The Democratic Public Sphere

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AARHUS UNIVERSITY
Activism and a global public sphere: Some examples from the Arab Spring
Thomas Olesen
Department of Political Science
Aarhus University
[email protected]
Talk at seminar arranged by AU IDEAS Pilot Centre The Democratic Public Sphere, 8 March 2013
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Plan and idea
› A global perspective on the public sphere concept
› The contribution of activism to a global public sphere
› My approach: The cultural-political dimension, i.e. the role of symbols
› Actors in the global public sphere ”use” and ”produce” shared symbols
› The Arab Spring, 2009-2010 and Iran 2009
› Conclusion: some theoretical and conceptual considerations
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Mohamed Bouazizi and Tunisia I
› Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid, sets himself on fire on
17 December to protest authority harassment
› His act is followed by local protests: During December protests gradually
acquire a national dimension
› Information about Bouazizi and protests spreads via Facebook and
Youtube; an alternative information flow
› Bouazizi dies from his burn wounds on 4 January
› His death coincides with growing protest and cements his position as a
central injustice symbol in the Tunisian protests
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Mohamed Bouazizi and Tunisia II
› Relevance for the discussion of a global public sphere:
› Global media accounts centered on the role of Bouazizi in inspiring protests in
Tunisia and other Arab countries (”How one man ignited the Arab Spring”, etc.)
› Global media ”constructed” the Bouazizi symbol to be a carrier of global
aspirations for freedom and democracy
› Bouazizi is globally institutionalized by receiving several human rights and
democracy prices and awards (e.g. EU’s Sakharov Price)
› Bouazizi as a cultural-political outcome of global public sphere activities
› Bouazizi as part of global memories about the Tunisian protests and the Arab
Spring (YouTube as a global memory archive): A shared symbolic vocabulary
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Khaled Said and Egypt I
› Khaled Said, age 28, was dragged from an Internet café and beaten to
death by police in his home town of Alexandria on 6 June 2010
› Police violence is common in Egypt, but the case is different because
Saids family takes a cell-phone photograph at the morgue and uploads it
to the Internet
› Google executive Wael Ghonim sets up a Facebook page called ”We Are
All Khaled Said” based on the photo and transforms Said into a key
visual injustice symbol for protests against the Mubarak regime
› The page soon acquired tens of thousands of followers and became
central to the organization of protest during the Egyptian Revolution
› A parallel page in English is set up to allow non-Egyptians to follow
events
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Khaled Said and Egypt II
› Relevance for the discussion of a global public sphere:
› Media technologies such as Facebook makes national boundaries
informationally porous and creates a citizen generated global information flow
(the power of citizen journalism)
› The page received numerous expressions of sympathy and solidarity from nonEgyptians and became a central informational ressource for non-Egyptian
activists wishing to solidarize and/or take inspiration from Egypt
› As in the case of Bouazizi, Khaled Said is constructed by global media to
acquire meanings associated with freedom, democracy, and injustice (see, for
example, the Danish radio documentary, Facebook martyren)
› Khaled Said and the globalization of national public spaces (a related example
from the Bouazizi case: Place Mohamed Bouazizi in Paris)
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Neda and Iran
› Neda Agha Soltan, aged 26, is shot and killed during protests in Iran against the
2009 presidential election
› Bystanders record amateur videos of Neda as she lies dying on the ground
› Later the same day, 20 June, the videos have gone globally viral via YouTube
and other media and made it into mainstream media such as CNN
› In contrast to Bouazizi and Said, Neda bypassed the local and national level to
instantly become a global symbol
› Today YouTube contains several commemorative videos and songs; Neda
merchandise and artwork is available outside of Iran
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Media technology and citizen journalism
› The story of Bouazizi’s death is nationalized and globalized through amateur
videos of the protests following his self-immolation; these are made publicly
available through YouTube (from where it was picked up by al-Jazeera)
› Khaled Said becomes a symbol on the basis of a cell-phone photograph taken by
his family; his story is made globally visible through Facebook pages
› Neda’s death is recorded by bystanders and passed on to YouTube; the story is
spread via Twitter and Facebook; ends up in mainstream media
› YouTube as a global memory archive and public sphere
› The interaction between new and old media
› The special power of photography in activating a global public sphere
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Concluding remarks
› Conceptual and theoretical challenges:
› Global public sphere
› Global civil society
› Global society
› Beyond the Arab Spring and Iran:
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Joyti Singh (India)
Malala Yousafzai (Pakistan)
The Abu Ghraib photos
And further back in time: Sharpville, Soweto…
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