Backstory Of A Revolution: Studying Tweets, Posts

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Steve Inskeep talks to Mazen Nahawi about how the Arab world has used social media forums to trigger social uprisings. Nahawi is president of News Group International, a Dubai-based news management company that monitors and analyzes traditional and social media around the Middle East and North Africa.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

People describe the Arab uprisings as a Twitter or Facebook revolution. The man we'll meet next sought to learn what they really means. Mazen Nahawi of the research firm News Group International says people didn't just use social media to tell each other to protest. They'd been using it for years to express themselves in repressive countries.

Mr. MAZEN NAHAWI (News Group International): It is that muscle of freedom that has been exercised on the level of one-to-one relationships - talking about your favorite sports team, choosing the product that you want, choosing to work with a company that you like or to leave a company that you don't like. It is that psychology of freedom that created the consciousness which led people to Tahrir Square.

INSKEEP: Now Nahawi's firm is sorting through millions of messages from places like Egypt, searching for key words. Human beings then read the most relevant messages.

Mr. NAHAWI: The good things are people want to continue that march towards more freedom. They want more accountability, more justice. They want to throw away corruption. The worrying things have a lot to do with what they want government to be. We're finding a lot of people want more government in their life.

INSKEEP: Well, now, that's a really interesting development, because we should underline for people who may not know that in a place like Egypt there had been a lot of privatization of state-run industries in recent years. A lot of people were thrown out of work in that process. There was a lot of corruption as well. And that unhappiness with privatization was part of the unhappiness that led to the revolution.

Mr. NAHAWI: Absolutely. It was a major driver of revolutionary thinking in Egypt. And the privatization that happened was one which was very limited to the ruling family and the people who were in fact around them.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about another finding - optimism towards the revolution. I believe this is the Egyptian revolution we're talking about.

Mr. NAHAWI: Correct.

INSKEEP: You report here that people were united and optimistic and now they're not united and not so optimistic.

Mr. NAHAWI: That's right. We're finding increasing levels of disenchantment. People are starting to lose faith in the end game of the revolution. The level of optimism was perhaps a little bit too high with the euphoria of the ousting of the former regime, and things are probably starting to settle down. But conversation about activism has in fact not declined.

INSKEEP: But you also find that religious influence from groups like the Muslim Brotherhood is on the rise. What do you mean by that?

Mr. NAHAWI: There is a war for the hearts and minds of the Arab people today. There are individuals who are charismatic, who are secular, who are nationalist, who are entrepreneurial, who are pushing back against an organized religious agenda. The problem is that individuals on their own might have a following, but they won't have a movement or an organized political structure.

One of our important findings was 85 percent of all people in Egypt believed that the Muslim Brotherhood had the right to participate in political discourse in Egypt. However, findings prove quite definitively that people are looking for leadership that represents a diversity of views.

INSKEEP: Now, we've mostly talked about Egypt here, but I wonder if there is a finding from some of the other countries that have not yet deposed their leaders.

Mr. NAHAWI: Sure. It varies really from one country to another. But you're finding things heating up a lot in Yemen, of course, as we all know. Unfortunately, the number of people in Yemen on the Internet is not really representative of the overall population, the way it is in Egypt, for example.

In Jordon, there's an enormous debate on social media as to who is a Jordanian. Are they the ethnic east Jordanians or are they people of Palestinian origin? That social media conversation has really heated up.

In Lebanon you have a very strong debate about the need to break away from the politics of sectarianism and the politics of aristocracy, which have dominated that country for a very long time.

So really we can go on and on.

INSKEEP: Well, now that you can look at the Twitter and Facebook and other messages from Egypt and Tunisia and know what it looks like online when a revolution comes to a country and succeeds, do you think that you're able to venture a prediction as to which other Arab rulers might lose their jobs and which might survive?

Mr. NAHAWI: We actually did publish a barometer of popularity for different Arab rulers. We have very strong evidence that there's large discontent against the personality and the policies of President Ali Abdullah Saleh´┐Żof Yemen and Gadhafi of Libya.

And that combined with that new Arab consciousness and the demand for freedom and the ability to have practiced free thinking for a few years, since the advent of social media, is combining to put real, real pressure on people like the president in Yemen and Gadhafi. And the reality is there has to be change.

INSKEEP: Mazen Nahawi, thanks very much.

Mr. NAHAWI: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's with News Group International, a company based in Dubai.

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