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Sela, Gupta and Klein reimagine revolution, twitter and the ‘Arab Spring’ in public talk

<om this year’s Arab Spring protests listed the tools of revolution, among them “machete” and “AK-47,” both crossed out.
Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, remained untouched. Presentations by Carleton professors last week discussed how this unlikely revolution occurred.

On Nov. 2 Avraham Sela, Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor of Political Science, gave a talk in the Athenaeum titled, “Understanding the Arab Spring,” in which he presented his perception of how the revolts in North Africa and the Middle East unfolded and predicted what the future may hold for the regions.

The following night, the Weitz Center for Creativity hosted a panel, “Perspectives on the Arab Spring,” in which Assistant Professor of Political Science Devashree Gupta, Assistant Professor of Arabic Yaron Klein and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of French and the Humanities Dana Strand discussed the cultural factors involved in the revolution.

Sela, a Professor of International Relations at Hebrew University, focused on the political and economic factors that led to the uprising such as corruption and rising food prices. He also speculated on how to avoid continued unrest in the region. Sela believes that the area’s young population requires jobs in order to avoid further discontent.

The three professors in the second panel presented on topics relevant to North Africa that also aligned with their areas of research.

Gupta, who has previously researched the evolution of social movements, began the evening by pointing out how social media has been a prominent player in activism for the last few years and that the Arab Spring would not have occurred the way it did without such tools.

She explained that Twitter and Facebook played a key role in spreading revolt because they are short, effective ways of disseminating information with little financial or personal cost. People risk less by tweeting or posting about injustices or action in their communities than by using previous, printed forms of communication. The message also travels more quickly through its ability to address thousands of people with only a few clicks.

“The message becomes liberated from its author,” Gupta said, explaining the power of the viral message. “It levels the playing field for individuals who do not have much of a geographic reach by still allowing them to reach a global audience.”

Gupta went on to compare the Arab Spring’s use of media with that of the European revolutions in 1848 and labor unrest in the U.S. South in the 1920s. Like the Arab Spring, both cases involved a newly introduced technology, the steam printing press (which allowed for thousands more papers to be printed at a time than ever before) in 1848 and radio in the ‘20s, which was used to send out subversive information because those in power had not yet regulated the technologies.

Gupta believes that social media gave the citizens an effective way to communicate anger but warned that the governments of countries experiencing unrest may eventually find a way to control the social media output.

Strand followed Gupta and emphasized how the difference in governments and histories between the Francophone countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia influenced the start of the Arab Spring.

In Algeria, writers and intellectuals in the early 1990s attempted to reform the country, but were later assassinated in the Algerian Civil War that followed. Today, writers are fearful of the same reaction in Algeria, causing a limited attachment to the Arab Spring. In Morocco, where there is greater freedom of expression, writers did not inspire as much revolt.
Strand not only discussed Tunisian writers and filmmakers’ place in society, but also pointed to how outside culture influences politics. She cited an example of how the showing of “Persepolis,” a film that portrays a somewhat negative view of the Islamic world, on a Tunisian television station caused an uproar that possibly helped lead a “moderate” Islamic political party to win recent elections.

Klein concluded the evening by elaborating on how musicians become the voice of the people and helped inspire change. He discussed the distinctions between songs from a Tunisian rapper, an Egyptian guitarist/singer and a collaborative effort by a group of young Egyptian musicians.

The Tunisian rapper’s song clearly outlined the government’s problem and helped foment the government’s removal. The two Egyptian songs reflected the opposite spectrums of emotions that came with the removal of Hosni Mubarak: one was optimistic, the other bitter over years of corruption.

“I really enjoyed seeing how music can have different roles in unifying people,” said Inara Makhmudova ’11, who currently works in the Registrar’s Office.    

Strand felt that the panel successfully presented interesting information but that the evening was not perfect.
“We needed a follow-up speaker to combine all the information that was stated into a cohesive manner,” she said.

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