The New Media and Democratization in the Middle East

In the wake of nearly region-wide popular protests in the Middle East, and especially after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, the modern debate about the political role of the Internet and social media has reemerged. Against those who credit Facebook, Twitter, and similar websites with organizing, uniting, and sustaining the Middle East protests[1] are those who suggest that the impact of such technology has been grossly overstated.[2]  Definite conclusions about the effect of social media on political unrest are premature – in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Libya, and elsewhere, situations are dynamic and undecided. Therefore, this paper will not attempt to examine social media in the immediate, concrete context of the ongoing popular uprisings. It will not claim that social media has caused the revolutions currently unfolding. Instead, it will cover the recent history of new media in the region and provide a theoretical treatment of why new forms of media can be a force for democratic change in the Middle East.

One of the most fundamental principles of democracy is the ability of the populous to deliberate and debate.  People should have access to differing sources of information in order to become better educated about the political and social issues facing their countries. Freedom of expression, in all its forms, sets the groundwork for important democratic change. In the Middle East, people and especially youth have been rapidly gaining access to the Internet, blogs, and social networking sites. Satellite news channels such as Al-Jazeera have been able to escape the state censorship found in many countries and have become commonplace in households and coffee shops. These new sources of media have promoted public deliberation and education, provided an accessible medium for political organizing and activism, and reduced authoritarian control. These key developments support an irreversible, bottom-up push for democratic change, even in places that currently lack true electoral democracy.

Deliberative Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Middle East

            How can simple deliberation and freedom of expression be a catalyst for democracy? This causal argument is not particularly easy to prove. Democratic sentiments may have existed in the Middle East before the introduction of new media. But even if this is the case, new media has had a multiplier effect. Any popular support for democracy can spread through the channels of new media, garnering further support and increased attention. In an article for Politics & Society called “Beyond the Arab Street: Iraq and the Arab Public Sphere,” Mark Lynch argues that the “public sphere does not substitute for democracy…. However, it also has dramatically reshaped the dynamics of Arab politics and conceptions of Arab political identity.”[3] It is unclear if deliberation through new media is a direct cause of democratization.  The two factors probably form a cycle. Some primary factor, possibly the effect of globalization or economic development, promotes both democratic sentiment and the introduction of new media. New media primes the democratic pump because it opens channels of communication, creates a market for opinions, and educates the population.[4] Democracy, in turn, promotes new media because states that wish to “survive in the global economy” must respond to democratic sentiment by becoming more open.[5] A number of examples and case studies will serve to illustrate the effects of deliberation and the new media on democracy.

In her article “The Politics of Deliberation: Qat Chews as Public Spheres in Yemen,” Lisa Weeden argues that “free and fair elections” should not be the only definition of democracy. Especially in the Middle East, where truly democratic elections may not be achievable in the short term, we must look at other important features of society that have a democratic impact.[6] In Yemen, Weeden argues, qat chews serve a role similar to that of the new media – as an important forum for debate and the expression of opinions and new ideas. During these daily social gatherings, members of society, often strangers to one another, debate politics, social problems, and current events while chewing leaves of the qat plant, a mild narcotic stimulant. Qat chews embody the ideal Habermasian public sphere by serving as a mediator between the private lives of citizens and their government.[7] Even in Yemen, a country mired by electoral fraud and faux-representative government, the regime stands to gain from listening to the voice of the people. The same is true for most of the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. While a completely authoritarian state exerts absolute power over its citizens, most modern authoritarian governments are better served by taking public sentiment into account, even if only to avoid being overthrown.

Weeden addresses this critical question of how “democratic practices operate under quasi-authoritarian conditions.”[8]

The regime tolerates the discursive activity generated through Qat chews because it is unable to suppress it, and meanwhile, it takes advantage of what it can. The regime, for example, may benefit from the information-rich environments that chews afford. The practice makes it easy for the regime to keep tabs on who might be interested in violently challenging the regime.[9]

A similar argument can be made for new media outlets. Some regimes (not all) tolerate subversive activity in the media either because they cannot stop it, or because they stand to learn from it. States also realize that “holding back the tide of information technologies can be a liability in the long run. It could also place them on the periphery in many vital domains pivotal for development.”[10] In a region that has become exceedingly development-oriented, these risks are often not worthwhile.

The Internet 

Most governments in the Middle East are conflicted as to the role that the Internet should play in society. On one hand, it may be beneficial to stifle Internet development so as to restrict the dissemination of such a broad spectrum of information. But on the other hand, countries hope to use the Internet for their own purposes of “exercising authority and control or for spreading their government’s message to the rest of the world.”[11] The levels of Internet development in the countries of the region differ greatly. In some countries, notably Jordan, Morocco and Egypt, governments have “started to create interactive sites where citizens can question government authorities and establish other forms of direct communications.”[12] This vertical interaction promotes participation and increases government accountability, two important democratic features.

Access to the Internet, though, varies greatly across the countries of the Middle East. Internet penetration—the percentage of individuals who are internet users in a given country—is a common indicator for how well-established a country’s Internet infrastructure is. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar have the highest regional population penetration rates; 60.9%, 55.3%, and 52.3% of individuals in those countries are Internet users, respectively.[13] Yemen and Iraq fall at the bottom of the list and are the only two countries with rates in the single digits, at 1.6% and 1.0%, respectively. In the average Middle Eastern country, 28.3% of the citizens are Internet users.[14] Even more important to the discussion at hand, though, is the regional growth rate of Internet penetration. The region as a whole experienced a 1,648.2% growth in Internet penetration between 2000 and 2009, compared to the world average increase of 380.3%. The highest growth rates experienced in the Middle East were 12,780.0%, 11,783.3%, and 3,783.3% in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, respectively.[15] Such rapid growth in these countries, classically host to some of the most repressive regimes, bodes well for democratic change.

A number of features specific to the Internet make it one of the most valuable prospects for such change. First, the Internet brings with it a certain universality. This is not to say that everyone can access the Internet, but rather that the Internet is not bound by nationality. Online, “people can communicate directly, quickly, and reliably. They can form distant, but diverse and cohesive, political communities not bound by the nation state,” writes German political scientist Hubertus Buchstein in his article “Bytes that Bite: The Internet and Deliberative Democracy.”[16] Second, the Internet forms a public sphere, evocative of other regional public spheres such as Yemeni qat chews. As censorship becomes more relaxed, citizens gain the ability to become more independent from the government and, “interact in a terrain less shaped by the efforts of spin doctors, advertising executives, and public relations managers.”[17] Finally, the Internet serves to “immunize against authoritarianism.” While strict regimes can control content available on the Internet (and often do), it is nearly impossible for such regimes to restrict everything that could possibly undermine their message and power, especially on sites like blogs and forums that consist solely of user input. In the globalized world, nations must become more open and accommodating in order to survive. This is the concept of the “one way street” which will be addressed below.

Political participation, a key aspect of democracy, has recently become an important facet of Internet activity. This new “participatory Internet” has shown the greatest potential for institutional political change in revolutionizing peer-to-peer communication. The Internet has eliminated the challenge imposed by the prohibitive costs of other forms of communication. Any individual can now become a reporter, a pundit, or an organizer through the web.[18] Blogs, especially, have become one of the key sources of individual expression in the Middle East and are beginning to cause alarm within authoritarian regimes. In November of 2006 a disturbing video of Egyptian police torturing a male prisoner was posted on an Egyptian blog, leading to one of the first court cases against police officers.[19] Without the rapid expansion of blogs in Egypt, this story may have never leaked. But because of the original coverage by an average citizen-blogger, the story received international coverage. Amnesty International researched the issue and published a report detailing the scope and severity of such cases of sexual harassment and torture in Egypt.[20] Al-Jazeera produced a documentary on the subject, for which a producer was handed a six-month sentence in jail.[21] At the time of the incident, many speculated that Egyptian security forces would be more hesitant to torture prisoners going forward “for fear of exposure through Egypt’s mushrooming blogs.”[22] At the very least, this example demonstrated the impact that the Internet could have in the support of human rights, which is a key feature of democracy.[23]

In other instances, digital networking has served to undermine regime authority and motivate political action. In 2001 in the Philippines activists used their cell phones and SMS messages to organize in opposition to the Estrada regime, successfully helping to overthrow it.[24] In 2008 a Columbian Facebook group called “A Million Voices Against FARC” served as one of the most powerful organizing tools in the country’s history, bringing together some 4.8 million Columbians in 365 rallies across the nation.[25]

Blogs have proven they can have a direct effect in promoting democracy in purely political contexts. During the 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt, blogs published daily stories, providing the public with various non-mainstream views of the elections, which “included obstruction by police to voting in areas where the Muslim Brotherhood candidates were favorites.”[26] In response to the treatment exposed by the blogs, many Islamic political parties themselves took to the Internet and the blogosphere in order to better inform their supporters about important issues. Egyptian authorities actively tried to block access to such sites.[27] While the effect that blogs have can sometimes be overstressed, Mark Lynch argues:

Bloggers have had a discernible impact in a wide range of Arab countries, including their role in the Kefaya movement in Egypt …, political protests in Bahrain…, the turbulent post-Al Hariri period in Lebanon …, anti-corruption campaigns in Libya … and the 2006 Kuwaiti elections.[28]

Even if blogs do not reach the majority of the Arab public, “they still might form a counter-public, an incubator of new ideas and new identities which evolves alongside and slowly reshapes the mainstream public from below.”[29] The ability of a blog to point out election fraud or implicate state-sponsored torture is original and unique in the Middle East. Even in countries that lack the traditional definition of democracy – “free and fair elections” – the Internet is serving to promote attributes that define democratic society: the fundamental freedom of speech, the right to criticize government, and the right to freely assemble.[30]

Some caution is appropriate when inferring public opinion from the content of blogs and other new media sources. Many blogs, especially many English-language blogs, can be “highly unrepresentative of public opinion in their countries. Their divergence from mainstream opinion often makes them interesting to read, but as dissidents rather than as barometers of local opinion,” writes Mark Lynch.[31] But even if these outlets do not express mainstream opinions, they still provide an opportunity for the general public to learn about other viewpoints. By simply providing the public and the rest of the world with viewpoints that differ from the perceived majority opinions in Middle Eastern countries, bloggers facilitate discussion that might otherwise be repressed.

The Role of Al-Jazeera

The innovation of satellite television and, more specifically, the introduction of the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera have also had profound effects on increasing the democratic features of the Middle East. Al-Jazeera gained notoriety after the September 11th attacks and the subsequent American invasion of Afghanistan. The channel was the sole media outlet that the Taliban allowed to remain in Afghanistan following the beginning of U.S. action there. Viewers around the world turned to Al-Jazeera to see live feed from the war in addition to frequently aired interviews with Osama bin Laden.[32] Within the Middle East, Al-Jazeera has had effects similar to those of other new media outlets. Its talk shows and public opinion polls offer the opportunity for citizens in the region to hear viewpoints different from those of the government, thereby promoting deliberation and political activism. Faysal al-Qasim, one of Al-Jazeera’s most widely regarded talk show hosts, commented on the issue:

Through programmes such as mine, we hope to implement new rules, those that educate the Arab human being to listen, not only to his own opinion, but to that of the other side as well. The debate-based media must enter in force and strongly in the political life of the Arabs.[33]

These talk shows have not been uncontroversial. Topics have included the question of “whether the blockade on Iraq is an Arab conspiracy more than an American or Zionist one,” and general debates on the efficacy and necessity of the war in Iraq.[34] Again, while these issues may not be directly related to democracy in the Middle East, simply by promoting discussion of controversial issues they have demonstrated the ability of the Arab people to question and to dissent.

Al-Jazeera, like the Internet, also serves as a unifying factor across the Middle East; from Rabat to Riyadh viewers are exposed to the same coverage and the same debates. In the first real example of Al-Jazeera’s effect on political systems, the channel’s live and sometimes graphic coverage of the second Intifada garnered “support for the Palestinians and sustain[ed] their current uprising….”[35] Some have argued that by providing such unfiltered coverage of the Intifada, “Al-Jazeera…united Arabs behind a single issue for the first time since the early 1970s….”[36]

The introduction of public opinion polls on Al-Jazeera’s website has also helped in “consolidating democratic struggles.”[37] Opinion polling is a recent trend in the Middle East, and Al-Jazeera’s work in the field has helped form a real Arab ‘public opinion,’ which had long been repressed by authoritarianism. Like the new participatory Internet, opinion polls allow any citizen to express his viewpoint, see the viewpoints of others, and see the societal breakdown of opinions: “Online voting exercises can be regarded as a form of unofficial mini referenda – or online quasi tele-enfranchisement….”[38] These measurements of public opinion provide governments with an important gauge on society and demonstrate that diverse viewpoints exist within countries. By continuing to address pressing issues – human rights violations, political inequalities, cases of government corruption, and errant fundamentalism – Al-Jazeera has become a primary weapon in the battle for Arab self-determination, an end to authoritarianism, and regional support for democratic institutions.

A One-Way Street

Now that Arab audiences have tasted Al-Jazeera, they are not willing to give up such freedom. For Arab viewers, free access to news channels like Al-Jazeera is a significant step toward democracy and the continuing free discussion of political issues.[39]

The effects of the introduction of forms of new media constitute a metaphorical one-way street. Having already been introduced, these forms of press and interconnectivity will continue to replicate. On a public scale this is the result of the cycle outlined at the beginning of this paper. As new media opens channels of communication and educates the populous, authoritarian regimes have the incentive to become more open. As nations open, individual expression becomes commonplace and more citizens are willing to engage. On a more personal level, citizens who have tasted the freedoms associated with access to sources of new media will become less willing to live without them. The trend of increasing political activity in the Middle East will simultaneously drive populations to push for true institutional political change. Nations that fall behind these trends and fail to meet popular expectations will experience serious public disapproval from their citizens, who now have the ability to see firsthand the conditions of their contemporaries in other nations via satellite television and the Internet. These processes are irreversible and will continue to promote grassroots activism and a push for democratic change.

The new media is revolutionizing the Middle East. The combined effects of satellite TV, rapidly expanding access to the Internet, and the growing prevalence of blogs and other forms of participatory media are revitalizing the Arab public sphere. No longer can the elites of authoritarian regimes monopolize public discourse. As the new media continues to expand and costs of access drop, the debates and opinions expressed through these new outlets will become more representative of true public opinion.

Regimes are not sitting idly through this revolution; attempts at Internet censorship have been widespread, though they are not nearly as effective as the censorship of the traditional press. Growth of the Internet is seen by most regimes as key to their economic development, and thus the impact of the new online media will only continue to swell. Governments will realize that they cannot afford to sabotage all subversive online activity, and political activism and criticism has evidently already begun to blossom as a result.

The new media is also serving to unify Arab populations across the Middle East, as people around the region watch the same images on Al-Jazeera or access similarly subversive opinions on their country’s blogs. The combined effect has been a reduction in authoritarian power and an increase in democratic aspects of society, notably the growth of popular debate and expression, increased government accountability, and an awareness of human rights violations. It is possible—even likely—that one immediate effect of the trend outlined in this paper is the series of protests and revolutions that have swept the region in early 2011. And yet, new governments will replace regimes that have fallen, and some regimes will withstand the current agitation for democratic change. Regardless, both new and long-established rulers will still be subject to the pressures posed by the new media when the world surfaces on “the other side” of the current unrest. There are thoroughgoing, theoretical reasons why the new media can contribute to Middle Eastern democracy, and why those forms of media are durable, their effects in some sense irreversible. Progress may be slow, and bloggers and other new media activists are still continually jailed across the region for the expression of dissenting opinions, but eventually governments will realize the unstoppable force of democratic progress via the new media.

[1] Preston, Jenifer. “Movement began with outrage and a Facebook page that gave it an outlet.” New York Times. 2/5/11. 2/24/11. <>

[2] Woods, Andrew K. “These revolutions are not all Twitter.” New York Times. 2/1/11.  2/24/11. <>

[3] Lynch, “Beyond the Arab Street: Iraq and the Arab Public Sphere,” Politics & Society, 55, quoted in Sadiki, Rethinking Arab Democratization, 239

[4] Anderson et al., Universal Access to E-mail, 166

[5] Buchstein, “Bytes that Bite: The Internet and Deliberative Democracy,” Constellations, 250

[6] Weeden, The Politics of Deliberation: Qat Chews as Public Spheres in Yemen, 61-63

[7] Ibid., 63 and 68-9

[8] Ibid., 72

[9] Ibid., 72-3

[10] Sadiki, Rethinking Arab Democratization, 242

[11] Franda, Launching into Cyberspace: Internet Development and Politics in Five World Regions,” 71

[12] Ibid., 72

[13] All internet usage data is from “Internet World Stats,” Internet Usage in the Middle East, Here, Israel is excluded, though it tops the list at 72.8%

[14] Ibid. This statistic includes the Israeli rate.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Buchstein, “Bytes that Bite: The Internet and Deliberative Democracy,” Constellations, 25

[17] Ibid., 250

[18] Etling and Faris, “Madison and the Smart Mob: The Promise and Limitations of the Internet for Democracy,” 65

[19] Egpyt: Systematic Abuses in the Name of Security, Amnesty International, 1

[20] Ibid.

[21] Sadiki, Rethinking Arab Democratization, 245

[22] Ibid.

[23] The Khaled Said incident has received widespread coverage in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. The Facebook group “We are all Khaled Said” was one of the organizational tools used by protestors, and the saga of the group’s founder, Google executive Wael Ghonim, itself received substantial media attention. In keeping with the aims of this paper, the stronger causal claims about the impact of social media on popular protests are omitted in favor of an examination of the potential those technologies have demonstrated in recent years. The impact of the Said incident prior to the 2011 protests was substantial, regardless of the more contemporary, more fluid realities in Egypt or elsewhere.

[24] Etling and Faris, “Madison and the Smart Mob: The Promise and Limitations of the Internet for Democracy,” 67

[25] Ibid., 69

[26] Sadiki, Rethinking Arab Democratization, 244, attributed to an Al-Jazeera program on bloggers in Egypt, found in Arabic at

[27] Sadiki, Rethinking Arab Democratization, 245

[28] Lynch, “Blogging the New Arab Public,” Arab Media & Society,

[29] Ibid.

[30] Etling and Faris, Madison and the Smart Mob: The Promise and Limitations of the Internet for Democracy, 73-4

[31] Lynch, “Blogging the New Arab Public,” Arab Media & Society,

[32] Kelley, “Al-Jazeera: Mouthpiece for Terrorists, Lackey for Israel, or Voice for Democracy?” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

[33] Sadiki, Rethinking Arab Democratization, 251

[34] Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public, 127-8

[35] El-Nawawy and Iskandar, Al-Jazeera, 57

[36] Ibid.

[37] Sadiki, Rethinking Arab Democratization, 250

[38] Ibid.

[39] El-Nawawy and Iskandar, Al-Jazeera, 57


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