Social media and the Arab Spring: Where did they learn that?

by Will Stebbins

In my work as an external affairs consultant in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) division of The World Bank, I have had the opportunity of becoming very familiar with the region's development literature. One of the key questions the literature attempts to answer is the source of the incredibly high unemployment rates in Middle East and North Africa: Far higher than any other developing region, and especially high among college graduates.

This is a key economic context for the 'Arab Spring,' and one of the sources of the mass frustration that led to the protests. The literature identifies a number of well known culprits: non-diversified economies, highly dependent on oil, both for those that have it and those that don't, and very small private sectors, as the state continues to dominate MENA economies and hence the labor markets. Yet, it's the  public sector that is under stress as a result of the global financial crisis.

These are all certainly true, but when it comes to answering the tricky question of why increased enrollment in higher education, one of the region's notable successes, has not translated into increased employment gains, one common theme is a mismatch of skills. The skills being taught just aren't relevant to the new global economy.

Yet the 'Arab Spring' revealed a generation that had a very sophisticated grasp of new technologies, and that had come up with ingenious ways of using them to organize and mobilize. A generation that was also clearly capable of critical thought and effective communication. This was evident in the ability to identify and articulate a collective sense of economic and political exclusion. In Tahrir Square, they displayed a high degree of creativity and enterprise. A whole cross section of Egyptian society managed to come together and establish a functioning community based on cooperation, inclusion and self-reliance. This protest model is currently one of the region's most successful exports, second only to raw materials. The 'Occupy Wall Street' movement has spoken openly of its debt to the Arab spring, and similarly inspired protests have occurred everywhere from Europe to Australia.

It makes you wonder where it all came from, if MENA universities are churning out graduates taught to stand in line and wait for a government job. The skills it took to organize the 'Arab Spring' protests would be both relevant and prized in other contexts.

There is clearly something missing in the development literature, something beyond the economic descriptions. This is in no way to suggest that they are not accurate. They most certainly are, and helpful in understanding the 'what' of the 'Arab Spring.' The state's ability to purchase stability with patronage and jobs has been under threat for some time, and the global economic crisis, which has forced a tightening of budgets, has meant the traditional response to social crises, of massive increases in public spending, has been impossible everywhere except in the Gulf. The rest have had to rely on repression alone.

This explains the 'what,' and the much celebrated use of the new social networking media explains the 'how' of the Arab Spring.  It is how they organized and mobilized, but not why.

What was truly remarkable about the mass protests, apart from the extraordinary bravery of the demonstrators, was that they cut across the fault lines that we had all been led to understand defined the Middle East. As powerful as the sectarian, confessional and class divisions appeared to be, there was something equally powerful that transcended them, and allowed for this mass movement. The desperate act of Mohamed Bouazizi was clearly the catalyst that set off the unprecedented chain of events known as the 'Arab Spring.' However, the collective sense of disenfranchisement, and the ability not only to express it but to act on it, were already there.

If the universities are not teaching the necessary skills, they must come from somewhere else. There must be other peer to peer networks where the vital technical skills are nurtured, that were essential for using the new media to establish and maintain the political coherence of the mass movements. There must be other civil society organizations that allowed for the development of collective identities that were based not on what divided them but what united them. It strikes me that if the education system in MENA needs reforming, the first step would be to identify and integrate these networks and organizations. They have produced the skills that are currently transforming MENA societies, and will be vital for their future growth.

Will Stebbins has had an extensive career in broadcast journalism, spanning the civil war in the Former Yugoslavia, the fall of Zairean president Mobutu Sese-Seko and the establishment of the Associated Press' Havana bureau after a thirty year absence. He was also the founding Washington Bureau Chief of Aljazeera English. More recently, he has been an external affairs consultant to the Middle East North Africa division of the World Bank, and a producer for Germany's largest public broadcaster, ARD.