Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Who can resist the pull of the audience? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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With the succession of events in the region, who can still remember the numerous Arabs and Westerners who previously described what happened in the Arab world as the Facebook or Twitter revolutions? The stars of this period, in Egypt, for example, were figures like Google executive Wael Ghonim, female blogger and political activist Esraa Abdel Fatah, and Asmaa Mahfouz. As for Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya, the situation was not too different. Attempts were made to create a state of harmony with regards to everything that was happening, and find other Wael Ghonim’s and Asmaa Mahfouz’s in every country. Arab and Western writers sang the praise of these youth, to the extent that a quick reading of articles and interviews of famous writers in the Arab world, in addition to articles published in US and European newspapers, represent a veritable celebration of the Facebook and Twitter youth. (The term Twitter later beat and practically eradicated the term Facebook, in this regard)

I still possess copies of some of these articles glorifying the Twitter and Facebook youth written by prominent writers in Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. These articles condemn their countries’ previous cultural and political experience and sing the praises of the internet youth, disavowing the countries previous political expertise and culture. Some writers called on people to burn their old books and forget everything that they had read or thought they knew and instead listen to these youth and blindly do what they say! Yes, this is truly the direction things were heading in during the year of the “Arab Spring”. This is something that was not only said and believed by the youth, which would be understandable, but also by well-experienced and worldly people as well! However it seems that all this experience and expertise disappeared in a moment of revolutionary recklessness!

The purpose of this article is not to stop at this particular moment in time when Arab intellectualism was absent! This was a period of time when it was as if Arab intellectualism had decided to satirize itself and glorify the Arab street, square, and youths who had previously been viewed as being more enthusiastic than rational. Rather, the purpose here is to pause and contemplate just one of the numerous manifestations of the Arab youth’s “chaos”, and the process of destroying everything that is known in order in favour of the unknown. This is something that glorifies chaos itself and is reminiscent of the literature written by leftist European writers in the 1960s, whilst some psychologists are of the view that this reflects behaviour studied by Sigmund Freud, namely the Oedipus Complex.

A few days ago, young Egyptian MP Ziad al-Elemy, one of the stars of the Egyptian revolution, publicly insulted Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi during a public rally in the city of Port Said. The rally was dedicated to the bloody incidents that took place there and which caused dozens of deaths and injuries following the now infamous football match between Al-Ahly S.C. and Al-Masry.

I watched the YouTube recording of al-Elemy’s statement, and this represents direct proof of the pull of the audience. The insult in question, mouthed by a young revolutionary MP, was not a voluntary act, but rather was in response to the demands of the audience.

According to the details provided by the CNN online Arabic edition, during a public rally entitled “the Day of Solidarity with Port Said”, MP Ziad al-Elemy, co-founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and Executive Board member of the Revolution Youth Coalition accused the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] of being responsible for the violence that has erupted across many Egyptian cities.

Al-Elemy was cited as saying that the Port Said incident, which resulted in the deaths of dozens of Al-Ahly S.C. fans in early February, in addition to the sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt was orchestrated by “the same criminal”, in other words SCAF.

During his public address before the rally, al-Elemy used a famous Egyptian aphorism to criticize the regime’s tendency to scapegoat lower-ranking officials whilst leaving the real perpetrators unpunished, saying “how long will the people allow the donkey to escape but grab on to the saddle?” One of the audience then asked, “who is the donkey?” and the Egyptian MP replied “Field Marshall Tantawi is the donkey.”

There can be no doubt that SCAF has suffered the ultimate affront as a result of this insult against its chairman Field Marshal Tantawi, who remains the de facto leader of Egypt.

SCAF threatened to take legal actions against al-Elemy without referring to parliament, should the Egyptian parliament fail to hold the MP accountable for his actions. Al-Elemy has so-far refused to apologize for his comments, and the Egyptian Parliamentary Speaker referred him to a special committee for investigation.

However, a number of Egyptian MPs continue to exert effort to convince al-Elemy to issue an apology to Field Marshal Tantawi and SCAF.

This incident is a typical example of the discourse which is prevailing amongst the majority of the “internet youth” who are presenting themselves as permanent advocates of the revolution, not just in Egypt, but also in other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Twitter youths – although some of them are no longer members of the youth – and their Egyptian Twitter counterparts share certain characteristics, namely: verbal attacks, savagery, sweeping certainty that they are right and attempts to mobilize the public. In short, there is a state of persistent tension and an on-going search for a victim to accuse and insult and flog every day.

This situation has been explained by some as being the result of the novelty of this experience for the Saudi people, who are not accustomed to direct discussion in this manner and exposure to different and disparate intellectual, political and social viewpoints. Perhaps this is true, to a certain extent, but what about the same complains which have been made regarding the use of Twitter in a country like Kuwait, for example, which enjoys great levels of freedom and democracy and freedom of expression in its traditional media outlets, not to mention the unprecedented levels of political debates in parliament and public rallies? The same thing also applies to Egypt.

Therefore, the excuse, in the Saudi situation, that the novelty of this experience is the reason for this savagery on Twitter is a poor one.

In my own view, this is perhaps the result of the Twitter environment itself, for each place has its own culture and code of conduct, and so one’s behaviour on the playground is not the same as it is in the classroom, or the coffee-shop, or a place of worship. Each place has its own code of conduct. Similarly, what applies to real environments must also apply to virtual environments.

There is a sense of rivalry with regards to drawing attention to one’s views and ideas, and so sometimes mistakes – and indeed catastrophic mistakes – occur. No one is safe from this, the young or the old, men or women, liberals or Islamists, or even those who have nothing to do with politics – this is the culture of this domain and the pull of the audience.

In a previous article on the same issue published a few months ago, I said that the “posturing” on social networking websites has practically transformed them into platform for political activity and for polishing one’s profile. We are today experiencing a “surfeit” of information across the world that makes distinguishing between what is true and what is false, or between what is real and what is exaggerated, or between what is subjective and what is objective, increasingly difficult. This is apart from the fact that the competition to gain fame on the internet and achieve popularity has promoted everyone to persistently seek to shock the public and attract attention, which is something that comes at the expense of scrutiny and accuracy. This happens so extensively that rumours are often taken for facts, or sometimes information is revealed before it is ready or confirmed, and in a second has become a news item circulated across the world at incredible speed between different news media and websites. However, rectifying or correcting a mistake or refuting a certain piece of information may not occur as quickly as this news was initially circulated.

In fact, despite this surfeit of virtual information, there is a lack of real accuracy in this regard, and so digesting all of this fails to sate one’s hunger.

This kind of publicity is akin to a runaway horse; it is useful whilst you are riding the horse, yet at any moment you can fall off and be trampled.