Friday, May 20, 2011

The echoes of Gdansk

Khaleej Times Online


The echoes of Gdansk

Fahad Al Salem and 
Lech Walesa (DEBATE)

19 May 2011, 7:19 PM

It is the beginning of a new decade. Several countries, large and small, in a vital region, having suffered under repressive one-party regimes for years, witness the stirrings of a nascent, people-powered movement.

The goals of the movement are clear:  freedom, dignity, justice, reform, respect for human rights and representative government. Facing repression, coercion and intimidation, the movement still spreads and gradually prevails in securing the liberty of millions.  

This scenario is not current day Middle East and North Africa. Rather, it is the legacy of the workers of Poland's Gdansk Shipyards, who in 1980, coalesced around the idea that change, reform and freedom are better than oppression and solidarity more effective than discord.  That they the people had the power to take action that changed the course of history. By sheer will they faced down the Soviet Empire. Through a series of strikes and protests that initially had no coordinating center but had an efficient information network, Solidarity was born.  It soon became much more than a trade union and morphed into a broad anti-communist nonviolent social movement that, at its height, united some 10 million Poles and helped to spur change in Poland and precipitate the fall of communism. 

Today, in the Middle East, another wave of people power is surging, compelled by the same basic needs that ignited the workers of Gdansk: change, freedom, dignity, justice. Unlike the people-powered Solidarity of Poland, this is a people powered movement born of the information age, manifested and propelled by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as much as on the streets and alleyways of cities across the region.

It is the emergence of People Power 2.0: the pursuit of human liberty by normal everyday people migrating to the ether of the World Wide Web.  From Cairo to Benghazi, these inheritors of Gdansk's legacy are now armed with flip cams, smart phones, proxies and servers, recording the excesses of governments, overcoming censorship and circumventing media filters, and ultimately engaging and communicating with each other and with millions across the globe via social networks. The protests in Egypt and Tunis were first organised and then coordinated in real-time on Facebook and Twitter. Organisers informed people which streets were blocked by security forces, sent out calls to the wider populace to bring protesters blankets and food, and discredited the sanitised version of events being aired by state media by posting videos of what was really happening on the ground.

These new technologies also allowed Tunisian activists to advise their Egyptian counterparts. Through posts on Facebook, they counselled them on how to use Coke to counter the effects of tear gas, and spray paint windows of armoured police vehicles to hinder their visibility.

In the process, they were changing the way people power works and reinforcing the idea that sunlight, a euphemism for openness and transparency, is indeed the best disinfectant.

The wave has not yet crested. The movement continues to manifest itself in different forms throughout the region, but faces significant challenges. For one, People Power 2.0 is a new, still-crystallising concept in the Middle East, and the culture of citizen journalism, tweeting, blogging, and v-logging –remains novel. Similarly, as both the Solidarity movement and events in Libya and Syria have shown, people power takes time to achieve its goals, and can come up against determined opposition, with real life implications.

So a key question today is how can we sustain to trajectory of People Power 2.0, and how can we contribute to its evolution from a platform of dissent, into a platform for sustained positive change, stability, dialogue, tolerance and coexistence in a region sorely in need of all of these elements.  

We hope to explore these issues on May 22-23 in Kuwait City, at the first conference of the newly established Fahed Al Salem Center for Dialogue among Civilizations and Defense of Liberty. The conference, titled, "Renewing Dialogue for Peace and Advancing Freedom and Human Rights in Today's World," will bring together some of the world's top minds in foreign policy, conflict resolution and media, including representatives of the Lech Walesa Institute, the Club of Madrid, Human Rights Watch, the Council on Foreign Relations and other prominent advocates of liberty to explore  how social media and citizen journalism can be encouraged and channelled to advance freedom, combat extremism, and  further dialogue between civilizations and religions.

The ultimate goal of the conference echoes the ultimate goal of the Al Salem Center: leveraging new social technologies, the diffusion of media and increased access and input by regular people to act both as the basis for sustained dialogue between civilisations, religions and people and as a means of combatting extremism, ignorance and other drivers of conflict.

As the workers of Gdansk and the bloggers of Cairo have shown us, people power, whether projected from union halls or keyboards, can shake the very foundations of repression. We hope to build on their work and realise the full potential of People Power 2.0.

Shaikh Fahad Al Salem is the Head of the Centre for Dialogue among Civilisations and Leach Walesa is the former President of Poland

© 2011 Khaleej Times, All rights reserved


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