Twitter is a plague—at least according to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While such a statement could easily be dismissed as mere venting after more than a week of nationwide protests, Erdoğan’s stated distain for social media surely resonated with leaders throughout the region. From Morocco to Oman, Arab World leaders—long accustomed to being practically immune to public outrage—have found themselves compelled to negotiate with resolute, organized masses of citizens who demand a better life.
While each situation is unique (and the culture and history of Turkey make it particularly distinct from the nations of North Africa and the Saudi Peninsula), the spirit of the protests in Istanbul today is similar to that of Tahrir Square in 2011. Leaders in the region, long viewed with contempt by their subjects, have seen their public’s stoicism replaced with a spirit of possibility, as a new generation passionately believes itself empowered to change the world. And two of the greatest weapons in the arsenal of these tech-savvy idealists are hip-hop and social media.
On 17 December 2010, exasperated from years of theft and harassment at the hands of local police, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline in front of the governor’s office where his recently seized scales were being held and lit himself on fire. The dramatic act, and simple question Bouazizi asked moments before igniting the match: “How do you expect me to make a living?”, ignited a fire within the Tunisian people. At the same time, Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amour (‘El General’) had just posted his latest song, “Rais Lebled” on YouTube.
With its scathing appraisal of the Tunisian regime and El General’s song called for the Tunisians to put aside the fear which had up until that point silenced them, the song quickly became an unofficial anthem for the growing number of protesters calling for an end to Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s reign. On 22 December, El General released the video for “This Is Our Country”. Shortly thereafter 30 Tunisian police officers showed up at his family home and took him into custody. Family members who dared ask why he had been arrested were simply told “he knows why.”
El General was eventually released after signing a statement that he would no longer make political songs. But his music already existed and was going viral among the protesters. Young Tunisians stoked the flames of the growing movement and girded their resolve on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Until, on 14 January 2011, when Ben-Ali resigned and fled to Saudi Arabia.
Around the same time, Egypt was beginning to see the same sort of unrest. President Hosni Mubarak was about to enter his third decade in power and rumors were spreading that he was grooming his son as an heir apparent. While ostensibly elected (Egyptians were given the opportunity to approve of the president in referendums every six years), Mubarak enjoyed little popular support, as his administration was seen as out-of-touch, heavy handed, and corrupt.
What began as series of small non-violent protests organized through Facebook groups, grew into 14 days of demonstrations as more and more Egyptians filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square and demanded Mubarak’s resignation. Opposition was nothing new and there had been protests before, but in the past any serious threat to the Mubarak regime had quickly ‘neutralized’. This time, social media had changed the game. Egyptians could now support each other and organize protests in a safe, anonymous space. They could reach critical mass before taking to the streets.
Music was a central feature of the Egyptian protests. Early in the uprising, El General’s “Rais Lebled” was used in much the same way as it had been in Tunisia. As the protests grew, improvised call-and-response chants flourished.
Inspired by this phenomenon, Syrian-American rapper Omar Offendum teamed up with a number of North American artists to produce the track “#Jan25”. Named after a hashtag used in Twitter discussions about the Egyptian Revolution and wider Arab Spring, the track highlighted the role of social media while showing that the world was watching what was happening in the streets of Cairo. And this is important when considering what forces dictators to change their ways or abdicate power.
In his book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah pointed to shame—often brought on when horrific stories or images are seen or heard by the outside world—as a vital factor in ending abhorrent practices. With outrage pouring in from the world and the deafening chants of “leave now” echoing through the streets of Cairo, Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011.
Not all dictators leave when shamed. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi fought for months before being captured and killed, and for the last two years, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has waged open war against his people. What began as street protests has now escalated into a global conflict, with support and weapons coming from outside the county and growing evidence that those loyal to the regime have used chemical weapons multiple times against the Syrian people. Offendum has continued to be outspoken as his country of origin collapsed into civil war and his video “#Syria” has garnered hundreds of thousands of YouYube views.
Contrary to western notions of the abstemious Arab world, the desserts of North Africa and the Saudi Peninsula have long resounded with vibrant poetry. From desert nomads who improvised retellings of the history of the Bedouin people in rhymed verse to Rumi, the 13th century mystic Muslim poet whose collected works have topped Amazon poetry sales lists for years, poets have long filled the desserts and mountains of the region with vibrant verse. Thus, it’s no surprise that as more and more Arab youth connected with the West through the Internet, hip-hop becomes their music of choice.
The low cost of producing rap combined with the wide reach of social media create an extremely effective means of getting a message out, with the music serving as vehicle of expression for frustrated youth. There’s DAM in the Palestinian territories, Kla$h in Saudi Arabia, Ados in Turkey, and Moroccan female emcee Soultana. In Turkey, where a protest over proposed demolition of a public park has turned into extended, nationwide protests denouncing the government for everything from Turkey’s muzzled media to tightening liquor laws, the social media phenomena has taken on a different feel. Shortly after Erdoğan dismissively called the protestors “looters”, the phrase “Everyday I’m çapuling” (roughly translated: looting), sung to the tune of LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem”, became a popular hashtag and even inspired a viral YouTube video.
More than just a forum for angrily airing grievances, hip-hop has served to steel the resolve and invigorate the spirit of protestors. In his memoir of the Egyptian Revolution, Revolution 2.0 Wael Ghonim wrote, “’We can’ was the critical weapon used to fight ‘there’s no hope’ and ‘nothing will ever change’. This embrace of hope and rejection of fear is found throughout the hip-hop music of the Arab revolution.
Social media is not without its drawbacks, either. Videos and pictures sometimes prove to be inauthentic and the openness of the platforms allow governments to get in the game, too. In addition to efforts to monitor, censor, and blackout internet discussions, dictators have their own social media campaigns, as recently seen when a group believed to be tied to the Syrian government began hacking the Twitter accounts of media outlets critical of the Assad regime including The Onion. Yes, that The Onion. Still, the protesters’ messages are disseminated and dictators, whose daily interactions are usually limited to a small circle of yes-men, rarely come across in their broadcasts as credible.
The future of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Turkey is uncertain, but the events of the last few years have provided an alternative model for societal transformation, possibly making Mark Zuckerberg and Tupac Shakur two of the more unlikely political heroes of the 21st century.