The Role of Web 2.0 in the Arab Spring

The Role of Web 2.0 in the Arab Spring

Robert A. Cropf (Saint Louis University, USA), Mamoun Benmamoun (Saint Louis University, USA) and Morris Kalliny (Saint Louis University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2515-0.ch004
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The Arab Spring seemed to give a renewed sense of promise to proponents of Web 2.0 as a force for democratization. However, a year on, throughout the Arab world the prospects for democracy are still far from certain. Our conclusion, based on an examination of the events in four countries—Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, and Libya—is that Web 2.0 collaborative tools are without parallel in their ability to mobilize vast numbers of the public. Unknown, however, is whether Web 2.0 can also assist in institutionalizing democracy throughout the Arab world. In this study, the authors adapt the path dependency model of Douglass North and others to explain why, despite the huge popularity of Web 2.0 in the region, the growth of Arab e-democracy will be slow and uncertain. Path dependency suggests that in order for e-democracy to eventually take root and thrive in the region, certain preconditions must be met.
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What are some of the necessary preconditions for making the transition to e-democracy, which is generally recognized as one of the chief pillars of e-government along with e-administration and e-service (Heeks, 2001; Dawes, 2002; Jansen, 2005)? In the aftermath of the successful attempt to topple Egypt’s regime and the other events of the “Arab Spring,” spurred by protesters using social media, there is an air of optimism surrounding the power of social media and Web 2.0 to facilitate political change. In this study, we suggest a path dependency model to explain the transition some countries make to e-democracy and apply this model to countries in the Middle East where social media have played an important role in recent political developments. In the path dependency model, successful transition to e-democracy is dependent on the existence of formal rules (i.e., political and economic institutions) and informal constraints (i.e., political culture and norms governing use of technology) of a polity.

We assert that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can create opportunities for the development of genuine democracy, but in order for there to be a meaningful impact on actual governance and policymaking, favorable preconditions of formal and informal constraints also have to be met.

There is little doubt that globalization enabled by technology has had a significant impact on cultural values worldwide. The impact of globalization was made possible mainly by advances in technological innovation particularly in the area of global communication (Hill, 2011). One of the regions that has been significantly impacted by technology (in the sense that technology and globalization has brought significant political, social and cultural changes to it) is the Arab world. This revolution has been spurred by expanding broadcast technologies and increasing mobile phone usage to access Web 2.0.

Thomas (1998) contended that growing new broadcast technologies and the worldwide deregulation of the broadcast industry in the 1980s and 1990s have opened the door for globalization. Lueg and Finney (2007) argue that mobile phones are key instruments that bring people together and stimulate interactive communication during the process of consumer socialization and interpersonal communication. In a 2011 report by the Arab Advisors Group, 14 Arab countries mobile have high-speed networks. For example, the report indicates that there were 1.37 million 3G mobile subscriptions in Morocco and nearly 3 million subscriptions in Saudi Arabia at the end of 2010. It is estimated the Middle East has surged to become the second-fastest growing mobile phone market in the world with a penetration rate of more than 50% (Trading Media, 2010). This surge in mobile phone usage has also helped spur the explosive growth in social media as an expected 100 million Arab users will be attracted to social media by 2015 (Ghannam, 2011).

Traditionally slow to respond to globalization imperatives, the Arab world has indeed embraced the Internet Revolution and collaborative technologies. Yet, the adoption of these technologies in the policy process is highly unequal and biased. Assimilated largely by an educated middle class and youth, the Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, YouTube, and social networking have been influential in the Arab Spring. They have been employed as medium of expression and collaboration between citizens, revitalizing the drive toward democracy. On the whole, Arab governments have not taken advantage of the Web 2.0 revolution to bolster collaboration with citizens, although e-government initiatives have grown across the Arab world. For example, by late 2010, many Arab governments, including Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco, had an on-line presence. In addition, their attitude is still much driven by the same old cultural and political biases and security concerns that have stalled innovation in the Arab world (see Jabbra, 1989). Similarly, Arab industries still lag behind their western counterparts in adopting and diffusing Web 2.0 technologies. Although progress has been made, Arab businesses still have far to go to implement Web 2.0 technologies. Unless and until businesses and governments embrace Web 2.0 and, more importantly, also embrace the participatory ethos of the Arab spring social movements, there will be no e-democracy in the Arab world any time soon.

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