The Ties Imagined: Re-thinking Benedict Anderson through the Arab Spring

 

The Ties Imagined: Re-thinking Benedict Anderson through the Arab Spring

Andrew Craig
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Published by the PIT Journal: 

Abstract: 

Benedict Anderson, a prominent twentieth century political theorist, saw the nation as more than a certain form of government acting sovereignly within geographic constrains. For Anderson, it is the common ideas and preconceived bonds of camaraderie, shared by the people, that unify them and form the nation (6-7) Drawing from his examples of various communities across the Americas and the press in Creole communities, I will explain the events of the Arab Spring in light of Anderson’s theory.

Article: 

Benedict Anderson, a prominent twentieth century political theorist, saw the nation as more than a certain form of government acting sovereignly within geographic constrains. For Anderson, it is the common ideas and preconceived bonds of camaraderie, shared by the people, that unify them and form the nation (6-7) Drawing from his examples of various communities across the Americas and the press in Creole communities, I will explain the events of the Arab Spring in light of Anderson’s theory.

The Arab Spring is a crucial point in modern history. There is currently a clear gap in defining the most recent events of the Arab Spring in academic terms. While another smaller gap exists in redefining and updating the work of Benedict Anderson in modern 21st century terms. There is a constant flow of material comparing the works of Benedict Anderson to political and national issues throughout history; however, most examples are taken from events that occurred over one hundred years ago, such as Ed White defining the emergence of the United States as a nation in terms of the imagined communities. A recent study by several sociologist points even to Twitter as an imagined community, however does not show the firm establishment of a nation as other examples do.  In my own work, I compare the Arab Spring to Anderson’s examples, therefore creating new case for the relevance of Anderson.

In the first weeks of 2011, the Egyptian people erupted. For years, a corrupt regime, led by Hosni Mubarak, had controlled the people unfairly, working for its own interest and allowing the people to live in substandard conditions. The people were plagued, as was and still is much of the Arab world, with outrageous food and rent prices. Nonetheless, Egypt was able to claim one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world combined with one of the best and most successful Internet cultures in the Middle East (Anonymous, New York Times). For years prior, a general state of unrest had been building. The educated and uneducated populations alike were tired of the suppressive regime that did little to change the daily lives of citizens and censored the press controlling access to information through government controlled media (Blight, The Guardian). Unemployment was constantly rising with little intervention from the government. Job creation and assistance for the unemployed were far from a governmental priority.  For a growing number of people basic needs were becoming harder and harder to meet as food prices and rent skyrocketed due to inflation. Across the Middle East and North Africa, the accumulation of such problems had reached a spark point fueled by an increase in police brutality. Tunisia and Libya erupted with citizens protesting against the corrupt governments that ran their lives (Anonymous, The Guardian).  Government-run media sources in Egypt had attempted to suppress the news of these revolutions.  However, it was through their access to the Internet that the Egyptians were able see the events as they were truly occurring. They could sense the pressure of the times to make a move for themselves and recognize the similarities in their own condition.

Through the use of social media sources, primarily Facebook and Twitter, they were able to spread the news of revolutions in Tunisia and begin to organize their own protest. As protests were organized, a common message was built against the corruption of the government through conversations across social media outlets. These called for free elections and a more democratic government. Together in Tarhir Square, in the capitol of Cairo, and across the nation, the Egyptian people protested together with these common demands. Together they overthrew the government and started working to create a government and a nation that met their demands and ideas (Anonymous, New York Times).

In many ways, the development and outcome of the Egyptian revolution was predicted in the work of Benedict Anderson. Born in 1940’s China to British diplomats, he witnessed the development of Asian communism, which he would later devote his life’s work to studying.  By looking closely at the development of China and Indochina, he developed and published his theory of imagined communities. This theory revolutionized the world of political and cultural theory as well as the idea of nationalism and nation building. Simply stated, the theory states that nations themselves were imagined entities or imagined communities (Anderson 6). They were imagined because most of the members of the community would never meet one another, they would never come face to face (Anderson 6). However, these community members would connect over common ideas, languages, and cultures. Essentially, for Anderson, the nation’s geographical boundaries meant little; the nation was defined by its common ideas and beliefs (6).

Anderson points to various examples of how ideas influence the development of the nation and the nationalist spirit. One of the most accessible examples he uses is the development of the American Republic (Anderson 47). Based on the ideas of fair representation, and the ability of the people to form and participate in their own government, the United States was founded and evolved from the ideas presented in the Declaration of Independence. It was the idea that everyone has the ability to create a life for himself that drove America to creation and still drives America’s existence today. It is very hard to define “American” when one tries to think of it in terms of racial or linguistic characteristics.  However, it is this common ideology that forms a bond of fraternity across geographic and social barriers is crucial to the development and continuation of the American nation (Anderson 61).

Through the use of the press, these common ideas spread and a common vocabulary developed and evolved throughout the 18th century (Anderson 33). The press stabilized ideas and allowed for their further development (Anderson 33).  This is seen specifically in the 18th century as newspapers, pamphlets, and books helped to solidify the identities of nations in Europe, such as in Germany and France, which had once dominated the political scene (Anderson 35-36). The Creole communities that had been transplanted to Louisiana from Canada also used the press to uphold a national identity in a foreign geographic location and continue to function almost autonomously from locale government structures. Another example can be seen in the use of the propaganda press, specifically those that sparked the ideas and protests that gave birth to the USSR, Communist China, and Communist Indo-China.  It was the press that was able to draw people together and give them a sense of unity and common purpose. It was these commonalities, solidified by print press, that lead to the creation of their community, not only geographic and economic status factors (Anderson 47). Egypt exhibited many of the same traits as these previous examples. However, it was the use of Twitter, functioning like the periodicals and books of previous centuries, that the Egyptians were able to create unity and organize the protests that caused the revolution.

With Twitter acting as the press, it is easy to trace the development of the Egyptian revolution trough Twitter, Facebook, and corpuses such as “Tweets from Tahrir” (a collection of the most essential tweets from the Revolution complied by two social scientist). Egyptians, days before they went to the streets, were coming together over the idea of revolution following in the footsteps of the Tunisians.  It had the ability to spread a specific message across a wide geographic and social range. Given the education level of the Egyptian people and the access of the Internet and wireless networks, the “press” of social media spread very easily and was easily accessible[1]. This also gave rise to the ability of the Egyptian people to access information about the world around them from outside perspectives around the globe. They were able to see and replicate the revolutions that were occurring in places such as Tunisia and Libya. Social and political awareness evolved, grew, and spread through the Arab world. It was through this escape from government-controlled sources that the people were able to develop and spread new ideas, like Anderson points out with the Enlightenment’s use of print and the press (37).  It was access to Twitter and social media outlets that gave protestors the ability to work around government suppression and the censorship of the corrupt Egyptian government. Twitter in Egypt acted much like Anderson’s example of the Creole people’s use of the press to spread and develop their nation. With Twitter, a common vocabulary appears and a common message appears. This created a unified message and pointed out certain leaders (Anderson 14). Both of these factors presented themselves as a method through which the protestors created a unified central power base that led to their success. Through unity, they were able to focus their demands and the messages of the revolution that developed from discussions occurring on social media outlets.

It was Arab protestors’ search across the Middle East and North Africa for liberty and self-government, like Anderson’s example of the capitalism and the search for new markets in the Enlightenment, that gave rise to the use of Twitter and Facebook as the press. A common vocabulary and message led to the rise of new national identities across the Arab world. Drawing on Anderson’s explanation of the press’s use, a common focus and the spreading of a common ideal message developed. It was the bond of ideas shared by the Egyptian people that gave rise to their protest and the development of their new nation. Anderson explained the method through which nations developed and redefined them primarily as a bond of ideas. Today, we see new messages of liberty and personal rights being written in the Middle East. We also see the redefinition of the press and journalism with the rise of social media. Anderson’s theories are being redefined and further proven by the events of the Arab Spring, as the protestors’ work to build nations is based on the ideas they share. Together, the people build new nations not defined by the borders and governmental styles, but by the ideas and identity as protestors and a free Arab people.

While Anderson’s theories were originally revolutionary, the value that they have when put in this new and exciting context cannot be unvalued. The exemplification of Anderson’s theories in the Arab Spring has shown that the idea of the imaged community and its definition of a nation can withstand the test time. It proves that Anderson’s theories go beyond one case study or historical period and have ramifications for all modern nation states. It proves a great change in power structure as information becomes more accessible to a new section of society empowered by a newfound political voice in social media. Social media requires none of the old prerequisites or necessities for publication and gives everyone, in effect, their own print press, tabloid, and newspaper. With the advent of social media outlets, such as Twitter, the potential for this power increases wildly. The rate at which ideas travel is faster than ever and the dialogue present is more thorough and open, allowing for more and more people, no matter their social or economic standing, to participate in the conversation surrounding the state of humanity. This sets a new precedent for how far one can take Anderson’s theories before this bond was formed with those who had access to the ideas books or newspapers. With social media outlets across the Arab world, these ideas spread to a wider audience not confined by censorship. This creates a new class of people who can influence the ideas that form nations. Rather than those who are highly educated with the necessary means required to produce political literature, which is often heavy and from ideas that are not well understood, these new forms of media allow for everyone to spread their ideas. This has been exemplified in Tunisia and Egypt in the method through which a common message of protest was formed over Twitter conversations. This puts the power of the government into the hands of the people if Anderson’s theories hold true that a nation is based on the common ideas shared by the people. In turn, it is also making the people stronger as a governing entity by creating a more cohesive message and idea, one that they created together over social media, rather than one that they simply picked up to base their nation on from other media and leaders in the past.

Simply put, the Arab Spring when observed through the study of Egypt, shows that Anderson’s theories are durable and can adapt to the times. The study of Egypt builds on his theories showing how his ideas are coming even further with people building nations with ideas. The study of Twitter and social media as a replacement for the press and an evolution of print media, pushes the people forward in creating the ideas in Anderson’s theory more than the leaders in the past. Most importantly, the case study of Egypt shows that Benedict Anderson’s work is flexible and can be found in established and emerging states.

Through the combination of Anderson’s theory and the case study of Egypt, the possibilities for the future of nation building within Anderson’s general concepts can be spectacular. With the prospect of the further development of social media formats, ideas will form through the power of the people and a formidable bond will form. The will of the people, then, will be even stronger in government than seen in Egyptian revolutionaries and the ideas themselves will be more revolutionary than the work of Benedict Anderson.

 

 

Bibliography

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. New Paperback Edition. Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2006. Print.

Anonymous. “Egypt Revolution and Aftermath. New York Times, The New York Times. 8 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.

Blight, Garry, Sheila Pulham, and Paul Torpey. "Arab Spring: An Interactive Timeline of Middle East Protests." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 May 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

Gruzd, A., B. Wellman, and Y. Takhteyev. "Imagining Twitter as an Imagined Community." American Behavioral Scientist 55.10 (2011): 1294-318. Web. Academic Search Premier.

Nunns, Alex, Nadia Idle, and Ahdaf Soueif. Tweets from Tahrir: Egypt's Revolution as It Unfolded, in the Words of the People Who Made It. New York: OR, 2011. Print.


[1] (Anderson points extensively to the importance of education as a factor in community and nation development in the seventh chapter of his book which looks heavily at development of communist nations). 


About the Author(s)
Andrew Craig
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