Two decades ago, 23 years to be precise, there was an increase in the price of bread and oil in Jordan. I was then living in a poor neighbourhood in Amman and I remember waking up to spontaneous demonstrations in the streets outside my house. There were thousands of young protestors throwing stones, burning tyres, the Jordanian riot police were out in full force and within 48 hours they had brutally quelled the demonstrations. This barely made a footnote on the western news media outlets. Back then there was no Al Jazeera.
A year later, I was one of 50 students at the University of Jordan to sign a hand-written petition demanding that the king of Jordan, King Hussein, give students more rights by cancelling the ban on student unions and allowing for the creation of a national democratic union. The 50 that signed this petition were a group of hard-core activists from various banned leftists and Islamic political parties; there was the Jordan Baath Party, the Jordanian Communist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood among many other smaller underground groups. We met in secret locations, organised in cells, and distributed a manifesto with the aim of recruiting more activists from the other universities.
Back then there were no mobiles or internet so secret face-to-face meetings were the fastest way to organise. Our job was made harder because of the notorious Mukhabarat, the Jordanian Secret Service, who were known to heavily infiltrate universities. I remember talking to students trying to convince them to put their names on a petition. Even many of our comrades said they were willing to demonstrate but not to have their name on a piece of paper for fear of "disappearing".
We managed to muster fewer than 1000 names from the three national universities and we decided on three coordinated demonstrations. We had opted to stay within the confines of the university campuses for safety reasons. The result was that the king surrounded the university with his tanks and eventually sent the Bedouin Brigade, the most loyal and brutal battalion of the Jordanian army, to storm the campus resulting in beating, injuries with one girl losing her life.
This only made a small news piece on CNN and that was it, naturally nothing on Arab networks and certainly nothing in local news. We did eventually get some concessions from the King: he allowed us to create a union with one condition, to run as individuals and not as blocks. In reality this meant that we lost every single seat in this student union to the Muslim Brotherhood candidates who were able to muster support by calling us enemies of Islam. After winning every single seat they then went on to do nothing of value and just used the student union as a promotional tool. Yes we fought with blood for a student union but the results was a total sham: take note youth of the Egypt revolution you still have work to do.
The Jordanian bread revolution which occurred the same year was spontaneous. It was largely based on built-up frustration, high unemployment, the announcement of the increases in the prices of bread and oil was the spark needed for a spontaneous reaction by an unorganised popular uprising mainly concentrated in poor neighbourhoods. By contrast the student union demonstrations were highly organised, planned for more than a year and mainly carried out by activists motivated by ideology and a burning desire for freedom of expression.
Two demonstrations by two entirely different segments of the society happened in the span of six months — and yet they did not manage to create mass scale revolts nor register on the global media radar. Why? One of the main reasons for this is the lack of an agitator due to a heavily censored Arab media, and a compliant western media. A more important factor is the lack of a powerful communication tools that could have brought the micro scale student movement from inside the campuses out onto the streets something which would have provided a second spark to an already angry population.
Fast forward two decades and things have changed dramatically. Lower income groups now have access to global mass media with widespread use of satellite television across the Middle East. This means that people can break loose of the news censorship that is heavily applied by government controlled media. Al Jazeera is able to present immediate coverage and instant commentary on events: it plays the role of informer and agitator at the same time.
More importantly a large section of society, especially younger people, now have access to social media, a powerful tool to mobilise crowds. Indeed, the phenomenal global rise of social media was even more significant in the Middle East because youth form such a high percentage of population — and with high youth unemployment young people have a great deal of free time to play games and get online. Another factor is the desire of young men and women to break from the restrictions of a conservative society that does not allow for socialising before marriage. The online environment was the only safe venue for socialising with the other sex.
Fifty years ago the Arabic world was slowly breaking from the grip of the colonisation, but the Arab streets were not ready yet then. We endured centuries of colonisation that left us lacking strong cultural values. We had strong religious values, we had our political identity restored through independence, but culturally we were still weak. This allowed western powers to keep their grip on power by installing puppet regimes that tightly controlled media and education. The result was societies divided into two extremes: a westernised wealthy group that yearns to be American and the embraces American values and another conservative low income group that was increasingly turning to fundamental Islam as a way to protect itself against western values and in response to the dire economical situation. Both these groups were culturally bankrupt and lacked strong direction.
Now, however, the old regimes are aging. It’s not just their leaders who are growing old but more importantly their institutions and methods of control. Add to that a cultural awakening with many independent Arab media channels competing for audience share and a new appetite for Arabic literature. This increasingly liberal Arabic media combined with a real desire for change has been quietly provoking a cultural awakening.
The rise of social media made a set of online tools for revolution readily available and accessible to the largest demographic in the Middle East — youth. Put a powerful tool of communication in the hands of a handful of highly motivated, highly educated activists with the potential to reach the largest and most important demographic of the society and add to it the spark of what happened in Tunisia — and you have the perfect storm.
There is no doubt that social media played a major role in the recent revolts but equally looking at the current events unfolding there are clear indicators that social media will only ever be a tool of organising. The streets are the place where revolutions can create facts on the ground.
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