Strangling Dissent

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Washington, DC – Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in Istanbul in early October lingered in the headlines for most of a month, in part because we were supposed to be beyond that sort of thing. Some 20 years ago I wrote a book entitled New Media, New Politics? From satellite television to the Internet in the Arab world that described how technology was making censorship departments irrelevant to the free-for-all media environment that was then emerging. Governments would have to develop thicker skin. I recall being in Damascus in the early 1990s, when censors trimmed offending articles out of international newspapers with razor blades. By the late 1990s, it was clear that age was coming to an end.

Despite widespread enthusiasm, technology has not yielded much democracy in the Arab world over the last two decades. Amidst hope that a “new Arab public” would emerge, especially during the Arab uprisings of 2011, governments have stubbornly reasserted themselves. The public seems to be accepting a bargain that represses political speech in exchange for greater freedom in other aspects of life. This bargain may not endure, but it has shown surprising resilience.

It wasn’t obvious that Arab governments would seize as much of the mass media as they did in the middle of the twentieth century. As societies modernized, Arab governments often met them with state-run outlets for news and culture that dominated and sometimes monopolized the attention of new audiences. Lebanon, which always had a weak central government, was the exception; there, foreign governments often funded outlets to advance their own proxy battles in the region.

Satellite television took the first bite out of that structure in the 1990s. With a satellite dish, the capacity of any single government to censor eroded. While the Saudi government waited several days to announce Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 because of uncertainty over how to report the news, doing so was unthinkable in the face of satellite television. Similarly, the traditional media boycott of Israel broke down as stations featured Israeli guests and stationed reporters inside Israel and Israeli-occupied territories.

Social media took the second bite out in the 2000s, as the information environment exploded and previously unknown individuals gained audiences in the millions. The Egyptian Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” sought to memorialize and agitate around a young man killed by the Alexandria police. Its audience took off, and when the dust began to settle, Hosni Mubarak had been pushed from a presidency that he had held for almost 30 years. Governments had been accustomed to directing—and misdirecting—public attention for decades, but it no longer worked. Social media stars emerged who curated content and enticed the public to pay attention rather than compelled them to do so.

And yet, Arab governments recovered their mojo. Independent media, never very commercially successful in the Arab world, fell more under the sway of governmental ownership. Governments began adding sentiment analysis of social media to their polling efforts to understand public views. And as extremists exploited social media, governments used them as an excuse to exert control over sites such as Facebook and Twitter. They did much of this with the help of Western governments, who were keen to address the terrorism threat. Yet, to many regional governments, jihadis and secular youth activists were equally hostile to the status quo and thus equally deserving of repression.

What has proven resilient in the Arab world is the so-called “dark social media”—apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp that provide encrypted communication to a known but finite group of individuals. Friends, families, and classmates have an unprecedented ability to communicate securely, and they do so with increasing regularity.

But the reach of the “dark social” world is limited by social networks. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, its messages are not available to the general public. With limited reach, they seem unlikely to foster a revolution.

These media may perpetuate many of the political challenges the Arab world is facing. The ubiquitous smartphone has given terrorist cells channels of secure communications that their predecessors could only dream of. Similarly, it allows the disaffected to share their disaffection with small numbers of like-minded individuals instantly. Among small groups of the hostile and disaffected, technology has been a boon.

Despite the spread of encrypted communication among small groups, though, Arab governments appear to have reasserted their control over the commanding heights of communication. To the extent that television, newspapers, and radio still have reach, governments largely control them. Their intelligence services also have used their power to monitor and analyze Internet data to gain newfound insight into what individuals do on social media. Consequently, governments have newfound opportunities to understand opposition movements and nip them in the bud. It is easier for opposition groups to make noise, but it is harder for them to make change.

The public’s response so far has been to disengage. The heavy monitoring of political discourse—combined with the catastrophes that followed political activism in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere—has cooled much of the zest for political change. It is far safer to abandon the political sphere to those who are willing to police it ferociously and to use communications for things far more personal and intimate.

Jamal Khashoggi flouted this trend. He made a public argument—loudly, in Arabic and in English—that the Arab world needed to discuss politics more and not less. While he was an aficionado of all forms of personal communication, he sought to use mass media as a means of enlisting hundreds of millions of Arabs in the cause of change. Some governments saw him as a tool of the Muslim Brotherhood, overthrowing governments in the name of democracy only to impose an Islamic theocracy. Others saw him as the embittered client of royal patrons who had fallen. Still others saw him as a gadfly. But Jamal Khashoggi made clear that he refused to be silenced. And then he was silenced, but the battle continues.

(This commentary originally appeared in the November issue of Middle East Notes and Comment, a newsletter of the CSIS Middle East Program.)

This article originally appeared on and is published here with permission.

Jon B. Alterman
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Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, holds the Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and directs the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC

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