Dozens of speakers, hundreds of participants and tens of hours brought The ArabNet Shift Digital Summit 2011 unrivaled amounts of information, networking and support for the MENA region’s digital and online community and industry.
But with the last 3 months bringing lightning-fast change to the Arab world, and the seismic effects of Social Media in catalyzing and bolstering these youth movements, everyone was waiting for the Social Media and Citizenship panel on March 24th at 3:30PM.
Moderated by Yahoo Maktoob’s founder and CEO, Samih Toukan, the Emirates Hall at Habtoor Hotel was packed with eager and attentive ears.
The panelists were Mr Mohamad el Dahshan, actively involved in the #jan25 movement in Egypt, Mr. Fouad al Farhan, an influential Saudi activist and blogger imprisoned for his activism, Nadine Moawad, a Nasawiya activist for gender equality and a proponent of the recent Secular movement in Lebanon, and Mr. Mohamad Nanabhay, head of Al Jazeera English Online via Skype.
Mr. Toukan’s insight and enthusiasm about the issue was unmistakable, making him one of the few chief executives actively supporting these Arab uprisings. This of course made him the perfect moderator for this plenary panel. Each panelist talked for some 7-8 minutes about their own countries and activities, and compared them when possible. After going through Egypt, Lebanon and the KSA, questions were open to the audience.
The main point everyone agreed on was that calling the revolts “Facebook” or “Twitter Revolutions” was unjust. For one, many if not most of the protestors are not on Facebook or Twitter, and it was the oppression and injustice that drove them to the streets. Though the panelists did not downplay the role of Social Media in mobilizing and connecting these people, transforming them from a bunch of xenophobic tribes into a regional group of more open and liberal individuals.
Another interesting point was raised by Mr Dashshan, who said that the networks of bloggers and tweeps was well-established over the past 3 years, and as soon as the sidibuzid incident occurred, the power of the hash-tag was unleashed upon twitter. From #sidibuzid to #jan25, #feb17 and most recently #march24, people across the Arab world were connected.
This connection, according to Mr Farhan, fostered a sense of “why them, not me?” amongst arabs, who started to compare their conditions to other arab peoples’ and slowly move towards the explosion of rage and revolution we have seen.
At this point, Nadine Moawad bashed Lebanese politicians who claim they were the catalysts for these Arab revolutions, she characterized demonstrating and street actions as “commonplace” in Lebanon, where it is a “hobby” and “attention-seeking” whereas these things in Egypt, Libya and KSA were unheard of. In fact, Mr Al Farhan partly attributed the failure of the KSA day of rage to the fact that the notion of protesting is outlawed in the constitution, and thus not valid under any circumstance.
Eventually, the talk settled on citizen journalism. Mainstream media journalists, such as CNN’s Ben Wedeman, were tweeting news before reporting it to CNN. And when media like Al Jazeera and others were censored and harassed, the only source of news was from citizen journalists. This forced the sluggish mainstream media to come to terms with the reality of citizen journalism, and we saw tweets being used as sources for the first time. This is problematic though, for even though many citizens adopt the ethics of professional journalists, some do not, and their tweets can be fictitious or not accurate, leading to problematic trust issues and undermining the news’ credibility
At some point during the panel, Mr. Omar Christidis, Founder of ArabNet’s grandfather stood up and expressed his views that Arab revolts should be discussed in Arabic, not a foreign language. This caught some of the panelists off-guard, and after trying to allay his concerns, the discussion went back to being in English.
Perhaps though, the tour-de-force of insightful analysis and prudent prediction of the night belonged to Aramex Founder and CEO Mr. Fadi Ghandour. This extremely successful Lebanese entrepreneur is well-known for his inspiring speeches and mindful thoughts. He broke down the past 3 months, and took them 12 months into the future, in 15 clearly marked points that tackled every aspect possible of the current uprisings.
Mr Ghandour showed numbers and statistics that demonstrated the fears that the arab revolts would be overtaken by Islamic extremism were unfounded, and that after the revolts, the youths who called themselves liberal shot up from 20% to 51%. He also pointed out to the inaccuracy of the UN reports that pointed out that the Arab world was not reading, was oppressive to women and not liberal, etc. Apparently, they had missed the fact that 70% of Arab youths are on social networks, and 80% of Arab youths read blogs regularly. So, even if we are not reading books, we are reading plenty of things online.
Also, according to the numbers presented, some 85% of Arabs now want a democratic system, which is a far-cry from prospects of a religious theocracy that was threatening the revolutions.
Mr. Ghandour went on to say that SM were merely tools, and that it is the people themselves that made this, that deserved the attention and recognition.
Mr Ghandour also said that based on what we’ve seen, we should follow the women in the arab world if we want change. He jokingly added: “Though not like men follow women today”. He also went on to say that whoever thinks a woman’s place is in the kitchen, is the first on the list of people who must be reformed and changed, even before the dictators and oppressive regimes.
All in all, Mr.Ghandour’s speech was well-balanced and very optimistic. He removed the shadow of doubt from the audience, and energized them to reestablish their faith in this swift tide of revolution, vs the slow evolution his generation believed in, for fear the system couldn’t take it.
This liberating swiftness though will eventually make people sick of its promises, and that is why it must deliver on its promises as soon as humanly possible. Arabs are fed up with empty promises, and he gave the state of Lebanese internet as an example. After all the promises, we stil have the world’s slowest internet, and this slowness means someone is watching, echoing Nadine Moawad’s claim that slow internet is a form of censorship: don’t censor youtube, just make it super-slow so that no one can upload or watch movies on it, much less upload them on the go.
All in all, the final panel and the closing keynote speech were some of the most engaging in ArabNet 2011, with the audience actively engaged, and the issues recent and pressing. The hall observed a moment of silence for those who lost their lives, before the awards ceremony went underway.