2011: Year of the Protester

Since this is the last post of 2011, I`d like to take few minutes to say goodbye to an year that has been truly amazing (sometimes in a scary way, too).

Most of the things I thought would be very unlike actually happened in 2011, the good and the bad things. When I first got an sms by a Tunisian friend last 14 January 2011 I could not believe what I saw on the mobile screen: we, the Tunisian people, are going to celebrate tonight for the dictator is gone.

credit: Time.com

I screamed and cried when I saw my computer screen streaming pure live joy from Tahrir square in Egypt, on February 11th cause another dictator was gone.

I walked the streets of my dear Damascus last February, curious to see what would happen in the Syrian days of rage and saw nothing. Yet, only few days later, and few meters away from my house, I saw a spontaneous explosion of anger, a protest for dignity called by real streets and not by Facebook. Then, again, as unexpected as that one, another unexpected thing happened, again near my house, again in Old Damascus. It was the 15th of March, and people said Syrian revolution was beginning.

I dont believe in slogans and in Internet calls for revolutions, but what I saw was the street revolting, real people being hurt, not avatars.

Since then, Syria has never been the same. People are still fighting for their freedom and dignity, in many ways, the most unexpected, the most creative, the bravest.

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

And then Libyans won their fight against Gheddafi and started to rebuild their country. The brave people of Yemen have been hitting the streets since January and are still there. A tough crackdown on Bahrain and the silence of international community have not stopped the people from asking their rights to freedom and equality. Women have been driving change in Saudi Arabia, and Kuwaitis have occupied their Parliament to demand reforms and an end to corruption.

And then Jordan, Morocco, Algeria. And Palestine, of course, always in our hearts.

The most amazing thing is that Europe for the first time took the energy out of the Arabs and shouted. Spain has been leading with the indignados. In my home country the situation is different, and I wish I could tell you we the people ousted Berlusconi -and not the international finance-. But we occupied public spaces and gave them back to the citizens. And we still have our jewel up working, Teatro Valle Occupato in Rome, where a new form of collaborative art and culture has born, and more to come.

There is something I will always remember of this almost gone 2011. When I was in DC, a month ago, at the #occupyDC camp, a blond haired guy told me, proud of himself: “I do not fear teargas: I am Egyptian”. So I answered in Arabic and I was surprised to hear that he didnt speak any. Then I discovered he was not even of Arab origin. He was just pretending to be an Egyptian, this guy, a W.a.s.p. American!

This solidarity, this empathy, this brotherhood I saw throughout the world, from the Arab Springs to the #occupy movement to the indignados, is the hope I want to take with me in 2012, despite all the bad things still happening and yet to happen.

 Kull 3amm w entu be kheir.

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

You Tube and Kuwait: much ado about nothing?

Two days ago the news about Kuwaiti Ministry of Communications blocking You Tube for carrying offensive content provoked a certain turmoil on the Arab media. Issues were raised as those of censorship, freedom of expression, etc. Blogger communities had felt of course very attacked.

The origin of all this “ado” is believed to be some videos posted on You Tube, one of them featuring a man signing verses from the Quran while playing oud (a traditional Arab music instrument) and another showing caricatures of the Prophet.

The content was judged offensive, expecially during the holy month of Ramadan (in traditional Gulf countries having music played together with holy Quran could be interpreted as offensive to religion).

But, according to Global voices and other sources like Itp.net, the ban should be lifted soon as the Ministry of Communications decided yesterday to revoke the decision.

“To ban or not to ban”, this is the question.

But at a deeper look it could be a “much ado for nothing” issue, as Gulf countries are used to be supportive of media revolution while banning it at the same time.

It happened with Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the satellite era when, while banning dishes at home, the country was financing the boom of satellite networks abroad, opening Arabic tv stations in European countries like Italy and UK.  Movie theatres are still banned throught the country, while Saudi capitals are heavily financing the still developing but promising movie industry all across the Arab region. And, now that Wall Street and hedge funds are facing the economic crisis, US companies are making deals to produce English language movies in the Gulf with local funds plenty of pocket money not to be found in Western countries.

UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait itself are at the forefront of the Internet revolution in the Middle East. They are financing big projects -like the Internet City in the Dubai area-, inviting web investors, sponsoring high level conferences on telco and IT issues, opening first class training courses for enterpreneurs and trying to support innovation and digital creativity.

At the same time, Skype is banned in the UAE as it is in Kuwait (even if people largely use those services), probably just for telcos monopoly reasons, not for the censorship or freedom of expression argument.  Liberal Dubai also does censor contents on the popular photo sharing web platform Flickr.

Is it possible to support innovation and digital revolution while at the same time putting limits and conditions to it? Is this the new model that will take place in the rich Gulf states that now control many key sectors of world economy? A “walled garden” innovation, under certain conditions and constraints?

Or is it simply the “Arab way” to do things? Which is: a “much ado about nothing” strategy.

The Saudi Arabian grand mufti in July released a fatwa on Turkish soap operas, followed by millions of Arabs, just because they are considered to be immoral and “evil”.  It happens that those soaps operas are distributed on MBC screens, a very influencial tv network based in Dubai but backed by Saudi Sheikh Walid Al Ibrahim‘s capitals. The Sheikh is a relative to the ruling family, so everything happening seems to be an “internal discourse” among the country different establishments.

On the one hand there is a push to change and invest in the new; on the other hand, a pressure to block it which is coming from the same – or very much related- internal powers. Is it a real struggle happening among different powers going in opposite directions, or is it just the way things progress in the Middle East? By being banned formally to “keep the facade” while in reality everybody is doing the contrary and being tolerated?