The second Aspen Mediterranean Initiative seminar provided the opportunity to widen the network of the region’s emerging leaders as it analyzed the relationship between traditional and new media, and society and politics. Journalists, activists, bloggers and artists all shared their perceptions on the direct influence of communications on political events. The role of youth culture – particularly through the social media – in accelerating social change was underscored, as well as the limits of civic mobilization. Street demonstrations, such as those in Tunisia and Egypt, have been crucial in pushing for radical change, but peaceful rebellions have not always been sufficient (see for example Libya and Syria). And, in any event, the process of building rule of law requires a complex and prolonged cultural and institutional evolution. Equally important is the economic factor – especially in light of the relationship between demographic trends and how they are tied to economic growth, and the social-institutional structure (in particular with reference to the problem of both corruption and political representation).
New technological instruments have greatly enhanced the channels of access to information and the opportunities of direct interaction between groups and individual, going far beyond national borders. Along the southern shore of the Mediterranean, the new media have made it possible to elude the tight control of authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes over traditional media. In addition, the new media have encouraged the adoption of a common language and symbols among citizens now mobilizing in a way that would have once been impossible.
All of this has contributed to the development of civic initiatives, and now encourages the growth of more consolidated political movements and social actors. Still, by its very nature, the relationship between citizens, the media and the authorities is fluid and at times conflicting, one example being the media’s role as counterpoint for political power and critical conscience of society. For that reason, both the media and the political conversation within the institutions (Parliament especially) have to incorporate conflict and dissent rather than ignoring or hiding it.
This consideration can also be applied to the relationship between religious traditions or precepts and politics, or the public and private spheres. These dynamics are not only affecting countries with a Moslem tradition, but they are facing the question in the midst of accelerated social change (at a historically unprecedented rate) and in the wake of the intense international ideological conflicts that started with 9/11. It is therefore crucial to gage the discussion on political Islam correctly. It is a variegated phenomenon whose scenarios and outcomes are open and influenced by both local and global factors.
Parties and political forces now in power, or at least part of the institutions, will be pressured by citizens who are more active than in the past and more than willing to defy authority. Public debate will therefore move gradually from questions of “identity” (essential while transition is still underway) to more concrete problems such as the distribution of wealth and mechanisms of social protection, education, the efficiency of public education, government, law and order and the judicial system. The experience of government and opposition parties of the various movements of the Arab spring revolts will be judged in that perspective, especially after recent and upcoming elections.
In that context, the public will need the capacity to examine events critically as well as access to information and the ability to share ideas to interact promptly in real time in a number of ways, including social networks. All these factors are essential for the development of modern participatory democracy. On the other hand, there are no set models for countries in transition. Actually, Europe today (like the rest of the economically advanced Western world) is now rethinking, in part, the meaning of political participation and the relationship between states and markets. As a result, the changes underway in the Mediterranean basin are part of the multiform global context where technology, values and traditions, economic interest and political structures are intertwined. Recent events contradict the presumption that the Islamic Arab world is unique in its democratic aspirations and civic activism. The challenge lies in taking advantage of the ties between local and global trends, both in Arab countries and in Europe.