How the Arab uprisings created a generation of tech-savvy protesters

For youth seeking change, the internet was a 'new tool to play with, and to dream with'

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Fuelled by the Arab uprisings a decade ago, a new generation of tech-savvy protesters emerged in the Middle East.

Ten years ago, activists painted placards, joined arms and marched through the capitals of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and other countries.

At the time, social media platforms were still in their infancy, but a new world was unfolding online, in parallel with the street protests.

“We got to a point in this region where normal activism is not working any more,” said Mohamad Najem, executive director of digital rights organisation Smex.

“The internet came as this new tool to play with, and to dream with,” Mr Najem said, addressing an online panel hosted by digital rights advocacy group Access Now on Wednesday.

At the time of the Arab uprisings in 2011, there was immense excitement about the possibilities of digital connectivity. Ten years on from the movement, digital activists are savvier, albeit wearier.

But many vividly recall the empowerment that came with social media, allowing people in the region to connect and amplify their voices globally.

“I think the new generation that has taken over the streets by protesting has shown a massive change in the way of protesting,” said Emna Mizouni, an activist from Tunisia, where protests continue to this day despite the democratic gains made after the 2011 uprising.

“It's very different because they learnt how to protest while they have the freedom of protest, freedom of expression, and freedom of the internet,” she said.

“We are so unfortunate to be celebrating the 10th anniversary of our uprising in Tunisia by a huge and massive crackdown on the freedoms that we gained from that revolution,” Ms Mizouni said.

Libya Idres was a teenager during the Libyan uprising. She said that when Muammar Qaddafi’s forces raided her home to arrest her father, a journalist covering the protests, she instinctively took to social media.

"The first thing I did, before I even ran to the door to see what was happening, was to send a Facebook status and tweets to say they're breaking into our house," said Idres, who is editor-in-chief of BBC Media Action.

“Today I look back and I’m like, I really don't believe that 17-years-old me did that even though it was really dangerous,” she told the Access Now panel. But the internet is “a tool that this generation mastered how to use”.

In their quest to master online spaces, it did not take long for protesters to learn the limitations, and dangers, of using social media.

Content began disappearing with little explanation, Tunisian bloggers were arrested, and Egypt ordered a week-long internet shutdown.

TRIPOLI, LIBYA - FEBRUARY 17: People take a photograph during a gathering to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring in Martyrs Square on February 17, 2021 in Tripoli, Libya. Libyans across the country gathered to mark the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that led to the ousting and killing of ruler Muammar Gadhafi. The anniversary comes after a new executive authority was recently announced in Libya. Mohammed al-Menfi was elected as Head of Presidential Council and Abdulhamid Dbeibeh as interim prime minister of the new unified Libyan authority and tasked with delivering new elections for the country, scheduled for December 2021. (Photo by Nada Harib/Getty Images)
People in Tripoli, Libya, take a photograph during a gathering to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Arab uprising. Getty Images

"My impression is that in our countries, it's very difficult to be alone," said Fouad Abdelmoumni, a Moroccan human rights activist who said he was the target of a surveillance campaign.

Many activists called for a universal declaration on digital rights.

For Bahraini human rights defender Maryam Al Khawaja, such a doctrine is necessary "because we exist in the digital space almost in the same ways that we exist in the physical space”.