(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Eight years ago this month, millions of young Arabs were beginning to believe that social media would save them. Using Twitter and Facebook as organizing tools, pro-democracy activists across North Africa and the Middle East were bringing millions of protesters into the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Bahrain, Sanaa and other capitals. When the protests eventually toppled dictators like Tunisia’s Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Moammar Al Qaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, it was tempting — for political scientists as much as for activists — to conclude that social media was a more potent instrument of political change than the AK-47.
Few people believe that now. Oppressive regimes in the region quickly coopted social-media platforms for their own ends. Most governments keep a weather eye on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for any signs of activism; many employ troll factories to shout down dissent. Encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and Signal allow young Arabs to share their disillusionment, but the major platforms are no longer used to foment mass movements.
But if social media is no longer the salve for Arab youth, it can still provide salvation for an Arab youth, as we learned this week from Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun. This young Saudi woman, fleeing to Bangkok from what she describes as parental abuse, used Twitter to draw international sympathy, the attention of human-rights groups and eventually the intervention of the United Nations refugee agency on her behalf. This effectively nixed efforts by Saudi authorities and her family to have her flown back home to Kuwait. Subsequently, Canada agreed to resettle her.
Al-Qunun’s drama transfixed an international audience; young Arabs will also parse it closely. As the success of protests in Tunis and Cairo eight years ago inspired other to follow the social-media tactics of the organizers, Al-Qunun’s adroit use of Twitter will likely inspire others who hope to escape from repressive families.
One important lesson they will learn is that you don’t have to be a social-media maven to pull off Al-Qunun’s great escape: she was new to Twitter, with a mere 24 followers on January 5, when she barricaded herself in a hotel room at the Bangkok airport and began to tweet her plight. “I’m the girl who ran away to Thailand. I’m now in real danger because the Saudi embassy is trying to force me to return,” was her first cry for help. “My family will kill me,” she said in a subsequent tweet.
Her entreaties quickly caught the attention of other Arabs on Twitter, and the following grew exponentially: a thousand-fold in a single day. (It rose to 128,000 by Jan 10, before she suspended her account after receiving abuse and death threats.) A hashtag #Save Rahaf was quickly trending, and prominent social-media activists swung into action. As Al-Qunun live-tweeted her ordeal, agencies like Human Rights Watch got involved, and began pressuring Thai authorities to allow the young woman to stay. This was by now an international news story, picked up by TV stations and wire services everywhere. Relief spread when the Thai immigration chief announced: “Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send someone back to die.” The UN agency was then allowed to take custody of Al-Qunun.
There’s no question the Twitter campaign was key to Al-Qunun’s reprieve. Her friend told The Guardian, “Yesterday, they [social-media supporters] made the difference in Rahaf’s life.”
How many Arabs will be inspired to follow Al-Qunun’s example? There are no reliable statistics for women trying to flee their families in the Arab world. Those who can’t leave their own country have little hope: local authorities routinely take the side of the families, and force the women back home — with sometimes fatal consequences. Some have managed to get out of the region, only to be dragged back. In 2017, for instance, Philippine authorities grabbed a fleeing Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, while she was in transit in Manila airport, and bundled her into a plane to Riyadh.
Even when the women are living outside the Arab world, they may not be able to get the help they need. Consider the sad story of Rotana and Tala Farea, young Saudi women whose bodies were found in the Hudson River in New York last October. The sisters had sought asylum in the U.S., but were reportedly unable to prove they were being abused by their family, then resident in Virginia. Police say the sisters had told friends “that they would rather inflict harm on themselves — commit suicide — than return to Saudi Arabia.”
Had the timeline been different, might the Farea sisters have been influenced by Al-Qunun’s social-media strategy, and tried to draw more attention to themselves? We can’t know that. But other Arab women in future likely will follow her lead. May the world leap to their rescue as it did for Rahaf Al-Qunun.
To contact the author of this story: Bobby Ghosh at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gibney at email@example.com
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.
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