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The New Social Media and the Arab Spring

Dr. Natana J. DeLong-Bas

Since January 2011, the eyes of the world have turned to the Arab Spring. Launched by the image of the self-immolation of the Tunisian vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi as an outcry against the humiliation of citizens at the hands of authoritarian states and their security apparatuses, the Arab Spring has so far resulted in a mix of hope for reform and questions about the future of the Middle East and North Africa. Pivotal to the revolutions that peacefully overthrew regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and pressed for change and reform in other countries throughout the region has been the role of the new social media in translating ideas shared in cyberspace into real-life action on the ground.

Given the "youth bulge" in the Middle East—where between 55 and 70 percent of the population of any given country is under the age of thirty—the fact that social media and modern technology have been used to bring about political change should come as no surprise. Because of their experience with heavy-handed government control over the mainstream media, youth tend to be more likely to seek their news from and express themselves on the Internet, generally finding it to be more reliable and accurate and less filled with government propaganda than mainstream resources. Previously dubbed the "Lost Generation," and targeted as a potential source of recruits for jihadist and Islamist groups as they sought a collective identity, the youth are now being hailed as the "Facebook Generation," the "Internet Generation," and the "Miracle Generation" because they have accomplished in less than two months in some places what previous generations had not been able to achieve in over thirty years—and all of it without resorting to violence, terrorism, or appeals to jihad or even necessarily religion. Some of the most striking aspects of these uprisings have been their dedication to peaceful demands and nonviolent protests, their mix of male and female leadership and participation, and their refusal to engage in religious or political rhetoric reminiscent of past movements or more traditional social bases, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Most of the demands have focused on greater personal freedom of expression, expanded rights for political participation, resolution of economic challenges that have led to widespread unemployment and underemployment, and an end to corruption and authoritarianism. All of these are secular demands, rather than calls for an Islamic Revolution or a greater public role for religion.1

Although the outcome of such use of social media for political purposes appears to be relatively new, the seeds of activism have been consistently sown for the past two decades with rising access to the Internet, the end of government control over the mainstream media, and the growing availability of new levels of individual freedom of expression. Perhaps the greatest sense of empowerment has come through the ability to use cyberspace as a location for doing what could not otherwise be done in reality: assemble to discuss ideas, concerns, and complaints, and to share frustrations, while also providing the social networking opportunity to unite, strategize, and plan for change. In cyberspace, the social restrictions that exist in reality in some places—such as gender segregation—disappear, providing groups of people who might otherwise never meet and converse the opportunity to connect and recognize what they share in common.

For the past two decades, it has seemed that the jihadis have had somewhat of a monopoly on the use of social media—not only for political purposes, but also to evade detection of their activities, disseminate their ideas, plan terrorist attacks, and both recruit new members and make themselves accessible to self-recruiters. The shift to cyberspace was a deliberate strategic move. During the 1970s, 1980s, and even into the 1990s, radical Islamic preachers made use of cassette tapes to spread their message, often clandestinely due to their politically subversive messages and the strong presence of police intelligence throughout society. Such cassette tapes existed in the "underground" territory of individual reproduction and distribution by word of mouth, rather than being made publicly available. During the 1990s and more clearly after 2000, more popular preachers transitioned to satellite television broadcasts and websites to spread their message, given that these new territories were no longer as strictly controlled by government entities following the introduction of Al-Jazeera in 1996, and given the challenges of placing entirely effective filters on Internet access. Shifting to such a global format amplified voices that were previously restricted by geography and limited technology to a worldwide audience.

The Internet in particular opened a new communications territory, both in terms of accessing other peoples' ideas and in terms of individual expression. Websites quickly came to be used to generate awareness campaigns of many types, by individuals, organizations, movements, and even governments. In the Gulf, for example, e-government has started to streamline otherwise heavily bureaucratic procedures, such as applying for identification cards and permits, and providing information about how various services operate. In Saudi Arabia, websites like provide information about divorce laws and women's rights in order to ensure that women are aware of their rights both in Islam and under the law. The hope of website campaigns is that raising public awareness of these rights will result in greater justice.

Organizations further use websites both to proclaim their goals and to compile databases of like-minded individuals. Both organizations and individuals have used websites to post petitions requesting changes ranging from expansion of women's rights—particularly with respect to family law and access to the public sphere—to cleaning up the environment. Some of the most prominent Web petitions with respect to women's rights include the One Million Signature campaigns in Morocco and Iran, which seek to garner support for proposed reforms to be presented to the government. These efforts, among many others, demonstrate attempts to use the principles of democracy in new ways and to harness the new social media for social reform.

Perhaps nowhere have the attempts to use social media to promote the principles of democracy in new ways been more visible than in Tunisia and Egypt, where Facebook and Twitter have been used to quickly disseminate information and instructions that the government has not been able to control. Some believe that the new social media have created a new process for revolution. The process begins when someone establishes a page on Facebook, which is seen by various users, who then comment on it and begin interacting with each other. Once the group is solidified, users begin posting pictures, video footage, and links to YouTube. As this happens, news and comments also begin appearing on Twitter, ever expanding the network of people who are linked in to debates about these events and images. Since the network is not limited geographically, the scope can quickly become global. While this process can be promising in terms of reaching large numbers of people very quickly and creating instantaneous reactions, it also carries the inherent danger of being used to perpetuate sectarianism, tribalism, regionalism, racism, sexism, and discrimination through the proliferation of extremist or exclusionary content. It must be recalled that Facebook is not the private domain of "enlightened" values or democratic ideals. The reality of an open source is that it is open to everyone and anyone who cares to access and comment on it, whether constructively or destructively. Thus, there is the potential for both democratic change and retrograde reactionism that can have serious political and economic repercussions, and for both building and fracturing social cohesion.

Egypt provides a particularly instructive example of this new model for revolution. The popular protests that ultimately resulted in the 11 February 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak attribute their origins to a blog written by an Egyptian university student named Kamel. Kamel began writing his blog following an incident in which he fell off a train onto a platform. When policemen approached him, Kamel expected them to offer assistance. Instead, they beat him. Kamel started the blog to protest his public humiliation at the hands of representatives of the authoritarian government. He quickly gained a sympathetic audience, many of whom then turned to Facebook to discuss similarly degrading and brutal experiences, resulting in the creation of an online Facebook community.

The turning point came with the case of a young Egyptian businessman from Alexandria, Khaled Said, who was reportedly beaten to death by two police officers in 2010. Popular outrage against police brutality resulted in the Facebook community responding with a Facebook page titled, "We Are All Khaled Said," which quickly turned into a series of e-mail conversations and, ultimately, a network of wannabe activists. Although he was anonymous at the time, the Facebook administrator was the Google executive Wael Ghonim, who later became the face of the Egyptian revolution. Kamel and Ghonim worked together with others to plan Egypt's first day of protest on 25 January, bringing together activists in Cairo, Alexandria, and Damanhur to end the abuses of the Mubarak regime.

Said's case became a rallying point for the opposition because it shocked the moral conscience of observers—the incident demonstrated the degree to which the state had become abusive. The hope of the activists was to shock, in turn, the moral consciences of both the state and outside observers by juxtaposing the violence and oppression of the regime with the demonstrators' own commitment to nonviolent methods, many of which were met with state violence and repression.

As more and more people joined the Facebook page, dissemination of information about planned gatherings, locations, and goals began. Through Facebook and Twitter, demonstrators were able to garner up-to-the-minute information about events, participants and leaders. In one case, ninety thousand people responded via Facebook and Twitter that they planned to attend particular demonstrations, giving organizers a vision of the intended scope of the event and also clearly showing the power of numbers. When so many respond to a social networking site that they intend to physically participate in an event, others are inspired to join, knowing that they will not be alone. By contrast, in cases where only a few respond to the calls for demonstrations—such as occurred for Saudi Arabia's not very impressive "Day of Rage," in March 2011—those debating whether to attend may have been at least partially discouraged from doing so because of the lack of numbers in the face of an intimidating police presence.

Although use of social media has not been credited with causing the uprisings, it clearly played a role in accelerating the events because of the speed at which communications were transmitted. Social media sites have proven difficult for governments to control, despite Mubarak's efforts to do so early in the protests by shutting the Internet down completely. Rather than having the desired effect of calming the situation, the attempt to regain control appears to have resulted in driving more people onto the streets. Had Mubarak chosen to monitor the social media rather than control it or shut it down, he might have at least come to understand the genuine depth and scope of popular frustration so as to respond to it more productively, or at least by meeting some of the demands of the protesters; instead, his decision to react with shows of strength served only to further inflame the situation.

In the case of Tunisia, another aspect of new social media played an important role in the Jasmine Revolution that brought down President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011: music disseminated via the Internet. In the early days of the revolution, the protesters found their battle hymn in "Rais Lebled," performed by one of Tunisia's most popular Internet rap artists, Hamada Ben Amor, a.k.a. El General. Rather than classical music or Qur'an verses, which might have left an older or more traditional stamp on the uprising, the deliberate use of a musical form popular with youth to rally the protesters against poverty and oppression made it clear that this revolution was being demanded by young people through methods and symbols of their own choice. The fact that rap had been banned from the airwaves by Ben Ali's regime made it an even more appropriate symbol for youth opposition, as did the fact that the song was unknown to the regime because it was circulated only via Facebook, and had not been made public before the uprising.

The song's lyrics directly targeted Ben Ali: "Mr. President, your people are dying / People are eating rubbish / Look at what is happening / Miseries everywhere, Mr. President / I talk with no fear / Although I know I will get only trouble / I see injustice everywhere," and, "We live in suffering / Like dogs / Half the population is oppressed and living in misery / President of the Country / Your people are dead." Because of its powerful imagery and popular format, the song was also adopted by demonstrators in Egypt and Bahrain, who were also protesting poverty and oppression. After Ben Ali's downfall, the song was broadcast on Tunisian television. Some protested the broadcasting of such music because of the swear words in it. Others believed the time had come for people to be vocal and public in their criticism of the government without fear of reprisal.

Since the downfall of Ben Ali, El General has composed a new rap entitled "Vive Tunisie!" to honor Tunisian protesters and those killed during the uprisings there, as well as in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and Libya. In addition, rap artists gathered in late January 2011 to give a concert at the ten-thousand-seat La Cupole Stadium, followed by a political rally "in honour of the blood of our martyrs and our great popular revolution."2 The concert also featured Tunisia's number one Internet rapper, Mohammed Jandoubi, a.k.a. Psyco-M, who declared his intent to shoot a video outside the long-feared Interior Ministry as one attempt to take back the government and the country by refusing to continue to be afraid of the state's power.

Inspired by varying levels of success, other Arab countries are beginning to engage in their own Facebook campaigns to address their particular problems. Overthrowing an existing regime is not always the goal. In the Palestinian territories, for example, a Facebook campaign led by Fadi Quran has set as the initial target goal the reconciliation and unification of Hamas and Fatah, so as to pursue the longer-term goal of ending the Israeli occupation. The hope is that the Palestinian youth, like their counterparts elsewhere, will be able to rise above the failed politics and rhetoric of preceding generations to find a new vision for achieving their goals and to do so united in their long-term vision, rather than the common hatred of a single leader that has fueled revolutions elsewhere. Although the Facebook activists themselves are divided as to how to best go about reconciling Hamas and Fatah, they all agree that the status quo cannot continue and that the Palestinian people need to be able to work and speak freely.

In Iraq, Facebook is being used to call for peaceful demonstrations demanding improved political and economic conditions, higher levels of security, and better government services, particularly regular access to electricity and clean water. Bloggers have been particularly active in both calling for protests and reporting what happened at them—especially in cases where peaceful protesters have been met with live fire—resulting in the creation of a new type of martyr, different from those associated with suicide attacks. Indeed, public sympathy toward martyrs of regime violence seems to be much higher and more likely to result in popular action than has been the case for those who engage in acts of so-called self-martyrdom that often result in the deaths of innocent Muslim civilians.

In the Sudan, activists have used Facebook to organize protests, but have also raised concerns that the police are using the site to compile lists of people to arrest. The openness of social networking sites has led some to be concerned about personal security because openness means that anyone, including the government, can access the information posted there and see who is talking to whom.

In places where the revolution has been achieved, such as Egypt, Facebook campaigns are not finished, but are changing focus. For example, the Tahrir Square veteran Ahmed Khalil is working to channel the revolution's momentum toward civic awareness of the need to take responsibility at an individual level for the construction of a new Egyptian society. His Facebook group is calling on Egyptians to protect their victory by building a better Egypt. He has combined his use of social media with older and more direct methods of reaching people, such as the distribution of leaflets throughout Cairo with practical recommendations for action, including, "Don't litter; don't blow your car horn for no reason; don't pay bribes; don't allow a police officer to humiliate someone in front of you; don't harass girls on the street; know your rights; stay positive; respect other opinions."3 Khalil's work is premised on the reality that changing the leadership is just the first step in changing society. The longer-term and often harder work of constructing civil society remains to be done.

There are many lessons to be discerned from the successful use of social media in garnering political and social change. The first is that information technology today is used by such a wide variety of people that no one has a monopoly over how it is used or for what purpose. This is expected to have a powerful impact on how countries are perceived in the global arena. In the past, governments were able to maintain relative levels of control over the image of their countries, often focusing on levels of development and artistic and scientific achievement. Today's reality of a variety of voices shaping that image—most of which lie outside of the government—carries the potential for a less cohesive or positive picture. One of the major goals of the youth participating in these uprisings was to send what they felt was a more accurate image of their countries to the rest of the world by showing, through sheer force of numbers, what the majorities of these countries believe is important, what their goals and aspirations are, and how they intend to achieve them. Indeed, perhaps the most lasting and powerful images from these uprisings are the vast numbers of people gathered in peaceful demonstrations. The participants have taken great care to emphasize the nonviolent nature of their protests in an effort to take the image of their country and culture back from extremists prone to violence, whether pro- or antigovernment.

Another striking aspect of these youth revolutions is that they have been careful to maintain that they are internal movements that have no need for outside help or inspiration, other than, perhaps, other Arab youth. Part of this insistence is due to the need to project an image of authenticity and legitimacy, but the other part is due to the need to distinguish themselves from the prior regimes that have been heavily dependent on the United States, in particular, for their political and military strength. Many youth activists see the United States no longer as the beacon of democracy envisaged by their parents, but as an active and deliberate supporter of regimes guilty of horrific human rights violations and injustices and as concerned only for its own self-interest, rather than the interests of the people. Thus, the youth have been careful to avoid any hint of open association with the United States in favor of focusing on their own capacity to solve the problems of their societies, evidence of which lies most powerfully in having gotten rid of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and successfully garnering reforms in other countries, such as Oman and Saudi Arabia, without U.S. support.

For the moment, the focus of the revolutions and protests has been domestic. However, in the long run, whether this newly found relative independence from the United States can be maintained remains to be seen. Some analysts and commentators are already suggesting that a dose of realpolitik and addressing of foreign policy will soon be needed if the revolutions are to have staying power, particularly because the youth, however enthusiastic and filled with good will, are lacking in the political and administrative experience necessary to run a state at both the domestic and international levels, particularly with respect to the economy. Simply changing the government or the leader does not change the surrounding context of tribal, provincial, regional, or sectarian loyalties or automatically result in the establishment of a fully developed and functioning democracy or even reform.

Finally, the strong participation of women as both leaders and demonstrators has challenged old stereotypes of Arab or Muslim women as passive, voiceless victims. Some of the most powerful and lasting images of the revolutions are of women marching; protesting; braving tear gas, tanks, and armed security forces; and shouting slogans. The Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz became known as "The Leader of the Revolution" following the posting of her online video telling youth to get out into the streets and protest. When male youths challenged her right to protest, arguing that it wasn't safe for women to be out, she challenged them back by insisting that they come out to protect her. Another prominent Egyptian woman leader, Dalia Ziada, has engaged in both blogging and activism to train others in nonviolent means of effecting change. She has reported that the ideas of nonviolent uprisings, the struggle for civil rights, and the advancement of freedom through careful strategy and meticulous planning, all resonated with youth leaders in Egypt, who not only planned and coordinated demonstrations, but also made certain to keep their activities secret so that they could not be disrupted by the government security apparatus.4 In Libya, women lawyers were among the earliest organizers of anti-Qaddafi protests in Benghazi. In Syria, women and children worked together to block a highway to protest the arrests of their husbands and fathers. In Yemen, the ongoing popular demonstrations against President Ali Ben Saleh have been led, since the beginning, by a woman, Tawaful Karman. Karman has been protesting every Tuesday since 2007 in front of Sanaa University, denouncing the expulsion of thirty families known as Ja'ashin from their village when their land was given to a tribal leader close to President Saleh. Karman insists that only the resignation of Saleh will allow Yemen to begin to address its problems. Thousands of Yemenis have joined her. In many cases, the protests have been broken up by either the police or armed supporters of the regime.

Women have also harnessed new social media to address social concerns. In Egypt, harassment of women is rampant, occurring openly and without much criminal recourse because parliament has failed to enact a law banning it. Women have found their own way to band together and fight back. In Cairo, a website called Harrasmap provides a digital map of Cairo showing areas where it may be dangerous for women to go alone. Women can either send text messages or tweets to the site to report incidents of harassment that are updated in real time. The goal is to allow women to help other women create a climate of safety for each other since the police and the state have failed to assure such personal security.

Despite these hopeful beginnings, history cautions us not to expect that women's leadership and participation will be enough to guarantee them a solid place in the new order. In Iran, Algeria, and Kuwait, previous women's involvement in the liberation of their countries from the Shah, the French, and Iraqi occupation, respectively, did not translate into an expansion of women's rights or greater access to the public sphere. In fact, because women are the culture-bearers, typically in the aftermath of a revolution when emphasis is placed on the restoration of order, women are ordered back home so that the men can put the country together again. Women's rights are typically subordinated to the "greater" issues of democracy and domestic stability. Hints of such paternalism are already apparent in Tunisia, where women have expressed great concern about growing calls for the implementation of Shari'ah and the potential for the rise of political Islam, which women fear may threaten their rights and equality. Indeed, several postrevolution rallies organized by Tunisian women have been interrupted by men telling them to go back home to the kitchen. In Egypt, the "Wise Men's Council," which provides advice, and the Constitutional Committee, organized to handle the transition of government, do not include any women; the heady days of men and women working together side-by-side in Tahrir Square have devolved in some cases to a return of the culture of harassment of women. Women have noted the particularly disheartening situation in Egypt because women had played such a prominent role in the revolution.

In conclusion, it is simply too early to tell what the long-term results of these revolutionary and reformist endeavors throughout the Middle East and North Africa will be. The only thing that is known for certain is that the use of modern technology and new social media has opened the door to new and creative thinking about how to assemble, organize, plan, and strategize activities ranging from political to social change that are immediately conveyed at a global level.


1 Based on the results of the Gallup Poll of the Muslim world undertaken following 9/11, these realities are not surprising. The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have remarkably reflected the findings of this poll. For further information, see John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. New York: Gallup Press, 2007.
2 "Tunisia's Revolution Rap Hits the Big Stage," Asharq Alawsat, January 29, 2011.
3 Bobby Ghosh, "Rage, Rap and Revolution: Inside the Arab Youth Quake," Time Magazine, February 17, 2011.
4 Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution," New York Times, February 16, 2011.

Selected Bibliography

  • Alavi, Nasrin. We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2005. A thematic approach to a variety of Iranian blogs translated into English.
  • Bunt, Gary R. Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber Islamic Environments. London: Pluto Press, 2003. An analysis of the religious use of cyberspace by Muslim preachers and leaders.
  • Eickelman, Dale F., and Jon W. Anderson, eds. New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. An edited collection of articles addressing the use of new media throughout the Muslim world.
  • Esposito, John L., and Dalia Mogahed. Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. New York: Gallup Press, 2007. An analysis of the findings of the Gallup Poll of the Muslim world.
  • Hammond, Andrew. Popular Culture in the Arab World: Arts, Politics, and the Media. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2007. A discussion of various aspects of popular culture in the Arab world.
  • Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Unity Productions, 2009. A documentary film discussing the construction and findings of the Gallup Poll of the Muslim world.
  • One Million Signatures Campaign, Iran. Website for the English language version of One Million Signatures Campaign, Iran.

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