LONDON: The great thing about globalization is that it forces us to get to know each other. On this hyper-connected information superhighway you discover that someone you’ve been MSN chatting with for the past six months actually lives next door or that a person you bumped into online who is continents away is good friends with your first cousin.
But at an age where the cyber word is a double-edged sword, where rediscovering the connections we have with others has become so much easier, yet our perception of one another has so much more potential for distortion, the role of the media is paramount.
This was the subject of a network seminar I attended in Stockholm last week titled “Media Awareness: To Define or be Defined, part of an ambitious multi-cultural dialogue program designed by the government-affiliated Swedish Institute (SI).
The aim of the SI’s Young Leaders Visitors Program was to bring together 25 Arab youths from Egypt, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria for an intense three-week training on how to become a leader and how to utilize new media to affect social and political change.
The program culminated with a discussion of whether there is a clash of civilizations or a clash of ignorance and the role of “new media in subverting the traditional hegemony of the mainstream media over news and information about the “other.
While the feeling that social media is the panacea to older forms of mass communication that have proven their deadly power to misinform and to perpetuate stereotypes permeated the atmosphere, there were also cautionary voices warning against the flip side of this glut of sources and the resultant fragmentation of opinion.
Harvard-educated professor of modern history Dr Madeleine Hurd who currently lectures at Sweden’s Sodertorn University College said that despite new media’s potential to create an alternative public sphere, especially powered by the fact that it is uncensored, the lack of checks and balances means that the veracity of information also becomes questionable.
What the discussion failed to address, however, was the difference in the impact, significance and role of social media such as Youtube, Facebook and blogs in context of dictatorships and democracies.
How does a lone dissident in Cairo blogging for human rights and presenting an alternative version of the ever-elusive “truth to a rather limited audience in a highly illiterate and unconnected society, compare with the strength in numbers we witnessed during US President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign? In totalitarian regimes, who are cyber dissidents addressing; their own media, their own populations or governments, or the foreign media which they believe are the channels leading to decision makers in superpowers who will supposedly place pressure on these authoritarian regimes? If it’s the latter, has this strategy been at all effective on a large, visible scale?
While the seminar reflected growing grievances felt by marginalized groups (mainly Arabs and Muslims) within Swedish society, who are often identified as immigrants and foreigners despite being Swedish citizens, the very fact that this debate is taking place on such a prominent level reflects an introspection and an adherence to the characteristic principal of lagom (moderation in Swedish) that permeates life in that Scandinavian well-fare state which boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world.
Back in Egypt, news of clashes between our very own marginalized groups, the Bedouins of North Sinai, and state security forces makes one ask whether introspection is anathema to hybrid dictatorships like Egypt that exploit a façade of democracy they show to the world to literally get away with murder – and perhaps even be rewarded for it.
Three Bedouins from Sinai were killed last Tuesday during clashes with police triggered by the shooting of a member of the Tarabeen tribe the day before as he turned to drive away from a police checkpoint.
If anything, the increasingly violent hostility between the Bedouins living near the Egyptian-Israeli border reflects the failure of the Egyptian government to deal fairly with these groups who are isolated and suffer complex social problems like unemployment, and the complete negligence of the state vis-à-vis their basic needs.
If the situation in Sinai is not contained, it may soon turn into an all-out war reminiscent of what happened with Islamist fanatics in Upper Egypt in the 90s and the growing discontent of Egypt’s Coptic community, whose grievances spring mainly from the impotence of the state and its inability to exert the force of the law to punish criminal actions blown out of proportion because of underlying sectarian tension fuelled by a sense of injustice felt by all Egyptians, independent of their religious affiliation.
It’s ironic that just yesterday Egypt reportedly drew up a blacklist of 26 Saudi Arabian firms that allegedly abuse their Egyptian workers; a decision triggered by the flogging of a 53-year-old doctor who was convicted of being behind the morphine addiction of an unidentified Saudi princess following a riding accident.
Who will be held accountable for the abuse and ostracizing of Egyptians in their own country, however?
The Swedish Institute should seriously consider whipping up an “Aging Leaders Visitors Program.
With all due respect to cyber dissidents and grassroots activists, at least for now in this country real, radical change can only be top down.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.