THE ARAB DIGITAL VANGUARD: CYBER ACTIVISTS RESHAPING THE MIDDLE EAST
Pan-Arabism – the sense of a unified vision and action across the Arab world – has long lost hold in the Arab street. But it’s alive, in a way, in cyberspace.
Among tech savvy young Arabs there’s a new map of the Middle East, in which cyber activists from Riyadh to Rabat share ideas, engage in debate, and unite over the common values – foremost a belief in the fundamental right to free speech. There are deep differences by country, but among a certain set of internet forums, Facebook accounts, and Twitter feeds is connected by a palpable solidarity; they tackle hot topics, link to each other, and launch an uproar whenever one of their own is arrested (at present, there’s a raging campaign to release Bahraini Blogger Ali Abdulemam and Syrian teenager Tal al-Mallohi).
Online activists make up less than 40% of the Arab digital audience, estimates Jillian York of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. But they represent the loudest segment and growing, and they’re etching change across the Middle East. It’s a community pulled together by networks like Global Voices and off-line events like the Arab Bloggers Meeting. Help comes from some interesting angels; at the Arab Bloggers’ Workshop sponsored by Global Voices , Jacob Appelbaum of The Tor Project gave out tips on identity protection and filter-busting that made him a cult hero among Arab bloggers. (Note: I use ‘bloggers’ as a general term – often their ‘blogs’ are an embellished Facebook feed, where they post news items that people jump in and comment on, adding information – an open source news cycle of opinion and information.
So what have these Arab netizens helped accomplish? Perhaps the most noticeable change has been in Egypt, home to the most vibrant blogger-activist community. Egyptian blogger Wael Khalil was first to notice Al Ahram newspaper’s photo fraud, putting President Hosni Mubarak ahead of other world leaders at Washington peace talks. From there the story went viral, then global. A woman blogger named Asser Yasser mobilized outrage into a movement against sexual harassment, the rampant problem of men hurling cat-calls and groping at women on the street. With broader awareness prompted Egypt’s Parliament to take up the issue.
Egypt’s bloggers have exposed cases of police brutality – in 2006 torture caught on tape led to the arrest of two police officers who would have likely gone unpunished, if not for the online outragd. In this summer’s protests over the beating death of Khaled Said, the case turned on the moves of Egyptian bloggers who first posted his bloodied image online, prompting NGOs and Egyptian authorities to follow up. ‘The whole wave went through Twitter and blog posts – newspapers did not cover the case much in the beginning – so video interviews with his family, eyewitnesses were all posted online,’ said Ramy Raoof, a blogger/leader who organized protests around Said’s case. He used Facebook to organize rallies, Twitter and Flickr to live-blog them, and his cell phone to broadcast live from the scene. Once the story was out in the open the mainstream/off-line press caught up, some journalists using his Raoof’s live video feeds to cover each event. Raoof also used the method to cover rallies for workers’ rights and a minimum wage; this month he’s mobilizing rallies in support of Tal al-Mallohi, the arrested Syrian blogger. In Morocco, video of a police officer caught asking a motorist for bribes led to a national crackdown on corruption. While North Africa is somewhat fenced off in the Arab blogosphere by way of language (they often use French, not English or Arabic), its activists have had a notable impact. Tunisia is considered the most advanced. ‘The most brilliant of the Arab blogosphere are the Tunisians, in terms of technical know-how,’ said web activism expert Nasser Weddady. ‘Look at who made the activism websites and videos for Ali Abdulemam – it’s the Tunisians, because they are the best.’
In Saudi Arabia, bloggers reported from the front lines of the 2009 Jeddah floods, rewriting the narrative of that underreported catastrophe. ‘What was published in the traditional media was not getting at how bad it was, and it wasn’t getting at the mismanagement and corruption...we put it all on Facebook and Twitter,’ said Fouad Al Farhan, a famed Saudi blogger whose own arrest sparked a web-based movement. On a visit to Saudi Arabia President Bush raised the case with King Abdullah. The King himself called an investigation into the Jeddah floods, openly blaming the damage on faulty construction and corrupt mismanagement. ‘That is where online activism was met finally by the government,’ said Al Farhan. ‘We were very happy with the King’s announcement...people felt more secure knowing that someone is trying to nail this corruption that is making our lives miserable.’
What’s happening online is a catalyst, not a revolution. It’s a first alert for human rights groups monitoring Arab countries from thousands of miles away, and a prompt for greater accountability from governments. Al Farhan sees it as a stabilizing factor in Saudi Arabia – it may rock the boat on certain issues, but in doing so it channels public frustration into constructive pathways that can government can engage. That is, when it’s not cutting them off; he says blogger-activists have learned to work through the fear of being arrested, beaten, and otherwise punished for online expression. ‘The question isn't, 'How many regimes have social media overthrown,' because the obvious answer is 'None,'’ columnist Mona Eltahawy told VOA. "The question should be…how are social media enabling those most marginalized groups in the Middle East to mature and go into the realization that their opinions count and that they have the ability to bring about change in a region that is largely run by dictators? That alone is worth the price."
More links: »` Sami Bengharbia: The Internet Freedom Fallacy and the Arab Digital Activism |Video: Interview with Nasser Weddady | The Saudi Jeans Blog »`Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and its Arab Blogosphere Report »`Citizen media website Global Voices | Middle East/North Africa Page | Campaign for Arrested Bahraini Blogger Ali Abdulemam
BILLION-DOLLAR BULLETS: WHY AMERICA IS PUSHING SAUDI’S $60 BILLION ARMS DEAL
President Obama is the acting pitchman for a proposed $60 billion sale of advanced aircraft and weaponry to Saudi Arabia, what would be America’s largest foreign arms deal in history. It’s a landmark in the escalating weapons sales in the Persian Gulf; the FT reports that arms sales to the Persian Gulf will total $123 billion, what it calls ‘one of the largest re-armament exercises in peacetime history.’ It’s a deal that sits in the cross-currents of money, politics, and regional security, with implications for wars present and future. Here’s a look at the deal through a set of questions posed to analysts in the West and in the Middle East and explained for the non-defense oriented reader (for more sophistication see the experts at CSIS, IISS, and the GRC).
WHAT’S THE DEAL? The proposed deal announced last week – the specifics will likely shift over its 5-10 year horizon – would have Saudi Arabia would pick up 84 F-15 fighter jets, 70 Apache helicopters, 72 Black Hawks, and 36 Little Birds, along with upgrades that will revamp Saudi’s aging air fleet. Beyond the $60 billion price tag, Saudi would pay tens of billions of dollars for training, maintenance, and upgrade deals, with likely purchases of naval and missile defense systems down the line.
Last year Saudi Arabia spent an estimated $40 billion on defense purchases and regularly puts 30% of its overall budget into defense buys, according to Forecast International. Across the region Arab states are arming up; the UAE has been America’s biggest weapons client of the past few years and is expected to spend $35 billion on defense equipment in the next 2-3 years, reports The Middle East magazine.
WHY IS AMERICA SO KEEN? On the economics alone, proponents of the deal see it as a win-win-win: a massive order that sustains an estimated 77,000 American jobs, an ongoing flow of foreign financing that help offset cuts in US military budget, and a steady stream of work big enough to keep production lines open, creating economies of scale.
‘These sorts of sales help keep the price point down for what the US military needs to buy for itself,’ said Danny Sebright of The Cohen Group and the US-UAE Business Council. ‘Especially for long-lead items it helps keep all that machinery going, so it spreads out the cost…they don’t need to pay to restart a production line.’ It’s a kind of petrodollar recycling into the US defense industry.
What looms larger over the Middle East is how one massive arms deal can shift the regional balance of power, in America’s favor. The announced deal itself is a jab at Iran; once the gear is up and running, it's seen as an active deterrent.
‘If you look at all of these sales, the U.S. is working to create a Saudi Air Force that is far more capable than Iran,’ Anthony Cordesman of the CSIS told the Washington Post. ‘These sales help give Saudi Arabia the capability to convince Iran that it can't use missiles or air power against Saudi Arabia or its neighbors.’
There’s also a more direct line of benefit: whatever equipment Saudi Arabia buys would be seen as an asset to the United States in times of war. Weapons sales to Arab states have stressed interoperability, the notion that allies can sync their defense machinery, part of a unified fighting force that could be guided by the US in times of war. It's a concept that's also been framed as 'burden-sharing,' since every tank and aircraft sitting on a Saudi base is one less item America needs to bring to a future fight.
WHY NO BACKLASH? Some US Senators have opposed the deal, but key players understand the strategic value of the sale – enough so that defense industry sources do not expect much resistance as it moves to Congress as soon as this week. They see this tilt in the balance of power as a good thing for the US and allies, without disrupting Israel’s qualitative military edge.
Sebright says the Obama administration started courting approval early, mobilizing industry players to soften resistance in Congress.
'The defense industry has leaned forward to be sure Congress is aware of what it means to Florida, what it means to Georgia, what it means to Texas. And what is going on regionally right now.'
There are dissident voices here in the Middle East, questioning whether this is accelerated ‘ Iranophobia,’ at a time when billions should be spend on reducing poverty or other domestic development measures. Others question the wisdom of leaping forward in the arms race in a region with its hand always near the trigger.
More links: » Anthony Cordesman for CSIS: The New Saudi Arms Deal: Serving Vital US Security Interests | The Gulf Military Balance in 2010 » IISS: Military Balance Homepage | Iran’s Defense Spending ‘A Fraction’ of Gulf Neighbors’ » The Economist: Saudi-American Arms Deal: It’s a Big Deal
WATER WOES, WATER WARS? THE MIDDLE EAST RISKS RUNNING DRY
UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali once warned that the next war in the Middle East would be fought over water. That was in 1985 – it may have been too early, or too extreme of a prediction. We could see something like what’s happening Yemen, which lives well below what’s called the water poverty line and faces the ominous forecast of being the first country to run out of water. The capital of Sanaa is expected to be dry of drinking water as early as 2025, reports UPI, citing World Bank figures. As it stands, those with the money can pay for truckloads of the precious liquid, while others rely on sporadic rainfall. Of the water Yemen does have, 40% goes to the cultivation of qat, a leaf that’s chewed as a mild narcotic. ‘We have a water shortage that reflects itself in fighting between the people,’ Deputy Planning Minister Hisham Sharaf told UPI. ‘If we continue spending this much water on qat, Sanaa has 10 to 15 years.’ Water woes threaten each corner of the region. Egypt’s split with its neighbors over use of the Nile sharpened this year – Egypt being accused of ‘monopolizing’ the river – while this year’s drought in Syria devastated farming and food supplies. Jordan has long struggled with being bone dry. Lebanon and Israel, hardly needing another battle in their long war, have tussled over use of the Litani River. You get the point – the water picture is b ad and getting worse. If there are bright spots they may come from the wealthy sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, where experts tell ABC News it costs more to produce a gallon of water than a gallon of oil. It is sometimes so hot that rain water evaporates before it can hit the ground, and per capita consumption of H20 is the highest in the world (those swimming pools and dancing fountains come at a cost, though what’s really eating the groundwater are ongoing efforts to farm in the desert in a bid for independent food supplies). But because of all that, the Gulf is also where new solutions are being developed and applied. Desalination is a big part, turning sea water into fresh water that’s good enough to drink. The UAE gets a 98% of its water needs from desalination, the biggest producer in the world (next come Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, per the Water Commission in Riyadh). That know-how is going to be in hot demand, as more of the world looks to desalination as a future source. Also in high-tech water research: Abu Dhabi has started using the desert to store its reserves, pumping desalinated water underground and basically using the earth as a storage tank. An expert involved in the project says they’ve build up Abu Dhabi’s strategic reserve from 12 hours’ worth of supply, to roughly 30 days. Aerators are being installed on the emirate’s taps to reduce output without too noticeable a difference. And there is the growth of ‘non-convention’ resources like treated wastewater – runoff from sinks and showers being treated and recycled for household or municipal use. Before you gross out, consider this gem of a factoid we came across from a talk by water expert Rami Ghandour: 'On average when one drinks from a tap in London the water has typically been through the human body seven times. It's the same in pretty much every major city with a national water supply.’ Ghandour also points out that the situation would be helped if Gulf states stopped subsidizing water. But at least for now they’re working against the problem, and the answers they find could end up helping a whole thirsty neighborhood.
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