still perform all the functions that simple cell phones perform i.e. wirelessly switch calls or SMS’ from one area to another (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary , 2015). The reason for making this distinction between cell phones and smartphones is to bring to attention the fact that Internet can be accessed through smartphones. This means that social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can also be accessed through smartphones. This helps in explaining how the use of social media, singlehandedly, played an exceptional role in the organization and coordination of mass protests that took place all over the Middle East during the Arab Spring.
Smartphones also have the capacity of letting their users capture myriad amount of pictures and ample amount of videos. This function of smartphones equipped protestors with the tool they needed to engage in citizen journalism. The capturing and subsequent online uploading of footage was the very reason why protests were initially sparked off in Tunisia and soon after gained momentum in Egypt. In addition to this function of smartphones, the basic SMS function was one of the fastest and easiest ways to communicate sweeping thoughts and messages across the Arab world during the Arab spring.
In Tunisia, a day after Bouazizi (fruit vendor) set himself on fire, one of his cousins made a video with his cell phone showing the small crowd that had gathered outside the Sidi Bouzid’s town hall to protest against the maltreatment of vendors. The cousin posted the video online. Amamou, an online blogger who had been blogging against the Ben Ali regime for years saw the video and posted it on Facebook. The video went viral all over the social media flashing in Internet cafes, homes and offices where the users could witness the video and other pictures first hand. The video became so popular that on the first evening after it hit Facebook, Al-Jazeera, picked up a clip from it and broadcast it repeatedly (Fisher, 2011). This gave rise to mass scale protests all across Tunisia, especially in the cities and villages surrounding Sidi Bouzid, just two days after the video went viral. This example certainly highlights the importance of citizen journalism and that of social media’s. Most importantly, it highlights the importance of cell phones since the video could not have been shared had it not been captured in the first place. And there must be no doubt over the fact that cell phones have made it extremely easy for people to take pictures and make videos. This obviously played a vital role in propelling the Arab Spring forward.
The second example that manifests the importance of cell phones and citizen journalism during the Arab Spring is that of mass mobilization of protestors in Egypt. It is important to note that Egyptians heard about the situation in Tunisia from Tunisian citizens and not from Egyptian news media. The protests and unrest in Tunisia spread to Egypt, where the political situation was, more or less, the same. An Egyptian protestor was quoted as saying, “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world” (Tech Reviewer, 2014). The mass of the pictures and videos taken during protests were recorded and saved on cell phones. They were either uploaded on social networking sites there and then or the protestors went back to places where they could access Internet and uploaded them. Either way, the dissemination was unprecedentedly quick. It is very important to mention here that it was in fact cell phones that were creating news and information content. Facebook and Twitter were merely intermediary tools that were being used by people to share pre-created content online. Cell phones empowered people to create and publically share news. They also enabled them to update the rest of the world on the minute-to-minute events that were taking place in Egypt.
Also, almost all of the content that was shared by protestors with fellow Egyptians and the rest of the world were such that would have been censored by government-controlled media channels and authorities. For example, the brutal beatings of protestors were recorded as were the use of tear-gases and other weapons employed by police to disperse the protestors. So, the only reason the world was acquainted with these cruel incidents first-hand was because of the protestors that were present at the scene.
The most important event that was covered by cell phones was the Tahrir Square mass protest in Cairo. It was this very protest that made the revolution in Egypt successful as it pushed Hosni Mubarak to back down from 30-year long presidency. However, it wasn’t easily achieved. A lot of planning was put behind the organization and coordination of this protest. Two prominent names prop up when it comes to organization and mass mobilization of the Tahrir Square protests- Ahmed Maher and Wael Ghonim. The former was a democracy activist and the latter was a Google executive. The thing that both of them had in common was that they both used social media to spread awareness and mobilize the masses, encouraging them to actively take part in the protests. On a more local scale, cell phones were used to send out messages to local groups informing them of the time and place of the protest. This had almost a domino effect as the messages were forwarded from one source to another and effective networking was done in this respect. This also shows that the employment of new communications technology played a great role in propelling the Arab Spring.
Another incident worth quoting is that the power of communication of cell phones was recognised even by the Tunisian and Egyptian governments themselves. So much so that both the governments decided to block cell phone reception and access to Internet sites. This action, however, produced the exact opposite of the desired result and in fact escalated the number of participants protesting in the streets to claim their freedom of expression and their right to information back. Due to this reason, the Tunisian and the Egyptian governments were forced to apologise to the protestors and thus reestablished communication infrastructures. This example obviously makes evident the importance of cell phones in propelling the Arab Spring especially in Tunisia and Egypt.
However, it must be remembered that cell phones and new communication technologies are only instruments that can be used by people in whichever way they want. If cell phones aided the propelling of the Arab Spring in case of Tunisia and Egypt then at the same time, they did not bear fruit for Syria, Yemen or even Libya for that matter. According to Barrie Axford, the author of Talk about a revolution: Social Media and the MENA Uprisings, “the digital public sphere may increase the range and number of participants but, in terms of outcomes, it could still be argued that bombs, guns, and Apache attack helicopters tip insurrections and win revolutions” (Lindsey, 2013).
So at the end of the day, it was the efforts of the revolutionaries and protestors that bore fruit. Cell phones were just communication tools used to communicate messages. There is not doubt about the fact that they acted as catalysts in the process but all credit cannot and must not be attributed to them alone. Since after all, cell phones are only gadgets invented by human beings to enhance and ease the process of communication. It can thus be concluded that cell phones aided the Arab Spring in propelling forward bringing success in Tunisia and Egypt but they were mere communication tools and their importance must not be over-emphasized.
Fisher, M. (2011, March 26). In Tunisia, act of one fruit vendor sparks wave of revolution through Arab world. Retrieved from The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/in-tunisia-act-of-one-fruit-vendor-sparks-wave-of-revolution-through-arab-world/2011/03/16/AFjfsueB_story.html
Lindsey, R. A. (2013, July 29). What the Arab Spring Tells Us About the Future of Social Media in Revolutionary Movements. Retrieved from Small Wars Journal: http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/what-the-arab-spring-tells-us-about-the-future-of-social-media-in-revolutionary-movements
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary . (2015). Cellular Phone . Retrieved from Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary : http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/learner/cell-phone
Tech Reviewer. (2014, March 19). “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.”. Retrieved from Tech Reviewer: http://www.techreviewer.co.uk/we-use-facebook-to-schedule-the-protests-twitter-to-coordinate-and-youtube-to-tell-the-world/
The Guardian. (2011, May 15). The slap that sparked a revolution. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/may/15/arab-spring-tunisia-the-slap