The New York Times recently reported that the Barack Obama administration is working on an “Internet in a suitcase” device to help dissident movements all over the world. The idea is to help these dissidents bypass state telecommunication shutdowns and create an invisible shadow wireless Web which they could then use to leak information out of their borders and into the wider world.
The inspiration for these new initiatives, the newspaper explains, were actions by the Egyptian and Syrian governments. One of Hosni Mubarak’s last defiant actions was to shut down the Internet in Egypt. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad tried the same tactic recently.
The initiative is a well-meaning one, though expectations from it are—like many other recent US foreign policy interventions—a tad high. There is no doubt that the Internet and social networking tools were a crucial cog in the Arab Spring movements that have spread across North Africa, and are now metastasizing to the discomfort of several entrenched Arab regimes. These Internet tools not only help to get news out, but also help to organize dissidence. Information can, we have seen already, help topple dictators.
The suitcase, however, is just the beginning of the process for the Arabian Spring is not just a question of ousting tyrants. Stability in most of these countries depend on a whole laundry list of other elements.
A recent survey in Egypt by the International Republican Institute (IRI) provides food for thought. The IRI, with funding from US Agency For International Development, asked 1,200 adult Egyptians questions about how they lived, their fears and their hopes. Some of the questions make for interesting reading if not introspection: 37% said that the single biggest problem facing Egypt right now was unemployment; 3% said democracy; 2% free elections and 1% said human rights. Over half said that education and healthcare were the top two issues in need of greatest investments; 84% said that television was their single most important source of information during the January uprising.
But the most interesting data emerged when the surveyors asked which of two given political systems—China or the US—would they prefer Egypt to be closer with; 39% said they preferred the US system; 53% said China.
Like most things in the world today the Egyptians, too, it seems, want things designed in the US, but manufactured in China.
Has the role of the Internet been overplayed in the Arab Spring? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org