On Being Hashtagged

Adhwan al-Ahmari seems to think that there is some kind of war raging between Saudi journalists and activists. He said the revolution in Egypt has produced a divide between the two groups. This war is taking place in Twitter and in newspaper columns.

First, let’s get some facts straight. There is a lot of broad-brush statements and sweeping generalizations being thrown around here.

For example, Adhwan says activists are demanding the immediate release of all detainees and apply the criminal procedures law to them even for terrorism suspects. This statement is not entirely true. I never heard any activist say they want all detainees released. What most activists want is simply to have the criminal procedures law applied to all detainees, because indefinite detention is illegal and violates their basic human right to a speedy and fair trial.

The activists I have been talking with tell me that keeping detainees in prison for prolonged periods will backfire because these individuals who feel they have been locked up unfairly will leave prison — if and when they do — with a good reason to hate the government, and to act on it. The government needs to respect the law and present the detainees to a court of law, activists said, where they would get charged or acquitted.

Adhwan disagrees. He thinks that activists are exaggerating the numbers of detainees and their grievances, and even lying to promote their cause. Moreover, Adhwan thinks terror suspects should not enjoy the legal protections provided by the criminal procedures law because terrorists have killed innocent people, bombed buildings, and attempted to overthrow the government. That’s why the government, he argues, is not bound by the law when dealing with them.

Of course Adhwan is not the only one of this opinion. Other people, in the media and outside it, agree with him. Recently, some journalists who share this opinion have grown fed up with the activists rising calls on the government to respect the law. Since such topics are still sensitive for mainstream media in the country, activists have turned to social media and the international press to make their voices heard. This did not set well with some local journalists like Adhwan, who seems to have a lot of pride in his profession.

Adhwan’s colleagues, as I have written earlier this week, decided to take on what they called the “New Activism.” Activists, and their supporters, don’t have newspaper columns. They have Twitter. There, they denote their tweets about a specific topic using a hashtag. When someone says something controversial and what they said becomes a topic of discussion on Twitter, we commonly say that he has been hashtagged.

However, because we as a society are not used to critical thinking and open debate, this practice makes some people uncomfortable. I’m not saying Twitter is perfect for every kind of discussion. Sometimes people will use the hashtag to attack the person instead of discussing his ideas. Is that good? No, but I think it comes with the territory and I can live with it. Plus, in a country where frank debate of our most pressing issues is still laden with political, religious and social mines, Twitter is providing a great window into the psyche of the nation where people can freely talk about these issues

Again, I’m not saying that unchecked personal attacks are okay. All I’m saying is that if you decided to publish an opinion then get ready to be not just criticized but to take whatever you get. If you are too sensitive and can’t take criticism then you probably should not put your opinions out to the public.

If getting hashtagged hurts your feelings.. well, tough shit. Grow up. Welcome to the Internet.

Some people downplayed the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Now some local columnists like Salman al-Dossary are trying to do the same. But even if the number of Saudi users on these sites is still not very big, I think tools like Twitter and Facebook have become mainstream enough to offer a good representation of society.

Al-Dossary says it is “laughable” that anyone would take Twitter seriously when there is only 115,000 Saudi users of the service. However, when you consider that many of these users have more followers than the daily circulation of his paper, you wonder who should be laughing.

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The Arab World Demographic Dilemma: Young, Unemployed, and Searching for a Voice

Arab youth confront daunting challenges, including a lack of economic opportunities, constraints on their freedom of expression, and the complex and shifting nature of their own Arab identity. How the Arab world meets these challenges will have significant ramifications for the Middle East and the world. This special panel discussion marks the release of America Abroad’s three-part public radio series on youth in the Arab World.

Moderator Deborah Amos, foreign correspondent of NPR News who has covered the Middle East extensively, started by saying that as a reporter in the region you notice the young population, but most of the people she interviews are usually over 30. “If you overlook this generation, you miss something essential about the Middle East,” she said.

Marc Lynch, aka Abu Aardvark, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University, believes that one thing is clear: sheer magnitude of the crisis facing youth in the Middle East. Lynch said many in the West focus on a small group of activists and bloggers, but miss the silent struggle of tens of millions of people. Those people are and their issues are also ignored by their own governments, who seem to think that as long as they can keep these young people off the street then they are doing a good job. Lynch said the recent events in Tunisia and Algeria is particularly interesting because it could have a domino effect all over the Arab World. But when it comes to political ramifications of these events, he wonders if it is going to lead to a substantial change in policy, or just to more repression and bloodshed. This kind of spontaneous uprising and dissent has no place to go because there are not political or social movements involved in it. Lynch said the greatest single thread that combines what is happening in the Arab World right now is the failure of the system to deal with systematic problems, as well as the failure of outside intervention plans. “The tools we have might not be appropriate, and the dynamics are don’t look familiar,” he said. “It’s exciting and troubling.”

Christine Capacci-Carneal, is the Education Development Officer of USAID, and she works primarily with USAID-funded programs in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, West Bank/Gaza and Yemen. Based on her experience in youth development programs, Capacci-Carneal said that youth are a sophisticated group with many subgroups, and that’s why a problem-based approach is less effective than a comprehensive approach. “Problem free is not fully prepared,” she said. As an example for working with that approach, Capacci-Carneal talked about Youth:Work Jordan, which tries to engages youth directly, but also tries to solve systematic issues by targeting youth in poor districts and working with local organizations. She commended the efforts of the program, but admitted that one of the problems they faced is that they have had a hard time building political will and institutional capacity to sustain that effort. Other challenges facing such programs include how to address building a stronger youth voice and a stronger sense of identity then let local organizations join in that effort. Also, how do ensure that your using the available funding efficiently? Capacci-Carneal said USAID is working to develop better research tools to know what works best.

Lina Khatib, who runs the Good Governance and Political Reform in the Arab World at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law in Stanford University, wanted to focus on youth and freedom of expression in the Arab World. She said that social media has opened up further space for views on many topics that were considered once taboo such as politics, sex, and religion. “No doubt interactive media pushed the boundaries for what’s permissible,” she said, and that young people are no longer willing to accept the status quo as the norm. Khatib has also given the recent example of Tunisia, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in what she described as “a desperate plea for the issues of arab youth.” But she added what gives her hope is that young people have not given up and continues their struggle, and thanks to the fact that we live in a world of globalized media, and no authoritarian regime in the Middle East can fully stop the circulating of information. “Youth need a strategy to reach goals,” she concluded, “not just enough to say what they want, but also a way to find what to do.”

Diane Singerman, the associate professor at the American University School of Public Affairs, decided to focus on a slightly different angle on the issues facing Arab youth today. This issues, she said, was extremely ignored: the question of marriage. In the Arab World, adulthood equals being married. However, it is very expensive to get married, and because of the high unemployment rate it is difficult for young people to work and save for marriage. This leads to what she called “wait-hood,” the stage between childhood and adulthood that can only be reached by getting married. Signerman cited the example of Egypt, which has the latest age of marriage anywhere in the world outside china. According to studies, 50 percent of men in Egypt are unmarried, and when they do get married they get married later and later. That’s why youth unemployment should be seen in the lens of getting married, Singerman said. Young men are political excluded because of repression, economically hurting because of unemployment, and because they can’t make money to get married they become socially excluded.

Apologies for posting much later than expected due to some technical difficulties.

Runaway woman, La Yekthar, Wikileaks, censorship, sectarian violence, and more

  • In a story that would probably work perfectly for a Saudi action movie, a woman in her twenties has fled her husband and lived for two months in the guise of a man, mixing in male company, driving a car, and praying with males in the mosque.
  • Meanwhile, my good friends Fahad al-Butairi and Ali al-Kalthami continue to impress with their comedy show La Yekthar. Below is the second episode. Can’t wait to watch the next one.

  • Wael says “It is no wonder that Saudis moved into the cyberspace to vent out their frustrations and dreams; nowadays, they are all over the social networks talking about their daily lives, sharing links with friends and even organizing some kind of virtual remonstrations on twitter, Facebook and blogs.”
  • Faisal Abbas: “You see, what this cable is telling us is that an American informer based in Riyadh actually sent back classified information to his superiors in Washington DC to say that Saudis watch and enjoy American television programs. Seriously? Did it really require an informer to “discover” this? What’s next, a team of American anthropologists revealing that Saudis eat at McDonalds? Drive GMCs? Or Wear Levi’s?”
  • The holy city of Medina has witnessed some sectarian violence last week on Ashura. I was sad to hear the news, but I couldn’t wait to see how local media would cover the event considering its sensitive nature. Not surprisingly, none of the local papers wrote about the real reason behind the violence. This kind of censorship can lead to a hilarious form of reporting, if we can call it such. Take this gem from al-Riyadh daily for example:

    Informed sources have asked the authorities to shut down some websites that have continued to instigate the two parties at certain times by historically linking them to ancient events and demanding to retaliate from the grandchildren under banners that incite differences to serve suspicious parties that aim to shake the stability in the land of security and safety. Some imapassioned young men from the neighborhood who were dressed in ‘black’ have followed these banners, broken into doors, and frightened the people, which made them resist and call the security forces who remained in the neighborhood until dawn.

    Here is an idea for Saudi media: if you can’t cover a story properly, don’t bother covering it at all. Okay?

  • Speaking of censorship, columnist Abdullah al-Maghlooth, who wrote a profile of yours truly a couple of months ago, is reportedly banned from writing after al-Watan daily published his latest article which posed an interesting question: “Who is the youngest official in Saudi Arabia?” I guess an old official didn’t like that question.
  • Apologies for the hiatus. Last week was the last week of the semester, which means I had a lot of work to finish, and I was also moving from my place in the Bronx to a new one near Columbia. A lot to catch up on. Here we go. Scroll up!

Robbery in skies, Routes of Arabia, Weddady’s response to Khouri

  • Have you heard of the Air France flight attendant who was arrested for robbing passengers? Muhammed al-Ahidib provides four reasons why this woman would not have been able to steal if she were working for Saudi Arabian Airline.
  • Here is another good review for Routes d’Arabie, this time from Bloomberg.
  • Nasser Weddady offers another fine rebuttal to Rami Khouri’s op-ed in NYT. At the end of his blogpost, Weddady comments on a part of Khour’s article that I chose to ignore, which is about the “hypocrisy” of US government’s interest in social media while it supports the very same dictatorships that crush liberties. This is an old and overused argument, and something I have touched on in my op-ed in the same newspaper last year.

Thoughts on Jeddah

Three weeks have passed since the Jeddah catastrophe. People now are eagerly waiting for the verdict of the investigation commission. While we are waiting, it might be useful to look back and reflect.

The heavy downpour has exposed some nasty things such as the nonexistent infrastructure and the abundant corruption. But like what happens with many other things in life, sometimes we need to see the ugliness before we see the beauty. There are at least two good things I saw coming out of this disaster: the great spirit of the people, and the power of social media.

In the days and nights following Black Wednesday, we have seen more than 7,000 persons who volunteered to help in any and every way they can. I’m proud of Ibrahim al-Kushi who opened his house to shelter the displaced. I’m proud of Bassem Kurdi who decided to stay at the hospital when everybody else told him to go home. I’m proud of so many young men and women who, despite the harassment of some self-appointed guards of morality, rolled up their sleeves and spent countless hours at al-Harthi Exhibition Center to organize, distribute, and deliver the donations to those who need them in the most damaged areas of the city.

The relief efforts have been largely coordinated using the internet and social media tools. One Facebook group in particular was central to these efforts as it acted like an umbrella and a gathering point for volunteers. The group is called Rescue Jeddah, and it boasts more than 9,000 members. The content there is all in Arabic but you don’t need to read anything to see what they have been up to. Just look at the pictures and the videos and you will get a good idea on what they have done so far.

Beside Facebook, people were using blogs, Twitter, and SMS to circulate the latest news. They were also using Flickr and YouTube to document what was happening in real time. Some of the pictures, like the one of the dead little girl covered with mud, were really disturbing. But I think that in crises you need shocking images to make others understand the gravity of the disaster.

As for videos, estimates say more than 400 videos have been uploaded over the past three weeks. Most of these were taken by citizens using their mobile phones, but I have also seen some well-produced videos like this one by Mohammed al-Rehaili. In the end, I will leave you with this short film by Bader al-Homoud, who captures the tragedy but instead decides to focus on the bright human side of the story:

Read more:

  • One of my favourite blog posts about the disaster is this by McToom in which he offers an illustration on the basics of drainage systems. You know, because our officials are too busy to read long blog posts like mine.
  • Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of Arab News, wrote a letter to Makkah governor. “At the moment, the people of Jeddah and the surrounding areas are hurt, sad, anguished and in both physical and mental pain,” he said.