The essays in this collection are the fruit of a collaboration between the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) and two Stanford University research programs: the Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPI, based at the Cyber Policy Center) and the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy (ARD, based at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law). As leaders of the latter two programs, we would like to express our appreciation to Marc Lynch and his colleagues in POMEPS, especially Tessa Talebi, and to our own program colleagues, Hesham Sallam of ARD and Tracy Navichoque of GDPI. Most of all we want to thank the authors for their papers, their insights, and their patient commitment to this project, which was delayed by the onset of the COVID pandemic.
This project is coming to fruition at an increasingly troubling time for freedom and democracy, both in the Arab world and globally. Over the last decade, the bright political hopes of the 2010-2011 Arab uprisings have given way to political polarization, violence, coups, and in a few cases, state breakdown. As we publish these essays, an authoritarian executive coup is unfolding in the one Arab country that was able to move from protest to democracy—Tunisia. The wealthy and technologically sophisticated Gulf states have not only set the regional standard for digital surveillance, repression, and control, they have also lent generous political, financial, and technical support and encouragement to their embattled or unstable authoritarian peers in the region. And they have intensified repression of their own citizens through digital technologies of censorship and information control. China is the world’s leader in materializing George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of omniscient totalitarian monitoring of individuals and pervasive state control and manipulation of information. But Gulf states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia are coming up fast in these capacities. As our papers make clear, the trend toward digital authoritarianism in the Middle East also draws crucial support from outside the region, not only through the technology exports and cross-border information operations of authoritarian mega-powers like China and Russia, but through the promiscuous transfer of spyware and other digital surveillance tools and expertise by private companies based in Western democracies and especially notably of late, in Israel.
Yet our essays caution against overly gloomy or deterministic forecasts. As in other regions, civil society activists adapt and innovate to use and widen available spaces. As we see from the recent protests in Lebanon, Algeria, and Sudan, from the substantial boycott of Iran’s recent presidential “election”, and from new and ongoing forms of activism elsewhere in the region, as well as from multiple rounds of the Arab Barometer, people in the Middle East still aspire for the same basic political ideals that drove the Arab uprisings: dignity, voice, accountability, and self-determination. Thus, the public sphere remains contested, even embattled, in cyberspace, as it periodically does in the streets as well. And just as authoritarian powers and amoral corporations have aided Middle Eastern states in their ambitions to extend control, there remains considerable scope for the world’s democracies to help tip the balance toward freedom and accountability through financial and technical assistance and diplomatic support for the region’s creative, courageous, and tenacious netizens. They are not going away.
Larry Diamond and Eileen Donahoe
July 29, 2021