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Understanding Tunisia and Egypt as a Network Society Revolt

October 29, 2011

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt represent the kinds of political revolutions appropriate to a “network society,” argue Ilhem Allagui of the American University of Sharjah and Johanne Kuebler of the European University Institute who write:

Allagui and Kuebler make this case in a short essay, “The Arab Spring and the Role of ICTs” in which they claim:

the Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrated the power of networks. People did not assemble in the streets to espouse their political views or opinions nor to demonstrate solidarity with their political parties, the leaders they followed, or the gatekeepers they trusted. Instead, they mobilized for two other reasons, the first being the pain they shared due to difficult socioeconomic conditions: Unemployment, the high costs of living, inequalities among classes, censorship, and so forth were at the root of people’s humiliation and frustration. Deplorable economic conditions, political deprivations, corruption, and social repressions are ubiquitous among most Arab countries and represent the motivating factors for these revolutionary actions. The second reason, as important as the first, is the flow of networks to which people belong: networks of friends, family, work, school, and others of interest (such as the media).

While many scholars have written about “network society,” and meant somewhat different things by the term, these authors specifically cite the work of Manuel Castells (1996, 2004, 2006, 2007), especially as interpreted by Philip N. Howard (2010, 2011).

Castells notion of a “network society” is based on the premise that networks–including peer, family, work, but also mediated networks created through information and communication technologies–are replacing the vertically integrated hierarchies that have long been our primary mode of social organization.

One can see the appeal of this kind of analysis. The Egyptian uprising appears in many ways to perfectly capture the relationship between a system of networks–the protesters–and a hierarchical authoritarian state, in which the initial outcome, at least, was victory for the networks.

Moreover, the authors see the events in Tunisia and Egypt in the light of Philip N. Howard’s claim that democracy can only occur in authoritarian Middle Eastern countries if digital network dissemination of information replaces centrally-controlled state mass media–something which appears to have occurred to some extent in these uprisings.

But the future is not yet clear, the authors point out:

On the whole, however, because a military ruling council is in charge, Egypt cannot be said to have undergone regime change (yet), as the nation has been run by the military since 1952. The council has promised to hand power over to an elected government in Fall 2011, but the military has political, economical, and social vested interests in maintaining the current system. In fact, the army has enjoyed, until now, high autonomy. Its budget has never been under parliamentary scrutiny: the military manages enterprises in sectors such as olive oil, bottled water, hotels, construction, petrol industries and hospitals.

The article is the introduction to a special issue of the International Journal of Communication focused on the role of information and communication technologies in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.

References

Castells, Manuel. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. I. Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Castells, Manuel, ed.  2004. The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA, Edward Elgar.

Castells, Manuel, ed. 2006. The Network Society: From Knowledge to Policy. Washington, DC, Center for Transatlantic Relations.

Castells, Manuel. 2007. Communication, power and counter-power in the network society. International Journal of Communication, 1(1), 238–266.

Howard, Philip N. 2010. The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. New York: Oxford University Press.
Howard, Philip N. 2011. Castells and the Media: Theory and Media. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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