By: Albrecht Hofheinz, Univeristy of Oslo.

In these days, in which we celebrate that the University of Oslo’s 2012 Outreach Award has gone to the Middle East ‘milieu’, I want to re-draw attention to this cartoon from 2005:

The renowned Lebanese-Swiss cartoonist Chapatte published this in the International Herald Tribune on March 10, 2005, during the first “Arab Spring”. The cartoon brilliantly illustrates the role media have played and are playing not only in calling for reforms to the entrenched systems ruling the Arab world, but also in motivating people (not least, young people, including ‘Islamists’ and women) to leave the virtual realm and come out on the streets, threatening the ‘shaykh’, the old patriarch, who is desperately trying to barricade the door to reforms.

I want to draw attention to this cartoon for two reasons:

First, media (primarily those not directly controlled by states, and especially satellite TV, cellphones, and the internet) are playing a decisive role in bringing about changes in the relations of power between rulers and ruled, old and young, men and women, in the region. This is a truism by now, and last year’s debate (was the revolution technology-driven, or was technology a mere tool?) is less important to me here than to re-emphasize that dynamics observable in the media (not least in the relatively unregulated online sphere) can have a premonitory function and alert us to possible dynamics about to happen on the ground. As the Project on Information Technology & Political Islam’s analysis of the “Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring” stated last year: “a spike in online revolutionary conversations often preceded major events on the ground”. Or as I wrote in 2004: “Die im Internet gegebene Möglichkeit der Individualität des Zugangs wird […] zunehmend als individuelles Recht zur Wahl und zur Beteiligung an Debatten und Entscheidungen aufgefasst. Das mag langfristig nicht ohne politische Folgen bleiben, wenn […] die so geprägten Nutzer auch in der breiteren Öffentlichkeit eine neue politische Rolle einfordem.” (The possibility of individual access that the internet allows is increasingly perceived as the individual’s right to have a choice and to participate in debates and decisions. In the long run, this may not remain without political consequences when users socialized in this way begin to demand a new political role for themselves in the wider public”) (Hofheinz, “Das Internet und sein Beitrag zum Wertewandel in arabischen Gesellschaften”).

Second, the ‘Arab Spring’ began long before 2011. Also this is a truism, but it often tends to be forgotten in these times of limited attention spans. And here I don’t mean only to point at long-term developments and their roots in the 18th century, when reformers “worked to spread the idea that every believer had the right and duty to hold up presumed authorities to the standards of the Scriptures” (Hofheinz, “Nextopia”). Even relatively recent genealogies quickly tend to be forgotten as Google’s top 10 define our horizon. Thus, the Wikipedia article on the Arab Spring does not, as of this writing, contain any reference to the 2005 events (in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt) that were the first to be labeled “Arab Spring”, in US media in March 2005 (first accessible instance in the Boston Globe, March 10, 2005) but before that by the late Samīr Qaṣīr of An-Nahār on March 4, 2005 (“Bayrūt Rabīʿ al-ʿArab”; both the original and an English translation are available from the SamirKassir website). The Beirut spring in turn was not wholly unrelated to the “Damascus Spring” of 2000/01, the initial months of hope after Bashshār al-Asad took over as president of Syria.

Neither the Damascus Spring, nor the Arab Spring of 2005, nor that of 2011, have led immediately to the results that their most fervent protagonists were pushing for. In this, the Arab springs do not differ from the Prague Spring, or May 68, for example. But those who lived those days have carried on their experiences, their hopes, and their momentum into their wider lives, private and political.

Therefore, 2011 in the Arab world can well be compared to 1968 in Europe and America: providing symbols and identifying moments for a generation that through their collective and long-term impact rather than through a few single events is changing the course of their societies.

Reaching, as it were, beyond the media to what used to be called the ‘real’ world. The ground.