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Civil Society and Web 2.0 Technology: Social Media in Bahrain

Issue 14, Summer 2011

By Magdalena Maria Karolak

Mahmood al-Yousif, 'godfather' of Bahraini bloggers

Mahmood al-Yousif, 'godfather' of Bahraini bloggers

 

Abstract

In the era of globalization, the spread of Information and Communication Technology has created a new opportunity for the emergence of civil society in the Middle East. Barber (1999) defined civil society as "the free space in which democratic attitudes are cultivated and democratic behavior is conditioned." In countries where talking politics in public is still not welcome, social media became an important tool for expressing personal opinions on recent developments in politics. In Bahrain, the Internet provided a platform for the exchange of information and for political mobilization that is anonymous and difficult to control by the establishment. We suggest that in the long run social media could promote the growth of civil society, which is the bedrock of democracy.

 

In this paper we aim at assessing the role of social media in the creation of civil society in Bahrain. On the one hand, we observe the positive effects of the growing community of Bahraini bloggers. On the other hand, we analyze the use of social media in the Day of Rage uprising and its aftermath, which shows that the process of creation of civil society is still at an early stage.

 

The case of the Kingdom of Bahrain illustrated overall trends observable also in other GCC countries.

 

Introduction

 

The revival of academic interest in the concept of civil society that begun in the years 1970s and 1980s was linked to the democratic transformation experienced in the world (Dziubka, 1998). The importance of citizens in the success of Third Wave of Democratization (Huntington, 1991) cannot be overlooked.

 

Scholarly attention was focused on the interrelations between a healthy and prospering democracy and the existence of civil society (Dahrendorf, 1996). However the overview of the Arab world, where authoritarian regimes prevail, shows that relying on civil society alone may not be enough. It is important to note that civil society does not constitute a sufficient condition to generate democratic change by itself (Yom, 2005). but far from being pessimistic, our research shows that civil society, as it grows in partially controlled regimes, can play an important role in the development of democratic values. The spread of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) provides a powerful tool that can strengthen the role of civil society as "a promoter of democratic values, [providing] model of active citizenship and [tempering] the power of the state." (Kuchukeeva & O 'Loughlin 2003, pp. 557–58 ).

 

Anheier defined civil society as "the sphere of institutions, organisations and individuals located among the family, the state and the market, in which people associate voluntarily to advance common interests" (2004, p.11). In our research we are going to focus on the role of blogging in the creation of civil society, which falls in Anheier’s sphere of individuals. This category includes people's activities in civil society such as “membership, volunteering, organizing events, or supporting specific causes; people's values, attitudes, preferences and expectations; and people's skills and in terms of governance, management and leadership” (2004, p. 11). We also find useful Habermas's concept of civil society as a public sphere. Public sphere is defined as "a network of communicating information and points of view (i.e. opinions expressing affirmative or negative attitudes)" (1996, p. 360), which is closely linked with blogging activity. Gibson emphasized that in societies that lack civil and democratic values strong ties to family and the clan tend to be a prevalent form of association "inhibiting interactions with those outside the network" (2001, p. 188). The creation of "weak ties" in the form of social networks is thus especially important in order to make the spread of new ideas possible. We are going to analyze how the Internet contributes to the formation and growth of civil society in Bahrain.

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i The actual numbers might vary since some blogs were blocked at the moment of writing.

ii The archives of the blog go back to 2003.