From Arab Spring to Controlled Spaces | Reclaiming social media | DW | 14.11.2023
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Reclaiming social media

From Arab Spring to Controlled Spaces

An Interview with Afef Abrougui on Public Dialogue in the Middle East

The Arab Spring uprisings of the early 2010s led many to believe that the region would soon witness widespread democratization. More than ten years on, we see reversal in various parts of the Middle East, including the planned restructuring of public space. Recent modernisation projects in the Egyptian capital Cairo are demolishing older districts to make way for new developments. Do you think this is indicative of a broader backsliding of public participation and public spaces?

In many ways yes, it is symbolic of the continuously shrinking public spaces in the physical world, but also in the region’s internet. In Egypt, the new Cairo will symbolize the changes of recent years in the Middle East. Although new public spaces are being built for the redesigned capital, they will be highly controlled, surveilled physical spaces fitted with a surveillance system of more than 6,000 wireless surveillance cameras, manufactured by U.S. company Honeywell. Public spaces, just like online spaces, are tightly controlled in the region. Obviously, there are differences from country to country, but this is the general trend.

Shrinking public spaces both online and offline also mean that there are fewer opportunities for meaningful public discussions. What are the major obstacles to public dialogue in the region?

I would say that the major obstacle is the lack of transparency. For meaningful public dialogue, people need information, facts, figures, and data to answer questions like military control of the economy – this is particularly relevant for Egypt. I know researchers who would like to investigate this issue, but they lack data. Those in power in the region, be they state actors or non-state actors, deliberately make it difficult for citizens and researchers to gain a proper understanding of what is going on. That would be the first step towards accountability and holding those in power to account.

There is also the problem of censorship, which prevents public access to information and facts, even when independent outlets produce investigations…

Exactly. In Egypt and other countries, many news websites remain blocked. Journalists and media outlets might use tricks to circumvent that and reach their public online. Citizens can also use VPNs, although their use is illegal in many Arab countries. But censorship is another main obstacle that prevents organizations and media from disseminating their work and investigations, and denies the general public access to essential information.

You mentioned surveillance earlier. How does it affect public discussions?

Surveillance is clearly a big issue, especially with the ever growing use of commercial spyware, which makes it easy for governments to monitor citizens' online activities. Even the knowledge that surveillance is being used affects journalists and the popular mindset, creating a culture of fear and self-censorship. Moreover, surveillance can also become a safety concern, so much so that researchers and journalists find it difficult to encourage their sources to speak to them. Meanwhile, a number of researchers in Egypt have been arrested, harassed, and in some cases even killed.

What can be mentioned on the positive side? What positive experiences can you highlight?

There are still independent media outlets and NGOs that are doing excellent work countering propaganda and disinformation. For instance, some media outlets are covering migration issues exceptionally well. In Tunisia, Inkyfada has been diligently following the fate of Tunisians taking both legal and illegal routes, as well as the experiences of black African migrants who face violence and racism. Sharing these stories facilitates essential conversations that need to take place. And we need to applaud these media outlets for continuing to deliver content despite all the restrictions.

Against this backdrop, what can media outlets and journalists do in order to improve public discussions?

There is a clear need to explore other ways of reaching more people on social media, or even beyond the current social media ecosystem, including offline meetings involving people and venues that enjoy trust in a particular community. These will differ from country to country and from topic to topic, so their selection will depend on local contexts and circumstances. But of course, all this needs creativity and innovation, which require time and resources. We know that our colleagues are already over-burdened with work, so we can’t just tell people to figure out new ways to explore these issues when they are already struggling to survive financially and dealing with multiple threats. Resources are however just one aspect. Creativity also requires open spaces at both the national civic level as well as in micro-spaces, such as workspaces, for innovation to happen. It’s true that sometimes very tightly controlled environments can enhance people’s creativity, but it still remains difficult.

If you had the power to change anything in the current social media landscape, what would it be?

I would definitely change the way algorithms work so that people are exposed more to content that challenges their pre-existing beliefs and biases, so they can also think outside their filter bubbles. Specifically in the Middle East, the algorithms and data sets currently prioritise Modern Standard Arabic. Instead, they should incorporate many more local dialects and languages, such as Kurdish, to reflect the linguistic diversity of the region.