Why social movements should ignore social media

There are two ways to be wrong about the Internet, writes Evgeny Morozov:

One is to embrace cyber-utopianism and treat the Internet as inherently democratizing. Just leave it alone, the argument goes, and the Internet will destroy dictatorships, undermine religious fundamentalism, and make up for failures of institutions.1

Another, more insidious way is to succumb to Internet-centrism. Internet-centrists happily concede that digital tools do not always work as intended and are often used by enemies of democracy. What the Internet does is only of secondary importance to them; they are most interested in what the Internet means. Its hidden meanings have already been deciphered: decentralization beats centralization, networks are superior to hierarchies, crowds outperform experts. To fully absorb the lessons of the Internet, urge the Internet-centrists, we need to reshape our political and social institutions in its image.

Internet-centristsalso make a fetish of the virtual over the real world and assume that political problems have technical solutions, he notes in a critique of Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age.

“Better systems for aggregating and dispensing knowledge can certainly help to solve many problems, but those are problems of a very peculiar nature,” Morozov writes in The New Republic:

Can Washington’s reluctance to intervene in Syria—to take just an extreme example—be blamed on a deficit of knowledge? Or does it stem, rather, from a deficit of will, or of principle? Would extending the participatory logic of Kickstarter [an online platform for artists to raise money from their fans] to the work of the National Endowment for Democracy or to the State Department’s Policy Planning staff lead to better policy on democracy promotion? Or will it result in more populist calls to search for Joseph Kony? 4 Can’t the lowering of barriers to participation also paralyze the system, as some would argue is the case with the proliferation of ballot initiatives in California?

The Internet does facilitate the dissemination of knowledge and decentralized structures that may enhance participation – and yet the ‘liquid democracy’ techniques of the German Pirate Party recommended by Johnson have hardly enhanced democratic participation.

As Der Spiegel dryly put it, “It’s a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.”

“If one assumes that political reform is long, slow, and painful, hierarchies and centralizing strategies can be productive. After all, they can keep the movement on target and give it some coherent shape,” notes Morozov:

Ideas on their own do not change the world; ideas that are coupled with smart institutions might. “Not by memes alone” would be an apt slogan for any contemporary social movement. Alas, this basic insight—that political reform cannot be reduced to the wars of memes and aesthetics alone, even if the Internet offers an effective platform for waging them—has mostly been lost on the Occupy Wall Street crowd.9 Challenging power requires a strategy that in many circumstances might favor centralization. To reject the latter on philosophical grounds rather than strategic grounds—because it is anti-Internet or anti-Wikipedia—borders on the suicidal.


Evgeny Morozov’s new book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, will be published by PublicAffairs in March.

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Time to reform ‘Morsi’s Guns’

“Official autopsy reports on slain activists Amr Saad and Mohamed El-Gendy will be referred to the prosecutor-general’s office next week,” Al-Ahram reports.

The news is unlikely to stem the public outrage over the deaths and another incident in which police were caught on video (above) beating and dragging a naked man during last Friday’s protests.

The latest violence has drawn attention to the government’s failure to reform the security services and other aspects of a repressive state apparatus inherited from the former regime.

While the Mubarak-era’s “dreaded” State Security Investigations Service has been disbanded, “the hierarchy, culture, and philosophy endure,” says a leading analyst.

“Today, little has changed,” writes Joshua Stacher, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an assistant professor of political science at Kent State University:

The SSI has simply been replaced by Egypt’s Homeland Security agency, which is just as violent as its predecessor; it is the same organization with a new name. One domestic nongovernmental organization claims that, in Morsi’s first 100 days, 88 people were tortured and 34 were extrajudicially murdered in police stations across the country, but not a single person connected to the new government’s coercive apparatus has been found guilty of a crime.

The US was “extremely disturbed by these incidents, including sexual assaults against women and the beating of a defenseless man last week,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

“We urge the government of Egypt to thoroughly, credibly and independently investigate all claims of violence and wrongdoing by security officials and demonstrators and to bring perpetrators to justice. Accountability is the best way to prevent recurrences of these kinds of incidents.”

A 28-year-old protester died early Monday morning after allegedly being tortured to death, the Project for Middle East Democracy reports:

Mohammed el Gindy was protesting in Tahrir Square last month on the second anniversary of the country’s revolution before going missing for several days.  According to the Health Ministry, el Gindy, unconscious and suffering from internal bleeding, was brought by ambulance to a Cairo hospital January 28 – four days after he went missing – having been involvedin a “car accident.” Activists detained with el Gindy in a police roundup last week reported that he was taken to a police camp and subjected to torture.  Mona Amer, a spokeswoman for Popular Current, the party to which el Gindy belonged, said she observed signs of electrocution, strangulation and broken ribs on el Gindy’s body. Mohamed Abdel Aziz, a lawyer with Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, accused the hospital of changing el Gindy’s arrival date to conceal his kidnapping.  The Interior Ministry issued no immediate comment. 

“The Egyptian Ministry of Interior remains the country’s most virulently detested institution,” writes Stacher, the author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria (Stanford University Press, 2012).

“Reluctance to reform the Interior Ministry might have been expected from the military,” he writes for Foreign Affairs:

But, given that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were the victims of the state’s iron fist for so long, it is surprising that they are equally keen to keep the old system in place. Their desire to stay in power, it seems, has led them to lie with strange bedfellows. In addition, the transition from military to civilian rule was structured such that the winner of the presidential elections would be forced to compromise with the old regime. As a result, the president, together with the short-lived parliament and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has ignored or blocked efforts by groups such as the National Initiative for Rebuilding the Police to professionalize and reform the security sector. And recent judicial rulings continue to place the police beyond the law, which encourages them to keep defending the regime, as opposed to serving the population. 


The Project for Middle East Democracy is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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Kremlin sees Internet as ‘main threat’ as Alekseyeva gets Nobel nomination

The Kremlin views considers the Internet as the main “threat to its well-being and stability,” a leading Russian NGO reports, and Lyudmila Alekseyeva (left), the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, notes Paul Goble’s Window on Eurasia: 


Alekseyeva, 85, said she was “grateful” for this nomination but said she did not “particularly believe” that she would win the prize “because there are many candidates. Among them are many worthy people, and [she said she was] not sure that [she has] a serious chance.”  

Instead, she talked about the difficulties she and other human rights organizations face in the Russian Federation as a result of the 2012 law requiring that they declare themselves to be foreign “agents,” a word she pointed out that in Russia is equivalent to “spies,” if they accept assistance from abroad.

“Alekseyeva’s effort remain contemporary and needed in a Russia where some in positions of power seek to circumscribe the universality of human rights even as they work to undo the gains made since the collapse of communism,” said US Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, who heads the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, in nominating the veteran dissident.


She “continues her life’s vocation of holding a candle to the darkness and inspiring a new generation of activists to defend the freedom and democracy that is their birthright,” he added.


Russia’s government considers the Internet to be the main “threat to its well-being and stability,” a leading Russian NGO reports.


The past year saw “an increasing number of cases” of state-imposed restrictions on Internet usage, according to the annual report of the Agora Inter-Regional Human Rights Organization.


Damir Gaynutdinov and Pavel Chikov, the report’s authors refer to “the growth by an order of magnitude of the number of proposals for regulating the Internet, not one of which contained a guarantee of freedom but rather were directed exclusively at increasing control … and new forms of censorship.”


The report notes with regret that “not a single organization represented in the Internet community in Russia is speaking out clearly and in a principled fashion in defense of the freedom of use and dissemination of information on the Net.”


“The ‘ostrich-like’ strategy of Internet business and Internet community,” Agora suggests, “is explained by their direct … or indirect … dependency on the Russian authorities.”


Hat tip: Paul Goble’s Window on Eurasia.


Agora and the Moscow Helsinki Group are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Yemen transition ‘on brink of collapse,’ says Nobel laureate Karman

Yemen’s transition process is on the brink of collapse due to the failure to reform security institutions and disempower former regime elements, a leading activist warned today.

Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh should be excluded from politics, and youth, women and civil society given a proper say in the dialogue to advance the transition, said Nobel peace laureate Tawakkul Karman (left).

“The main obstacle facing the political transition and threatening its viability is the fact that Ali Abdullah Saleh remains a president of the General People’s Congress,” the former ruling party, she warned in an interview with AFP:

Saleh was eased out of office after 33 years in powers thanks to a UN-backed and Gulf-brokered deal that ended a year of protests that rocked the impoverished southern Arabian Peninsula nation. The agreement reached in November 2011 with the opposition gave Saleh and his aides immunity from prosecution, but it did not stipulate a political ban on him.

The deal, signed in Riyadh after months of anti-government protests and deadly clashes between pro- and anti-Saleh troops, brought Hadi to power for an interim two-year period in a single-candidate vote. It also called for a national dialogue where all parties, including the opposition, youth and northern rebels are expected to come together and agree on a new constitution and on the next presidential and parliamentary elections.

“The ousted president is the one to choose the GPC’s representatives,” she said, adding that Saleh’s party “rejects the dialogue” and insisting that the former head of state “should exit politics completely”.

“The political transition process is not going according to the mechanism set in the Gulf initiative, which was imposed on us and we accepted it only on the condition that it will be fully implemented,” said Karman.

“The world should listen to us and assume responsibilities now that we say that the country is on the brink of collapse.”

Karman suggested that the interim President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi is unable to restructure the military, dismantle the elite Republican Guard or remove Saleh’s relatives from key positions of power.

“This dialogue will fail if this matter is not sorted out; restructuring the military and security forces comes first, then comes the national dialogue,” she said, warning of a possible return to street protests.

“If we find that the country will be heading to collapse, we might find that the solution would be in returning to our base in the street, and demonstrations.”

Karman founded Women Journalists Without Chains, a Sana’a-based NGO, supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Further updates on Yemeni affairs are available through the Center for International Private Enterprise’s invaluable Yemen Digest. CIPE is one of the NED’s core institutes.

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As Bahrain offers reconciliation talks, any ‘prospects for democracy in Gulf States’?

Bahrain will begin reconciliation talks this weekend with opposition groups, Reuters reports, in an attempt to end two years of conflict over demands for democratic reform.

Opposition groups contacted by Reuters suggested they would attend the talks but cited differences with the government over the goal of the dialogue that could undermine its effectiveness.

The news highlights the continuing pressure for reform on the conservative Gulf monarchies, which – Bahrain aside – have largely escaped the political turmoil of the Arab Awakening. But that evasion may be short-lived, analysts suggest.

Apart from their geography and shared culture, what these countries have in common is aging authoritarian leadership coupled with a young, Internet-savvy populace: an obvious recipe for tension,” notes Jillian C. York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Director for International Freedom of Expression, who specializes in free speech issues in the Arab world.

She cites a recent article in The Economist which…..

…..describes a scenario in which—following the destruction of a mall’s kiddie dinosaur display by the country’s morality police—Saudi Arabia’s Twitter users quick make a hashtag go viral, building off one another’s jokes and mocking some of the country’s most archaic laws.  As the article notes, many of the jokes mocked the morality police themselves, such as one in which a Twitter user quipped: “They worried that people would find the dinosaurs more highly evolved than themselves.”

In Oman, eight individuals were sentenced for lèse majesté and “cybercrimes,” with sentences up to one and a half years in prison.  

Gulf activists have grown more vocal and are stepping up campaigns for reform, despite regime crackdowns:

Qatar, which supported Arab Spring revolts, drew calls of hypocrisy in November when it jailed a poet who had praised the revolt against overthrown Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The poet, Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was imprisoned for life on charges of inciting the overthrow of the Qatari government by writing, “We are all Tunisia, in the face of the repressive elite”, and insulting the country’s absolute monarch by referring to “sheikhs playing on their Playstations”.

“There have been indications of greater solidarity work by activists on cases in Gulf countries other than their own,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and Africa. “The repression against activists has largely not silenced them.”


The National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies and the Project on Middle East Democracy

cordially invite you to a half-day conference entitled

The Arab Spring after Two Years: Prospects for Democracy in the Gulf States 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004
Telephone: 202-378-9675

RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Monday, February 11.

Conference Agenda:

8:30 a.m.–9:00 a.m.  Introductory Remarks

Chair:          Carl Gershman, National Endowment for Democracy

Speakers:              Congressman James McGovern, U.S. House of Representatives

9:00 a.m.–10:30 a.m. The Future of Reform in the Gulf

Chair:          Tamara Cofman Wittes, Brookings Institution

Speakers:    Jean-Francois Seznec, Georgetown University

                   Jafar Alshayeb, Qatif Municipal Council, Saudi Arabia

                   Gulf Civil Society Association Forum-Kuwait (TBD)

10:30 a.m.–10:45 a.m. Coffee Break

10:45 a.m.–12:15 p.m.   Crisis in Bahrain: Is a Negotiated Solution Possible?

Chair:          Stephen McInerney, Project on Middle East Democracy

Speakers:    Tom Malinowski, Human Rights Watch

                   Khalil Al-Marzooq, Alwifaq Party (Bahrain)

Jalila Al-Salman, Teachers’ Union in Bahrain


Khalil Al-Marzooq is the assistant secretary general assistant for international and political affairs of the Al-Wefaq Political Society in Bahrain. He served as the first deputy speaker of the Bahraini parliament before he resigned with his colleagues in February 2011 to protest the government’s actions against peaceful protests. Mr. Al-Marzooq has spent his career defending human rights and promoting the rule of law.

Jalila Al-Salman is a Bahraini teacher and the vice president of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA). She was arrested in March and April 2011 in connection with the BTA’s calls for strikes amid the protests at that time demanding reforms in Bahrain’s educational system and protesting the killing and suppression of protesters, of which students made a high percentage. She was imprisoned for 149 days, allegedly tortured, and sentenced to 3 years in prison by a military court. She was released 5 months later after she was forced to sign false confessions.

Jafar Alshayeb is a writer, human rights advocate, and member of the Qatif Municipal Council in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. He is a regular commentator and analyst of local politics and reform issues in many press and media channels and is a columnist for Alsharq newspaper.

Carl Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy. In addition to presiding over the NED’s grants program in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America, he has overseen the creation of the quarterly Journal of Democracy, International Forum for Democratic Studies, and the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellows Program. He also took the lead in launching in New Delhi in 1999 the World Movement for Democracy, which is a global network of democracy practitioners and scholars.

Tom Malinowski is the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, where he is responsible for the organization’s overall advocacy efforts with the U.S. government. Before joining Human Rights Watch, Mr. Malinowski was special assistant to President Bill Clinton and senior director for foreign policy speechwriting at the National Security Council.

Congressman James McGovern is a Democrat who has represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1996. Congressman McGovern has been widely recognized as a tenacious advocate for his district, a tireless crusader for change, and an unrivaled supporter for social justice and fundamental human rights. Mr. McGovern serves as the second ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee and is co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

Stephen McInerney is the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), where he previously served as its director of advocacy. His writing on Middle Eastern politics and U.S. foreign policy has been published by the Arab Reform Bulletin, The Daily Star, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, andThe Washington Post.  He has spoken on Middle East affairs with numerous media outlets including BBC, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, and CBS News.

Jean-Francois Seznec is visiting associate professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is also a scholar at the Middle East Institute. His academic focus is on the growth of the energy-based industries in the Gulf.

Tamara Cofman Wittes is a senior fellow and the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Ms. Wittes served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from November of 2009 to January 2012, coordinating U.S. policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East for the State Department. She also oversaw the Middle East Partnership Initiative and served as deputy special coordinator for Middle East transitions. She was central to organizing the U.S. government’s response to the Arab awakening.

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