Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Cyber wars and the Arab Spring | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – “Facebook”, “YouTube”, “Twitter”, these are three internet phenomena that represent – in the eyes of many political analysts – the spark which lit the flames of the popular uprisings that have swept our region this year and which have come to be called the “Arab Spring.” Social-networking and video-sharing websites are today playing an increasingly important role in the media and political arena, particularly with regards to the manner that protesters have been able to utilize such websites to oust ruling regimes in the Arab world, particularly with regards to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.

In this context, “Facebook” has been a pioneer in the field, being by far the most popular social networking website on the internet, allowing its users to stay in contact with one another and indeed the outside world, as well as communicate with one another to exchange ideas and opinions and even organize protests and demonstrations. This is something that has allowed “Facebook” to have a huge influence on Arab society and politics. As for “Twitter”, Arab youth have also utilized this to stay in contact with one another, but also to communicate with one another, organize protests and demonstrations, as well as communicate live updates and news on the ground. The video-sharing website “YouTube” has also played a significant role, and this can be seen in the uploading of video clips from Libya and Syria, which has allowed the international community to witness the situation on the ground with their own eyes.

Many different websites and tools have been utilized during the “Arab Spring”, but with one objective, namely to break the political and media siege that has long served as an obstacle to political movements calling for democracy and change. Since the beginning of the popular uprisings in the Arab world, thousands of Facebook pages have been set up calling for pro-democracy protests and demonstrations to be staged, with such protests regularly being staged following Friday prayers. Indeed we have seen “Friday’s of Rage” being staged in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria. This is not to mention other Friday protests, such as the “Friday of the beginning of victory” in Syria, and the “Friday of Perseverance”, the “Friday of Unity”, and the “Friday of Departure” in Egypt. Most of these protesters saw millions of Arab citizens taking to the streets to protest against their ruling regime, demanding political change and freedom.

However pro-regime supporters have also utilized the internet and social media to promote their point of view. Regarding the Syrian crisis, many al-Assad supporters have set up Facebook pages and websites to “defend” Syria. This includes a number of groups, most prominently the “Syrian Electronic Army” attacking Arab and western media outlets for allegedly supporting the Syrian revolution. These digital counter-revolutionaries claim to be a privately funded group that has no direct connection with the Damascus regime or Syrian authorities; however research carried out by the “Infowar Monitor’s” Helmi Noman reveals that the domain name of the “Syrian Electronic Army” website was registered on 5 May, 2011, by the Syrian Computer Society (SCS) an organization that was headed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 1995, before he assumed the Presidency.

The “Syrian Electronic Army” has attacked Arab and western media outlets, as well as Facebook groups set up to support the Syrian uprising, accusing them of colluding in a conspiracy to bring down the al-Assad regime. The “Syrian Electronic Army” reportedly utilizes DDoS attacks [distributed denial of service attack], phishing scams, and other techniques to confront Syrian opposition activists and others online. They have attacked many websites carrying out so-called “virtual demonstrations” affecting many prominent media outlets, and even US President Barack Obama’s Facebook page. These pro-Syrian regime hackers do this by overloading the social networking profiles of government institutions and Western media outlets – including the Facebook pages of ABC News, Oprah Winfrey, and the US Department of Treasury – with pro-Assad messages. The attack on Barack Obama’s Facebook page resulted in the Coat of Arms of Syria being displayed on the bottom of his page, below a banner reading “We love Bashar al-Assad so…leave us alone!”

Arab media outlets, most prominently Al-Jazeera TV and Al-Arabiya TV have also contributed to the popular uprisings that have occurred in the Arab world by providing live coverage of developments, preventing the [Arab] regimes attempts to cut-off communication. Indeed the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and the al-Assad regime in Syria, all tried – in varying degrees – to block internet access in their countries, although this is something that ultimately failed to end the respective uprisings.

The “Arab Spring”, and the communication techniques being utilized, has allowed the Arab youth to break out of their political, social, and economic marginalization at the hands of the regime and the prevailing social and political culture. The Arab youth have shown how their mastery of modern technology – which allowed them to organize and communicate with one another – has allowed them to take on the ruling regimes and win. These Arab youths have managed to achieve something that the established political opposition and trade unions failed to achieve, despite their contributions and sacrifices over recent years which is something that nobody can deny.

There have also been reports that the CIA has played a role in aiding Arab revolutions, and of US intelligence officials meeting with opposition leaders. However Washington has stressed that the US has played no such role in the “Arab Spring”, despite the US officials and ambassadors – in some cases – issuing statements of support for the Arab youth and their revolutions. Indeed observers have indicated that Washington initially issued strong statements of support towards former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the beginning of the Egyptian uprising, whilst Washington also issued statements expressing their concern that the Benghazi protests – at the beginning of the Libyan uprising – was being led by radical Islamist elements.

Therefore there can be no doubt that the internet and modern communication technology, particularly social networking websites like “Facebook” and “Twitter” have had a huge impact in the success of the “Arab Spring”.