Three Myths About the Arab Uprisings

By Ellen Lust & Jakob Wichmann

The uprisings that began with pushing Tunisian autocrat Ben Ali from power in January 2011 have fostered dizzying levels of activism and a deluge of analyses. The changing times are exciting, though scary; the information intriguing, though often misleading.

Indeed, much of the current analysis revolves around three myths that fail to hold up under closer scrutiny. Revisiting these myths sheds light on recent changes in the Arab world and on where the region may be heading.

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Youth + Technology = Uprisings: Arabs and outsiders alike have heralded technologically savvy youth for engineering the uprisings. They argue that young Arabs used Facebook and Twitter to mobilize people as never before. Certainly, youth-led social media played a role in the uprisings, but viewing the uprisings too narrowly in these terms overlooks the breadth and depth of the popular mobilization.

Many more beside youths poured into the streets expressing longstanding grievances. In June 2012 the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute, DEDI, and the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, ACPSS, conducted a survey of 1200 Egyptian respondents, above 18 years of age, across 21 governorates excluding border governorates. It found that while youth under the age of 30 were particularly mobilized, they only made up slightly less than half of protesters over age 18. Moreover, Egyptians 40 to 50 years old were highly mobilized during the revolution. Only about 12 percent of this age group claimed they participated in demonstrations before the revolution, while about 20 percent joined the 2011 uprisings.

Similarly, a single-minded focus on social networking technology overstates its role. The DEDI-ACPSS survey finds that just 8 percent of the general population claims they use Facebook, although 26 percent of protesters are Facebook users. Only about one third of the protesters on Facebook say they use the network a lot for political purposes. Similarly, just over one-quarter of Egyptians that participated in the demonstrations during the revolution read blogs, as compared with 8 percent in the general population. Social media played a role. But Facebook and other internet tools did not necessarily drive change. Indeed, most of the countries that witnessed the greatest mobilization in 2011 are among those with poor internet coverage: Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen are six of the lowest ranking Arab states in terms of internet usage, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Viewing the uprisings as the outcome of suddenly mobilized, internet-savvy youth overemphasizes the role of the internet and overlooks the role of older Arabs whose participation was critical. As Egyptian political scientist and activist Rabab El Mahdi notes – and others examining activism across the Arab world echo – in a forthcoming edited volume tentatively titled Taking to the Streets, this view 'ignores a decade of contentious politics and mobilization in Egypt, which paved the way for the January 25th uprising.'

'It's the Economy, Stupid': Analysts have also argued that economic problems are at the root of the crisis. According to many, neoliberal reforms exacerbated longstanding economic problems by stripping citizens of safety nets and shifting profits to an ever-narrower circle of elites close to the regime. These trends combined with high youth unemployment and a frustrating inability to marry and start households to spur the uprisings, analysts argued.

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Ellen Lust is an associate professor of political science at Yale University. Her research and publications focus on political participation and governance challenges in the Middle East and Africa, including 'Governing Africa's Changing Societies,' co-edited with Stephen Ndegwa. Jakob Wichmann is founding partner of JMW Consulting, which focuses on countries in transition and social and political research. Since January 2011, under the auspices of DEDI and ACPSS, he has facilitated a series of public opinion surveys leading up to the parliamentary and presidential elections as well as worked with a range of Egyptian political parties.

© 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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