Arab Spring Activists Relied on Social Media — And America Taught Them How to Use It
Thousands of activists went through U.S.-sponsored training
by DARIEN CAVANAUGH
On Feb. 9, 2011 Voice of America, an international multimedia news outlet funded by the U.S. government, published a profile of an obscure Egyptian expatriate named Omar Afifi Soliman.
In a photo accompanying the profile, Soliman — a husky middle-aged man who served in an elite division of the Egyptian police before going into exile — sits at a table with several computer monitors on it. From this makeshift command center within his small Washington, D.C.-area apartment, Soliman helped Arab Spring activists thousands of miles away in Cairo’s Tahrir Square communicate with each other and avoid capture by police.
By all accounts, Soliman was earnest in his dissident activities aimed at toppling the regime of Hosni Mubarak. He also had a good bit of support from some powerful friends, including the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, which is primarily funded by congressionally-approved annual appropriations.
According to Al Jazeera and Gloal Research, the organization paid Soliman up to $200,000 between 2008 and 2011 for his pro-democracy activities, which consisted primarily of sitting in his apartment and tweeting, posting on Facebook and using other social media to encourage the revolution in Egypt.
The NED, along with the State Department’s Agency for International Development and numerous nonprofits, NGOs, government agencies and politically-connected think tanks, trained and funded tens of thousands of Arab activists like Soliman during the years leading up to the Arab Spring.
The training emphasized the use of social media for organizing protests and inspiring mass movements. Many of these U.S.-trained activists became leaders of the Arab Spring uprisings in their home countries.
Western media touted the Arab Spring as an “organic and homegrown” uprising. That’s accurate in many ways. There was widespread discontent over economic conditions and the authoritarian policies of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen and several other Middle East and North African countries.
Behind the scenes, there were also foreign interests and influences.
In 2002, then-U.S. president George W. Bush founded the Mideast Partnership Initiative — the MEPI — under the umbrella of the State Department. Since its founding, MEPI has contributed more than $900 million in grants for groups in Washington, D.C. and the Middle East and North African region.
MEPI’s budget ostensibly supports “assistance, training and support to groups and individuals striving to create positive change in the society.”
USAID spends another $390 million annually on “democracy promotion” in the Middle East, Al Jazeera reported.
In addition to USAID and MEPI, an elaborate network of organizations such as Bureau for Democracy, Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into the Middle East to promote democracy each year, according to Al Jazeera.
Since many of the people who receive assistance or participate in the training from these organizations are dissident groups or anti-government activists, it’s not a stretch to interpret “positive change” … as “regime change.”
This was not lost on Arab leaders. As early as 2007, officials in Bahrain, Yemen and Egypt were formally complaining to the U.S. government about the activities of the pro-democracy groups, Ron Nixon explained in The New York Times.
The general consensus was that the activities of Freedom House, USAID and others primarily benefited government opposition groups — and threatened to influence the internal politics of the countries these organizations operated in and the activists they trained.
Officials in Bahrain banned at least one member of the NDI from entering the country. Egyptian authorities likewise found excuses to temporarily close hotels that hosted the organizations’ members, according to Nixon.
Egypt and Jordan saw glimpses of the possible effects of these foreign influences during their respective national elections in 2005 and 2007.
“Hosni Mubarak’s woes could be traced back to Egypt’s 2005 election, when an army of tech-savvy poll watchers, with a little help from foreign friends, exposed the president’s customary ‘landslide’ vote as an autocrat’s fraud,” Charles Hanley wrote for the Associated Press.
“In nearby Jordan, too, an outside assist on election day 2007 helped put that kingdom’s undemocratic political structure in a harsh spotlight — and the king in a bind.”
The “foreign friends” who helped those “tech-savvy poll watchers,” Hanley explained, were the NDI, the IRI, USAID and NED instructors, among others, who trained the activists in social media and other digital technologies.
As the 2007 elections in Syria approached, MEPI saw an opportunity to recreate this same scenario in that country.
A December 2006 article in Time disclosed that, as a part of a long-standing Bush administration policy of “quietly nurturing individuals and parties opposed to the Syrian government in an effort to undermine the regime of President Bashar Assad,” the U.S. government was considering using MEPI-trained activists to covertly monitor and record the upcoming Syrian elections in March.
Authors of the proposed plan hoped that evidence of foul play at the polls could “provide a potentially galvanizing issue for … critics of the Assad regime” Time reported.
Once any evidence was gathered, “internet accessible materials” would be made “available for printing and dissemination by activists inside the country and neighboring countries.”
The United States had not officially called for regime change in Syria at that point, but the prospect of using the elections to foment dissent raised questions.
“You are forced to wonder whether we are now trying to destabilize the Syrian government,” one U.S. official told Time when asked about the proposal to monitor the elections.
When reports of election fraud failed to incite popular uprisings, the United States continued pouring money into dissident groups and the training programs.
Those trained included members of influential activists groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, The New York Times reported.
By the time protests broke out in Tunisia in December of 2010, thousands of activists across the Arab world had been trained by the U.S. groups in communicating, planning and organizing revolutions via social media. Those trained by the United States in turn trained others, expanding the reach of the programs and the effectiveness of the activists in general.
Sami Ben Gharbia, the director Global Voices Advocacy and publisher of the blog collective Nawaat in Tunisia, explained that much of the news reported in traditional media outlets in Tunisia was actually pulled from social media accounts, according to a Center for International Media Assistance report.
According to Ben Gharbia, activists would gather information on friendly Twitter or Facebook pages and then provide translations and context so that reporters could easily draw from those feeds as sources. This allowed people in Tunisia and elsewhere who did not have access to the internet to get news from activists on the ground via newspapers, television and radio.
“That’s what we were doing — aggregating, putting the story into context, amplifying and then using Twitter as a main broadcaster, because Twitter is the platform where journalists are following the story, and then pointing them to the right place to find video,” Ben Gharbia said.
“We rely on a network of activists from around the Arab world in the first instance. And those activists, from Mauritania to Iraq, they know each other. They are training each other on how to download video, how to use Google maps. These reports can be translated into multiple languages and resent for media around the world. That was the echo chamber of the struggle on the street.”
Twitter became so important to the revolution that the government blocked it for four weeks during the unrest, before Pres. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali abandoned his office on Jan. 14, 2011 and fled to Saudi Arabia.
When the Arab Spring came to Egypt in January 2011, Hanley estimated that up to 10,000 Egyptians had already “participated in USAID-financed democracy and governance programs, carried out by NDI, IRI and 28 other international and Egyptian organizations.”
Indeed, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube proved as vital to the revolution in Egypt as they had in Tunisia.
Egypt began blocking Twitter and Facebook on Jan. 25, 2011, and then shut down the entire internet for most of the country, Ghannam reported. Pres. Barack Obama personally asked Mubarak to restore service the same day.
After Egypt’s president Mubarak ceded power on Feb. 11, 2011 — and as the Arab Spring progressed in other countries — the United States began openly acknowledging that it was training activists to help undermine governments it deemed undemocratic.
“We are trying to stay ahead of the curve and trying to basically provide both technology, training and diplomatic support to allow people to freely express their views,” assistant U.S. secretary of state for human rights and labor Michael Posner told AFP in April 2011.
But, as AFP reported, the training went beyond encouraging freedom of speech. The programs taught activists how to “evade security forces” and “gain access to technology that circumvents government firewalls, secures telephone text and voice messages and prevents attacks on websites.”
Some question the relevance of the role social media and the U.S. training played in the Arab Spring. Ghannam cited one Tunisian “cyber activist” who described the success of the Arab Spring as “alchemy — a mix of new media, Arab satellite channels and traditional media that informed and helped mobilize protests.”
“In my opinion, if new media were able to foster this revolution [alone], I think it would have happened long before,” the activist concluded.
Considering that in 2010 Facebook and Twitter were only four and six years old, respectively — and that internet access in much of the Arab world was limited — that may not be a totally fair assessment.
While it remains difficult to determine exactly how important the U.S. programs were, it seems safe to say they were definitely significant.
“As American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections,” Nixon wrote for The New York Times.
Activists who went through the training agree.
“All these efforts, by local and international organizations, paved the way for what’s going on today,” Oraib Al Rantawi, a Jordanian activist trained and funded by the NDI, told the Associated Press. “These youths didn’t come from nowhere and make a revolution.”
Marwan Youness, another activist who went through the training programs in Cairo, echoed Al Rantawi’s assessment.
“NDI, IRI, Freedom House — most of the leadership of the revolution are trained, like 80 percent,” Al Rantawi said.
“People in the streets created the revolution, not outsiders,” he added. “But they are the catalyst.”