Via the Oxford University Press blog (what a great idea!), Philip Howard assesses the link between digital (specifically, social) media and political unrest in the Middle East and north Africa. Although he cautions against running afoul of the common “correlation is not causation” fallacy, Howard does make an illuminating point about the impact of social media and civil society on the potential for a country to experience political unrest:
Digitally enabled protesters in Tunisia and Egypt tossed out their dictator. The protests in Libya have posed the first serious challenge to Gaddafi’s rule in decades and the crisis in that country is not over. Several regimes have had to dismiss their cabinets and offer major concessions to their citizens. Discontent has cascaded over transnational networks of family and friends to Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 20 years, Mubarak reigned in Egypt for 30 years, and Gaddafi has held Libya in a tight grip for 40 years. Yet their bravest challengers are 20- and 30-year-olds without ideological baggage, violent intentions or clear leaders.
The answer, for the most part, is online. And it is not just that digital media provided new tools for organizing protest and inspiring stories of success from Tunisia and Egypt. The important structural change in Mideast political life is not so much about digital ties between the West and the Arab street, but about connections between Arab streets.
But a reasonable foreign policy question remains. If digital media changes the political game in countries run by tough dictators, who will fall next?
Here’s a handy chart that gives us an indication of the answer to that question: