As the US government debates its policy toward the series of revolutions sweeping the Middle East, it should look for guidance to an unlikely source: Silicon Valley, where American social networking sites have shown how to foster change through communication.
By now, the role of Facebook and Twitter in mobilizing social movements is well known. The sites served as a means of communication that helped spur reform movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere in the Arab world — accomplishing goals that had eluded US policymakers for years.
The success of those sites provides a model that the US can learn from. So far, American policy has been inconsistent, backing rebels by military force in Libya but turning a blind eye to protests in Bahrain. Like the social networking sites, the role of the US should be to provide support in framing and promoting democratic debate. Thanks partly to those sites, secular forces whose voices have long been silenced are loud and clear for the first time in decades. The US should study Facebook's success at strengthening civil society and look for ways to deploy social networking tools itself. Supporting a policy that treats citizens as partners, and not enemies, should be the guiding principle in US policy across the region.
US and NATO intervention in Libya shows that the fight for freedom is far from over, and that it can also require more formal aid from the US. But though intervention can be costly, a more engaged, supportive role for the US in the Arab world will serve the greater interest of the region and the US.
"The people demand the collapse of the regime" is the slogan that has circulated around the Arab world after the successful revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. Though different Arab countries experienced the turmoil differently, one thing is certain — authoritarian Arab regimes are no longer viable. Even though revolutions are not pretty, an American policy that fosters open communication and engagement can yield a Hollywood ending, as we witness a region born anew.
Karam Dana is a Dubai Initiative Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he is a moderator at the "Revolution and Reform" conference today and tomorrow. Dana is also a faculty member at Tufts, where he teaches Middle East history and politics.
Globe file photo: Residents from the central Tunisian regions of Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine protest on January 26, 2011 in front of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's office in Tunis.