Policy, diplomacy and the social media vox populi

By Harry Hagopian
30 Nov 2012

It is really James Abbott’s fault! James is a colleague at the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales who often invites me into his studio for interviews on issues relating to the Middle East and North Africa region for the 'Middle East Analysis' series of podcasts. A few months ago, he advised me that it was high time for me to step up a gear (or two) in my political efforts by joining the Twitter global constituency!

Now, politics and diplomacy for me (as I use them quite interchangeably) are two skills that I had somewhat learnt the hard way over many years of second-track negotiations - essentially between Israel and the Palestinians, but also between Greek and Turkish Cypriot islanders or else in the more byzantine and less predictable maze of church politics.

It consisted, frankly, of the art of communication, negotiation, mediation, arbitration and alternative dispute resolution, but it also consisted of an abundance of notes, memos and position papers or else the rather enjoyable meetings over lunches and dinners and even the more frugal coffees with the occasional narguilehs and cigars under my all-time favourite cumquat tree in the very heart of Jerusalem!

This was the art of ‘politicking’ or ‘lobbying’ or ‘talking’ in order to find solutions, defuse crises - real or potential - and set out agendas for the future. Little did it occur to me at a time when I had become addicted to the heady ways of high-powered powwows, discussions, initiatives and business-class travels, that such efforts would soon witness a radical shift across the Middle East and North Africa spectrum and also necessitate an equal Newtonian change from me.

Discomfiting? Perhaps a little. Out of the blue? Not for me really. After all, those who set policies or took decisions and tweaked realities - whether in the secular life and admittedly more so in the religious life - often represented very few people other than themselves. Democracy for them largely meant that ‘it was their way or the highway’ since elections - if they ever took place in this ancient part of the world - were theatrical and people were not used to the idea of expressing their choices or their preferences through the ballot box.

But with the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring over two years ago, when masses of men, women and even children began swarming the public squares and clamouring for dignity, essential freedoms and economic justice, those established rules of political life began teetering precariously - more in some countries than in others.

The Facebook and Twitter generations took to the streets in protest and at times paid with their lives - they sadly still do so today - in order to undo the shackles of oppression from misrule or corruption and become responsibly proud citizens of their own countries rather than human beings at the call and behest of autocratic or totalitarian rulers.

But all this spontaneity in freedom-fighting was never going to be easy or straightforward! We know - or can at least predict - the story if we also know the Middle East and North Africa region a tiny bit. After all, every reader of this article will probably have followed to some degree the unfurling of those grassroots movements. Those young people - the vox populi as they were quaintly described then by the media and have now been converted into tweeps - were stealthily sidetracked and marginalised by the better-organised and well-funded interest groups who had not initially been expecting this regional outburst but who were all too willing to take credit for it and then steer those movements in their preferred directions.

So politics and religion came together alongside corrupt rulers and self-interested military cadres to regain, once more, the lost ground and re-establish the status quo ante under a somewhat different guise, in order to row back in time toward a supposedly happy mix of hedonistic and unquestionable rule.

But social networking thrust itself to the fore, and the state television channels as much as politicians, religious leaders or know-it-alls could no longer easily preach their hackneyed and jaundiced messages that lifted up the ‘rulers’ and put down others.

So welcome to the fresh world in the broader MENA region, where social media and digital diplomacy, already exercised by ambassadors, politicians and parliamentarians, let alone Pope Benedict XVI, replaced the opinions of longstanding intellectuals and interwove to signify openness as much as an understanding of current realities that were heretofore hidden behind dense smokescreens.

The top-down pyramid was slowly re-discovering its base, and new tools of social media are now spawning from every corner. Only recently, I discovered Syria Deeply, one of many Google+ hangouts that bring the political kaleidoscope of Syria onto viewers’ screens.

I am now living this experience in a modest way, as I broaden my political work across a large swathe of the MENA region. Discussing politics with a few people over a brandy is definitely anachronistic today if one truly wishes to understand the region by touching the political heartbeat or feeling the cultural pulse of ordinary men and women.

No amount of high-brow diplomacy, meetings at the EU in Brussels, or even conclaves in churches, would alone translate the picture to any inquisitive mind. Be it on Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Iran or elsewhere, a new, demanding and time-consuming world has opened up and the trick for any zealous convert like me is to learn managing this new tool so that it does not overwhelm me or turn me into a political cyber-nerd.

In Syria, to use one example, I have benefited from those messages coming from ordinary activists talking about events inside a country that is not often accessible or hospitable. Otherwise, how would I know almost instantly that Syria is trying to create diversions by sending tanks into the demilitarised zone of the Golan Heights when it had not fired a single bullet toward Israel for four decades? Or learn the über-story about the blogging Gay Girl in Damascus who turned out to be a man, or about Zainab Omar Al-Husni who had ostensibly never gone AWOL? How would I gauge the reaction of Syrian men and women inside the country to the newly-formed opposition coalition with Ahmed Moadh Khatib, Riad Seif, Suhair Atassi or George Sabra?

Where else would I get byte-by-byte accounts of the detention of the Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab and then gauge the reaction on the street? Would I hear about the gaoled netizen Sattar Beheshti as he was interrogated and later died at the Evin prison in Iran? Or else that Hakem al-Mutairi, an Islamist who wrote an article ‘undermining’ the Emir's status ten years ago, was called by Kuwait's public prosecutor for interrogation?

If I were to rely solely on my ‘official’ or ‘ecumenical’ sources, would I learn the real story behind the Christian divisions in Syria amongst those supporting the regime, the majority who are fearfully sitting on the fence and those who are offering their lives in order to effect change? Would I be stuck in a time warp that parrots the sad mantra of those multi-faith leaders about their proclaimed realities that are disingenuous at best and even counter-productive at worst.

In Palestine, where I initially earned my stripes in the political jungle, I rely on those tools to learn the opprobrium felt by ordinary men and women about their leadership - be it in Gaza or the West Bank - and the way they export their messages that subsequently become part of the art of digital diplomacy.

The case for Palestinian self-determination that has been built up brick by brick and sweat by sweat by Christians and Muslims is being inexorably eroded by a pernicious occupation only equalled by the insidious interests of those leaders who live in their insular citadels and spew out religious radicalism on the one hand or political spam on the other. What can the contradiction of virtual reality do to bring people together and create stronger mass movements?

What I say about Syria, Bahrain or Palestine applies across the whole MENA region. Be it in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, the GCC countries or elsewhere, new and furious realities are opening up.

An ambassador living in Rabat or Cairo can still listen to a foreign minister coming out with the official position of the regime and then canvass the reactions from the street before sending the encrypted analysis to his or her bosses. In Oman, some politicians log on the Sabla chat-room every morning to get a sense of the street before they start their working days.

Given these developments, I am not surprised to detect the dissent bubbling under the surface in many Middle East and North Africa countries that have not yet reeled from the uprisings. After all, those ructions we witness today are both multi-seasonal and long-term. As the syndicated journalist Rami Khouri often reminds his readers, it took long periods for the French, English and American revolutions to bear fruit.

Yet sadly, if the rulers of the MENA region - from Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Ali Abdullah Saleh to Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qadhafi and Bashar Al-Assad - had listened to those increasingly strident grassroots murmurs and had supported institutional change, we might not perhaps be witnessing so much tragic violence today.

If the other rulers in the region (or even outside it) also take a moment to listen to those audible murmurs, the vox populi and tweeps, they might perhaps save themselves some hairy moments or darker fates too. After all, it is the ubiquitous tools of social media rather than violence that are the harbingers for real peace.

Digital diplomacy is the natural result of those who truly want to listen to the social media messages coming out of the MENA that defy many of the gravity laws of politics, religion and culture. In a region with "fingerprints of fire but footprints of peace" (to use the title of Ekklesia friend Noel Moules’ admirable book [1]), this is a quintessential and by now irreplaceable part of diplomacy. But it is a mammoth task looking at any situation from multiple angles.

So when I yearn back to the olden days, I remind myself that this is now one key way forward so that those cherished rudimental norms and values can be midwifed into reality and the denizens of an unsettled region can become its true citizens. GK Chesterton once said, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die”.

[1] Noel Moules, Fingerprints of Fire, Footprints of Peace: A Spiritual Manifesto from a Jesus Perspective (Circle Books, 2012). http://tinyurl.com/buu9ra8

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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