Why I Still Believe in the Arab Spring

In early 2011, the Arab world erupted in protests. You probably remember it, remembering hearing about the Twitter storm. It seemed like the world would never be the same again.

But, what looked like ordinary people taking power “back” didn’t amount to much change. And, now, as you look at issues around the world, from Hong Kong protests, to Occupy, to “Get our Girls Back”, and Ferguson, it could be easy to think protests are simply noise-generating efforts, not able to create any real or lasting change.

Perhaps you even wonder if it’s possible to disrupt the status quo. I certainly do.

Countless people — including myself — have stated that the (new) ability to be connected and mobilize is key to new power, to change, to the ability to make a difference. I remember how moved I was when Clay Shirky talked about how the Internet will transform government. I wanted to believe. More recently Jeffrey Heisman of Purpose gave a TED talk on New Power. In it, he articulates how sharing, openness, and mass participation as key to new power. Having given such a similar talk at TEDGlobal (though far less eloquently then Jeffrey did), I want to believe.

But I’m wondering we’re all confusing new tactics (the ability to easily organize, communicate) as a new power. The occupy/ferguson/arabspring efforts are all missing a crucial component, which is that power is a measure of how something — in this case, an idea — becomes real in the world. Sharing, openness and mass participation seem compelling but seen in the light of history, it’s perhaps better to name them what they are. They simply acts of communication, and collectively, they add up to a group hug, not a meaningful difference.

Online tribes and virtual “Hugs” don’t create a dent. They only create the illusion of progress.

So I was especially struck by this talk by Palestinian writer and activist Iyad el-Baghdadi. He delivers a rallying cry for the “Arab Spring Generation.” He shares his own story. And then he argues that the Arab Spring failed not because they lacked an ideology per se but because they lacked a specific plan, and thus was defeated when it came into contract with “highly-organized ‘tyrants’.” Despite finding their voice, they lacked the ability to galvanize action.

He’s seems on to something based on three things he mentions: a clear manifesto, bonds, and organizational capacity. And I hope that not just “hope” talking. I also hope he knows that any manifesto has to be created in the commons so it’s not a single author process but a collaborative one. Perhaps the issue isn’t that Arab Spring “failed” but that it’s not yet done.

Malcolm Gladwell made the argument against social media being strategically powerful, saying that it doesn’t enable strong ties. Perhaps Gladwell’s argument was myopic. You cannot form social ties without knowing each other and having enough time together. Social media can help you find the other “raised hands” on any topic but then time together (in discussion groups, working protests, and so on) helps people work through differences, develop bonds, and the underlying trust necessary to working together. And he’s right that those who want liberty are going to have to organize with as much clarity as those who want tyranny. Organizing is everything. But organization is not the same thing as organization. Today, connected people can once do what once only large centralized organizations could. The key is knowing how to get the crowd to act as one. Something I’m thinking a lot about and studying.

Just because old power looks like it has a lock on the status-quo doesn’t mean new power isn’t flowing. The Arab Spring, Ferguson, Occupy — all these groups are still figuring out how to make idea powerful enough to dent the world.

Just because they haven’t done it yet, doesn’t mean they won’t.

What do you think about all this?

3 Replies

  1. Great post Nilofer, as per usual. 🙂 I think you have very accurately identified the next step that is needed. There is an organization – Idealist – that had a virtual event on March 11th of this year that was focused on organizing volunteers in communities across the world to take action on specific needs within their community. Here’s the link to the site http://www.idealist.org/team/. I live in a small town and unfortunately wasn’t able to find anyone to sign up to be on a team with me. I think Ami Dar (founder of Idealist) has a great passion on this topic and I believe in his concept to organize volunteers and facilitate the creating of specific action plans. Might be worth reaching out to him on this topic. Thanks for sharing!

  2. There was a window of opportunity and the groups came to the fore. In that window, they convinced many cynics who believed the protests would lead nowhere. The groups grew bigger.

    But the traction was lost. The cynics went back to being cynical, believing they should have stuck to their original view. Many optimists have become cynical believing they were too naive.

    The groups disassembled. And now reorganizing will be even more difficult than initially.

    Unfortunately, it’s over for a generation.

Leave a reply

Leave a Reply