Anti-social Networking: can sexual thugs be democrats?

New media leave brutish, sexist values untouched in Mideast

The power of social media like Facebook and Twitter has been part of the giddy, feel-good narrative of the Arab uprisings. And we Americans have a tendency to think that as our technologies and pastimes spread, so will our values. But it’s equally true that technologies are fitted into existing social forms, benign or otherwise.

When news broke of television reporter Lara Logan’s abuse at the hands of an Egyptian mob, I felt instant regret: When writing a story a few days earlier, I’d edited out references to beastly conduct by some Egyptian men.

During a long-ago visit to Egypt, men would shout to me in the street asking whether I wanted to have sexual intercourse. (They used a four-letter Anglo-Saxon word.) They asked even while I was bicycling with my boyfriend.

During the recent uprising, though, this sort of thing seemed at first to be ancient history. Women participated in the Tahrir Square demonstrations and the groping that they often meet with on the streets of Cairo was absent in the square.

And so I wrote of my visit to Egypt not that I had been constantly harassed, but that “what struck me was the lack of civility in the public street.”

Then the story of the Feb. 11 attack on Logan broke. The boorishness I experienced in 1978 was not outdated at all. And that is bad news for Egypt.

Democracy doesn’t develop just anywhere. It’s nourished by certain kinds of civil society. It’s hard to imagine a strong democracy in a country where, say, 50 percent of the citizens routinely abuse the others. And Egypt seems to be this sort of place. An oft-cited 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found not just that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in Cairo had been harassed, but that 62 percent of men admitted to perpetrating this abuse.

It’s not just a few bad apples, but 62 percent of Egyptian men. Sexual harassment isn’t even a crime in Egypt. The Egyptian Parliament was supposed to consider criminalizing it, but then the revolution came.

The Logan incident has a few more bitter lessons for those of us who support democracy in the Middle East.

If 62 percent of Egyptian men are sexual thugs, it’s likely that some of those Facebook- and Twitter-using, democracy-supporting Egyptian men we’ve been seeing on TV are sexual thugs, too. Nor should this be all that surprising. In the U.S., teenagers have driven other teenagers to suicide by online teasing, and the persecutors in such cases probably believe in democracy and the Bill of Rights.

Technologies like movies, television and mobile phones have increased the general knowledge base in developing countries, and allowed poor people more economic options. Anglo-American pop music has had real cultural effects in the rest of the world. But social media let any given society be itself more efficiently — not something better. Social media may “empower” ordinary people in repressive societies, to the extent of making it easier for them to gather together and protest. But social media leave basic power relationships and habits intact. They are egalitarian in the sense that any literate person with access to a computer can use them — but they don’t make societies more egalitarian. (Nor do they determine who becomes literate or has access to a computer.) You can just as easily tweet a call for genocide as a report of police brutality.

Technology doesn’t change a traditional society. As I’ve seen in Afghanistan, where I spend a few months a year, you can be a mobile-phone-mad university graduate with a Facebook page, and still unquestioningly accept that your parents will choose your spouse.

Kabul has movie theaters that show foreign films, but only men go to theaters in Afghanistan. You can buy a frozen chicken from China in Mazar-i-Sharif (in fact, it’s cheaper than a fresh, locally raised chicken), but the chicken buyers are men, because women don’t shop for food in Afghanistan. And while Egyptian men are part of the online community of Facebook, women in the streets of Egypt are not treated the same way as they are in the West.

I wish the democrats of Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and other Arab nations every success. But some of the men in those protests need to get out of their own way — and that of their women. The democracy they say they want involves a level of respect for women that isn’t in evidence. And as Americans watch the inspiring events unfolding in the Arab world, we need to remember that having a Facebook page doesn’t make a man modern, or ready for civil society.

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