Age old lands transforming through cyberspace1

Age old lands transforming through cyberspace

The Middle East—the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions—Islam, Christianity and Judaism—is a region so volatile that the peace which underlies the tenets of all these religions, has been slippery at best.

The world—fed a daily dose of the volatility in living colour every day, must surely be fatigued by the endless unrests and uprisings that plague that region.

But since early this year, the region has seen an uprising unlike any other. And suddenly, the flashpoint of unrest has become the hotspot of new age convergence unlike anything seen before.

From this ancient land of pharaohs and prophets, has come a birth of a different kind—which makes for a riveting case study of how three powerful forces of the 21st century—youth, social media and governance—have collided…

... and what exactly will rise from the ashes remains to be seen when the dust storm settles.

Tools of the young and restless

The Internet and Social Media are tools of the young and the restless. According to the United Nations, there are 1.8 billion adolescents at the crossroads of childhood and adulthood—making up the largest youth generation in history. Nine out of 10 of these young people live in developing countries.

MENA's Facebook users aged less than 25 years old

One-third of the population of the Middle-East is well-educated. Yet youth unemployment in this region is a whopping 25%, the highest in any region of the world. The duration of unemployment for new graduates is extremely long, lasting up to 3 years in countries such as Morocco and Iran.

One doesn’t need to be rocket scientist to know that this situation was at a breaking point.

Convergence of 3 forces

For the young people in these countries, the world was at their fingertips.

The explosion of satellite dishes on rooftops—a common feature in Middle East and North African urban landscapes (and rapidly expanding into rural areas), means millions of people are exposed to the freedom and quality of live enjoyed by their peers in more developed countries.

Add to this the news and views from youth from all over the world on the Internet and on social media platforms like Facebook and video sharing site YouTube, and the world is telescoped into the mobile phone or the computer screen.

According to Facebook, there are currently 500 million active users, 70% of which are from outside the US. More than 30 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums, etc.) are shared each month. The average user is connected to 80 community pages, groups and events.

MENA's top five Facebook communities

Facebook is hugely popular in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), with over 15 million users. North Africa has 7.7 million Facebook users, with Egypt accounting for 3.4 million users (or 44% of all North Africa users). Egypt has the largest Facebook community in MENA.

MENA’s top five Facebook country markets, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, account for 70% of all users in the region.

It is expected that the number of Arabic language Facebook users will soon surpass the number of English users.

Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Yemen all have Facebook communities with more than 50% of users below the age of 25 years old.

MENA's Facebook users aged less than 25 years old

With such statistics, the heat was on and for a region renowned as a hotspot for unrest, the perfect storm was in the making.

The youth of the Middle East—and indeed the world—are not straitjacketed by the confines of tradition and submission to authority as the generations before them.

Young Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, and even traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades.

The genie was out of the bottle

Even the shutting down of the Internet did not deter them once they gained momentum.

The genie was already out of the bottle, and creative and imaginative ways were unleashed to disseminate information—from old style dial in modems to new “speak to tweet” by tech giants.

Several groups abroad offered internet access through the terrestrial phone system—harking back to the days of dial in modem.

Google and Twitter launched a “speak-to-tweet” service, which enabled Egyptians to leave voicemails which were then converted into text and published on Twitter’s micro blogging service.

Brutality and violence beamed to billions around the world is a public relations nightmare of epic proportion for any government.

The winds of change are now blowing through Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria, Morocco… and when the desert dust storms settles, will a new more vibrant Middle East emerge in the mould of the dreams of its youth?

US$90 million lost in shutdown

The uprising in Egypt also provided a magnifying lens of how the shutting down of the Internet impacted the economy.

Preliminary figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggest that the five-day shut-down of internet access in Egypt resulted in direct costs of at least USD90 million. This is for lost revenues due to blocked telecommunications and Internet services.

This figure does not include the secondary economic impacts which resulted from a loss of business in other sectors affected by the shutdown of communication services e.g. e-commerce, tourism and call centres.

But this is not the whole picture.

Forces on the Dark side of the Internet

The dark side of the Internet has always been something of a black hole. It is as powerful—perhaps even more—than all the good it brings.

The Internet is not meant to be controlled, so it can be easily exploited by people with ill-intention. Anyone can say anything about anyone, and publish it online for the world to read as the gospel truth—without facing any serious repercussions.

The brutal images being posted on YouTube from mobile phones are beamed to our homes by global news channels. Though these channels admit they cannot ‘verify’ the authenticity of these images, it doesn’t stop them from broadcasting them, because if they don’t some other news channel will.

In the competition to provide the latest news and most graphic images, what is true and what is not can easily be pushed aside.

Coupled with the very human propensity for sensational news, graphic images, controversy and gossip are magnets few can resist gravitating to.

Whilst the events in the Middle East continue to rage on—and world watches transfixed about how it will all pan out, the debate about how the convergence of the biggest youth population in history is utilizing one of the most powerful tools of the 21st century to have their voices heard by their governments.

Power is in serving the people

In the final analysis—however—the events that are unfolding in the Middle East are telling signals of how leadership and governance must evolve to stay relevant to a young generation.

The age of authoritarian regimes, dynastic leaders and presidents-for-life is over.

The use of media to control and shape mindsets is over.

The enriching of themselves and their families, while poverty is rampant is no longer going to be tolerated.

Instead, leaders must go back to the basics.

Leaders must listen and act quickly on valid grouses of the people.

Leaders must ensure their people enjoy the wealth of the nation as equally as possible.

Leaders are there to serve the people, and not the other way around. That is age old wisdom, which is finding rebirth in age-old lands. We are coming full circle ... back to the future.

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About Tan Sri Lim

Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Paduka Dr Lim Kok Wing, the Founder and President of Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, does not fit into any ordinary mould that would describe most entrepreneurs.

His journey has been closely linked with the economic and social development of Malaysia.

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Amir H
2011 March 30

I was also deeply affected by the Internet shut down in Egypt previously, as my sister is one of the students there in Zagazig. I have to confess that the Internet is a powerful tool. I should also confess that I am literally addicted to the Internet, checking out my emails every 15 minutes at a time.
I have no doubt the it can change political views, mindsets and even beliefs. I am just worried that it is powerful yet easily to manipulate by people with good intentions and by people that are up to no good.

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