The Washington Post has an interesting article about political organizers and activists in the Persian Gulf using SMS cell phone text messaging to organize mass rallies and slam their opponents. This reminds me of the SMS uprisings in the Philippines that led to the ouster of President Joseph Estrada in 1991. When it comes down to it, giving people access to any communications tools, from a paint brush to a blog is an inherently political act. And the law of unintended consequences is always in full effect.
kuwait is a case in point. Who would have thought that mobile phone penetration would lead to the growth of a large social movement of women’s suffragettes? And yet that is exactly what is happening. The article in the Washington Post reports that activists from Bahrain to Kuwait have adopted SMS as the latest organizing tool in a region where opposition parties and public demonstrations are often illegal.
In this roiling political spring of protest and debate about democracy in repressive Arab countries, cell phone text messaging has become a powerful underground channel of free and often impolite speech, especially in the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies, where mobile phones are common but candid public talk about politics is not.
Demonstrators use text messaging to mobilize followers, dodge authorities and swarm quickly to protest sites. Candidates organizing for the region’s limited elections use text services to call supporters to the polls or slyly circulate candidate slates in countries that supposedly ban political groupings. And through it all, anonymous activists blast their adversaries with thousands of jokes, insults and political limericks.
But why use text messenging of all the possible communications media?
For all of these appealing practical benefits, text messaging… appears to be popular because it has captured Arab pop literary imaginations. In Gulf societies, where rhetorical speech is celebrated and poetry is prominent, the short, quipping format of a text message offers a new twist on tradition. Activists deliberate over their compositions and memorize their favorite zingers, passing them from phone to phone.
So when the World Bank and the Economist talk about the spread of mobile telephony as the leading edge in bridging the Digital Divide, there are significant societal and political impacts that can result. As all societies grapple with the revolutionary implications of transitioning from an industrial to an information economy, the UN Information Society summit this November seems more and more relevant.
The fact that the WSIS will take place in Tunisia, a country in both the Arab and African world, makes the political issues that much more vital. I wonder if anyone has ever been jailed for sending a political text message?
1 thought on “SMS democracy in the Arab world”
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