Using Social Media to Foster Tolerant Societies

Nivien at International IDEA October 29, 2013

Yours Truly at the International IDEA conference

The online edition of the Thunderbird Magazine just published an interview with me, entitled “Using Social Media to Foster Tolerant Societies.” You can find the article here. Below is a reprint, with a few added hyperlinks.

Thunderbird Professor Nivien Saleh, Ph.D., spoke in The Hague, Netherlands, at the Conference on Minorities and Marginalized Groups in Constitution Building Processes, organized by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance on Oct. 29, 2013. The topic: New media’s ability to advance minority participation in politics and constitution building. Fellow panelists included Brendan Ballou of Stanford University and political consultant Walter Owuor of Kenya. Following is a recent interview with Saleh from the Netherlands:

Q. Why is it necessary to talk about minority participation in constitution building?
A. The drafting of a constitution represents an important step in any nation’s history. The constitution is society’s vision of its own future — the fundamental law from which all other law derives its legitimacy. It assigns rights and duties to citizens, determines who is recognized as an important member of society and who isn’t.

In recent decades the international community came to the recognition that societies should be inclusive — that they should favor not only the majority but also create space and acceptance for minority groups. And since a constitution is such an important document, any strategy aimed at the inclusion of minorities must have a constitutional component.

Q. Constitution building frequently happens in societies that were or are undemocratic. How does information and communication technology impact the relationship between the state and its citizens?
A. First, states have the ability to limit Internet access through firewalls.

Firewalls of the Mind

Firewalls of the Mind (Photo credit: beedieu)

Examples include Saudi Arabia, Iran and China. But in most cases censorship is an imperfect tool for control: As ever more nations use the Internet for commerce, systematically preventing Internet usage becomes a source of competitive disadvantage.

More importantly, technology enhances the surveillance capabilities of the state. As the nation’s primary regulator, the state can dictate how technology service providers should deal with personal information or how they should channel information flows. At the same time, the state has the financial resources to buy and deploy surveillance technologies. But for reasons of information overload, the state must focus its surveillance on specific persons of interest. It cannot monitor all citizens equally.

Let’s now turn to the way in which technology — especially social media — empowers citizens. First, technology increases the end user’s independence of centralized sources of information, such as state-sanctioned newspapers, TV stations, and the websites of these established media channels.

Second, these applications enable end users to find like-minded individuals, remote as they might be, and to forge communities with them, enhancing their capacity for political action. That aspect is especially important for geographically dispersed minorities such as the Roma community, which can be found in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary and Slovakia. Technology enables such communities to congregate virtually and raise their voice.

Debate on the US internet surveillance of EU c...

Debate on the US internet surveillance of EU citizens (Photo credit: European Parliament)

On balance (and with exceptions), technology enables the state to monitor its citizens without managing to control them. Technology also gives citizens access to new services and more ideas. As a result, citizens become more demanding, insisting to be heard. Does this mean they become democrats? Not necessarily, because democracy requires two things of citizens: Making their voices heard and listening to those who disagree with them. Technology fosters the former far more than the latter. To understand that this is so, recall the incidents of cyberbullying that have driven targeted teenagers into depression and sometimes suicide.

It would therefore be wrong to assume — as numerous observers have done — that technology automatically renders societies more open-minded and inclusive of minorities.

Q. To what extent can minority groups use technology to advance their political inclusion?
A. The answer depends on how economically marginalized the group in question is. Let’s compare the LGBT community in the United States and the community of “garbage people” in Egypt.

America’s LGBT community is moving from marginalization toward social acceptance. Importantly, a good number of its members are highly educated and enjoy a high socioeconomic status, which enables them to make demands on behalf of their group. They have won a high level of representation in Hollywood, where new comedies — for example Glee, Will and Grace or the Tyra Banks Show — have taken up the LGBT cause.

In Cairo there lives a minority of Zabbaleen, or “garbage people.” About 70,000 strong and overwhelmingly Christian, that community has for decades been manually collecting society’s refuse, then hauling it on donkey carts into their neighborhoods, where the recyclable trash is sorted and sold, and the organic waste is fed to pigs. Even though the Zabbaleen deliver an important social service, they are outcasts — partly because of the smell and dirt around which their lives revolve, and partly because they are poor. Unlike America’s LGBT community, most Zabbaleen are illiterate and cannot afford computers to access the Internet or smartphones necessary for leveraging microblogging sites such as Twitter.

Cover image of the "Garbage Dreams" DVD

To learn more about the Zabbaleen, watch the movie “Garbage Dreams.” For the film website, click on the image.

The example of the garbage people shows that economically marginalized groups face at least three challenges in the constitution-writing process:  1. Lack of education means they are less likely to understand the content of constitutions and the political stakes involved in writing a constitution that is inclusive; 2. Lack of finance means they cannot afford the hardware needed to leverage technology for collective action;  3. Lack of education means they cannot decipher much of the content generated by technology.

Q. How can new media best be used to advance the political inclusion of minority and marginalized groups?
A. Technology is just a tool. Its functionality is determined by the intentions and capacities of the actors who use them. This means that technology can foster a public sphere that disintegrates into various enclaves of like-minded citizens who congregate around opinion leaders that reinforce their stereotypes. Technology can also foster a me-me-me society of individuals who want to be heard but refuse to listen.

But if it is deliberately put in the service of inclusion, technology can bring citizens together in ways that transcend group boundaries. To maximize that potential, both activists and program officers at agencies promoting democracy must understand that any media content they create will compete for the attention of their target audience with many other sources of information. Their Web content must therefore be compelling and attractive. And to enhance the chance that their target audience keeps coming back for more, program officers and activists should integrate principles of social media marketing with the quality web content they have generated.

What are some of the most important social media strategies? First off, get to know your audience and the social media they use. Understand what makes them tick. Connect your message to their passion. Allow them to speak back and show that you listen.

Q. What are some of the key experiences that might point to best practices in using new media for increased minority inclusion?

English: Wael Ghonim personal photo العربية: ص...

Wael Ghonim personal photo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A. The Facebook page “We are all Khalid Said,” which was administered by Google executive Wael Ghonim and Abdelrahman Mansour and helped kick start the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 exemplifies best practice — at least before January 2011, the period with which I am familiar. That page exemplifies how social media marketing can be used to advance political strategies, especially those aimed at inclusion and solidarity.

While demanding justice for Khalid Said, a young Egyptian slain by police informants, the Facebook page spoke to its members in their language — colloquial Egyptian rather than standard Arabic. It asked members for their input into tactics through opinion polls, and the page administrators showed their willingness to listen by revising their strategy based on feedback they received from page members.  And in the process, Wael and Abdelrahman advanced the principles of democratic accountability, empowerment of the grassroots, and inclusion across genders, ages, and religious backgrounds.

Q. Looking forward, what projected future uses can we envisage for new media and information communication technologies in ensuring the participation of minorities and marginalized groups in constitution building?
A. What role minorities play in constitution building is more determined by the state’s willingness to include such groups and by the general social acceptance of the group than it is by technology. To the extent that technology is put in the service of inclusion and tolerance, it can help position minorities such that come constitution-writing time, the state and dominant groups will include the minority in the writing process. But this possibility will only materialize if media strategies aimed at inclusion penetrate society deeply, widely, and consistently.

The Mujahedin of Iran: Conversation with an MEK Insider (Mideast Connections 2)

At the Thunderbird School of Global Management early this spring, I attended a luncheon and met Amir Emadi. A clean-cut, well-spoken MBA student of Iranian descent, he handed me his card. On its back was a large and unfamiliar logo. Underneath big letters stated “Camp Ashraf.”

This startled me, and I looked quizzically at him. “Camp Ashraf?” I asked. The home of People’s Mujahedin of Iran, an organization that until recently was on the U.S. Government’s terrorism watch list? And silently I wondered, “Does Thunderbird have students with links to terrorist groups?”

Amir responded to my puzzlement with equanimity, which made me truly curious. Turns out, both of his birth parents have been members of the MEK, as well as numerous relatives. When Amir was born, his father and mother sent him abroad, to be adopted and raised by a family close to the organization.

What an interesting background, I thought and decided to ask him for an interview. This video is the result. Amir speaks about the organization’s history, gives his take on the question whether the MEK betrayed the Iranian people during the Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1981 to 1988, describes Camp Ashraf and the deal that the MEK made with the U.S. after the Iraq invasion of 2003, and finds that when former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani advocated delisting the MEK, he did it not for money but out of conviction.

You may or may not agree with Amir’s worldview. What you will have to admit is that for a graduate student in his twenties he makes a remarkable case for the group on camera. Check out the website he designed at I’d say he’s got a future in public relations.

The Revolution Continues: Egypt’s Activists and their Struggle for Bread, Freedom and Social Justice

Albuquerque largeLecture today by Nivien Saleh (9VJZC4AJSM9H), 3 pm to 5 pm, followed by reception.
Sponsors: Center for International Studies and Albuquerque International Association
Location: UNM Continuing Education Auditorium, 1634 University Blvd. NE, Albuquerque, NM

When Egypt’s population rose up in January 2011, pundits and some academics quickly determined that Twitter and Facebook had liberated the people from dictatorship. With two years hindsight, how good a prognosis was this? Dr. Nivien Saleh’s presentation will take a close look at Egypt’s activists and examine how they fared after President Mubarak’s ouster. Get to know Noha Atef, the young woman behind the human rights blogTortureinEgypt.Net, Ahmed Maher, the founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, which played a central role in kickstarting the revolution, and Ali Salah, a young man who had never cared much about politics but who became one of the first to join the demonstrations that ousted President Mubarak. What battles did these committed men and women fight, win, or lose? How successful has the revolution been? Has President Morsi betrayed their hopes for democracy?

Full flyer can be found here.


Egypt’s Constitution, Complete and in English

I proudly announce that I have translated Egypt’s 2012 constitution. To find the document, visit this page.

Here’s how it came about:

In mid-December 2012, after toppling President Hosni Mubarak, battling the generals that followed him into power, struggling with inflation and unemployment, and going through an emotionally charged presidential election, Egyptians had to decide on a new constitution.

It was a tumultuous process. Together, the Muslim Brotherhood and the more rigid community of salafists held the majority of seats in the constitutional assembly. Assembly members fought over the role of the military and its ability to try civilians and freedom of speech. Critics demanded that the High Constitutional Court annul the constitutional assembly in its entirety.

Article 2, which designated the Islamic sharia as the primary source for legislation, and article 219, which defined the sharia, created especially great controversy. Women’s rights organizations protested against the article. So did Christian groups who worried that the new constitution would leave them marginalized.

Among the politically active population, views of the evolving constitution were closely aligned with their view of President Morsi, who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood. Those suspicious of Brotherhood rule were critical of the constitution. Those who supported President Morsi demonstrated in its favor.

Given the electric atmosphere that prevailed on Tahrir Square, at the Journalism Syndicate, and other locations where demonstrators gathered, the referendum was surprisingly lackluster. Tired of postrevolutionary politics, most Egyptians stayed home. Only 33% of adult citizens turned out and supported the constitution with 64% of the vote.

That left me curious. Did this document warrant the boredom it generated among Egypt’s electorate? Or rather the volatile mixture of fear and exuberance it elicited among the politically active?

After reading an English translation of the constitution that Egypt Independent published in stages beginning November 30, 2012, the day the constitutional assembly adopted the final draft, I was startled by critical comments that people who had read both the original and English versions made in the feedback section of the page. In hindsight I believe that this translation – an excellent one considering that it was produced on the fly – was actually of an earlier constitutional draft.

So I decided to do my own translation. Its source is a document I downloaded from AlJazeera Mubasher – or AlJazeera Live. AlJazeera Mubasher posted it on November 30, 2012, affirming that it was indeed the final draft.

So does the constitution deserve the bad reputation it has had among rights activists? I suggest you judge for yourself!

A Note on the Gendered Aspect of the Translation:

Like German or French but unlike English, Arabic is a gendered language. Each noun comes with a gender that is attached to it. For example, “doctor” in Egyptian Arabic would be “doctoor,” which is male. To describe a specifically female doctor, one attaches an “a” to the word: “doctoora.”

Arabic, like many other gendered languages, uses the male form of nouns in statements that apply to both sexes. For example, whereas an English announcement might read, “The museum visitor is asked to check his or her camera at the desk,” in Arabic that same statement would be expressed as “The museum visitor is asked to check his camera at the desk.” Female visitors are simply subsumed under this essentially male expression.

In translating the constitution, I have made no effort to eliminate the gendered aspect of the language.  The reason is that Egyptian society is patriarchal, granting men legal, economic, and cultural advantages over women.  A gendered translation reflects this patriarchal value system more honestly than any attempt to gender-neutralize nouns and adjectives.

This means, of course, that even when the translation reads “he submits the petition”, the woman is considered subsumed (as in “he or she submits the petition”), unless the statement makes specific exemptions for females.

Thank You:

I am grateful to Hans Wehr for producing my trusted dictionary, and to Google for inventing Google Translate. I also wish to thank Mohammed AlDawood for checking my translation for accuracy and my wonderful colleague Hassan Ajami, who helped me when I ran into particularly challenging expressions.

If you find any remaining mistakes, please feel free to contact me.