From Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, as governments in countries continue to teeter and fall, the voice of a new generation bolstered by the internet is opening doors for democracy. But though the celebrations in the town squares of Tahrir and Mohammad Bouazizi are still fresh, brutal crackdowns in Iran, Libya, and Bahrain show how fragile the call for democracy is – and why technology alone can’t sustain democratic revolution.
Over the past month, the world watched as legions of young tech-savvy Twitter and Facebook users banded together in a virtual civil society to create change in their governments. Using a new, free, and open tool such as the internet was a powerful way for the first plugged-in generation in history to demand change. When their respective government bodies attempted to censor the protesters, a world-wide safety web was immediately cast for the photos, videos, and online messages that would mobilize, organize and encourage the citizens. The rules of political organizing had been changed — freedom was literally in the air.
Social media is filling an important vacuum in these revolutions: social media is becoming the fabric of civil society that is otherwise missing from autocratic states. A vibrant civil society with a strong NGO community is the glue that keeps any democracy together. It takes a multitude of organizations, student groups, institutions, and other volunteers to safeguard the fresh, new democracies that are springing up in countries such as Egypt, Liberia, and Ukraine. Without a strong civil society and an independent open economy where citizens feel safe, democracy will fail.
Strong and independent non-government groups support democracy by providing a channel for every citizen to work within to achieve change in policy and to safeguard hard-won freedoms.
Such independent groups provide necessary forums for citizens to moderate conflict, teach democratic principles, and push for political change in a peaceful and legitimate manner.
If the United States wants to help citizens protect their new democracies around the world, we ought to start with the basic foundation of our country – that a government for the people and by the people requires more than Facebook and Twitter. Capacity-building NGOs and volunteer citizens must band together to offer their country a support system during these fragile times.
Americans and like-minded countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic can lend a hand, organizing advocacy groups that can mobilize the NGO community and citizens. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, ‘Freedom Fighters’ traveled around the globe to share their first-hand knowledge with these stakeholders of other emerging countries.
Social media has played an integral part, but for an effective follow up to virtual revolt, an old fashioned civil society is what these fresh new democracies require. Though the door to democracy has opened in some countries, it will take a strong, independent civil society to ensure that it will not be slammed shut once again. As the online world comes face to face with the military might of the entrenched powers that be, there is a need for on-the-ground organized citizen engagement and dialogue.