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This article was published on June 11, 2011

Middle East governments struggle with being social

Middle East governments struggle with being social
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

Since international media has struggled to slap the convenient label of the Facebook Revolution on the Egyptian uprising, it seems that Middle Eastern governments have been the first ones to sit up and take notice of the name. Fittingly, the Egyptian Supreme Council for Armed Forces seems to have been in the lead, launching their official Facebook page.

Since Egyptian president Hosny Mubarak stepped down on February 11, the Egyptian Supreme Council has announced all of its communiques to the country through the social network, which has been credited with a role in bringing the former regime down. With over 1 million fans on Facebook, you’d think that the method of communication is working.

Egypt’s military is not alone in the sudden surge in Middle Eastern government presence both on Facebook and Twitter. Egypt’s Armed Forces, along with the Cabinet of Ministers, and even the Egyptian Prime Minister himself have all created accounts on Twitter to make announcements to the public. Despite their strong online presence, Egypt’s officials are not taking advantage of the two-way communication that both Twitter and Facebook afford them.

Ironically, it was Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa who seemed to have the right idea on how to use Twitter. Using his official Twitter account, he was more than ready to interact with other users, to clarify statements made by the Ministry and even went so far as to share images of himself as a young man, using a personal approach to his Twitter persona was so far removed from what you would expect of a Gulf official. Taking a deeper look however, his participation was cosmetic at best, while Bahraini pro-democracy activists on Twitter told a very different story of Bahrain’s tendencies for communication and dialogue.

Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi reveals that there is yet another kind of official government user on Twitter, there to monitor rather than to communicate or interact. The existence of these kinds of accounts is not surprising by any means, with security and government officials keeping a close eye on Internet activity long before the Arab uprisings. The public admission, however, does come as a surprise.

While their Egyptian counterparts are coming to the social media scene with Arabic as the only language they use, Gulf governments are clearly more conscious of the international scope that these networks provide. The Bahraini Foreign Minister tweets almost entirely in English, while the official Dubai Police Force Twitter account takes a more bilingual approach, making announcements both in English and Arabic.

The choice of language is very telling on what these officials are there on Twitter to do. Queen Rania of Jordan can probably be credited as the very first Arab official to truly embrace social media, long before the uprisings in the region began. Addressing her audience in her YouTube vlog in English, as well as from her Twitter account which has over 1 million followers, the Queen certainly has a following, but does not actually interact with her Twitter audience.

This begs the question, are Middle Eastern governments simply jumping on the social media bandwagon out of necessity? It seems that is the case, with the exception of a few individuals who have a genuine, personal enthusiasm for social networks, they limit themselves to talking at people rather than talking to them. In a region where citizens, and particularly youth, are taking advantage of the medium, their governments are slow to catch on.

The Dubai School of Government’s latest report reveals some interesting statistics about social media use in the Middle East which could lead to the conclusion that governmental online presence is a minor issue, since the audience they will reach is minimal best. The best medium, for communication in the Middle East can probably be narrowed down to television, but the trend in the figures may be a hint of the change to come in the future.

In fact the report revealed that 71% of Egyptian Facebook users would rather vote for a candidate that engages with citizens online. In Tunisia, however that figure sees a drastic drop to 47% of Facebook users. But in order to put these figures in context on a nationwide level, only 7% of Egyptians are on Facebook, while Tunisia surges ahead at 22%.

In the grand scheme of things, these figures may not be enough to get politicians to take Facebook, or the even less popular Twitter, seriously. These figures might reveal which countries could lead a trend of bringing politicians and lawmakers onto Twitter and Facebook. The countries with the highest social media penetration are Qatar and the UAE, and of the two, it seems that the UAE is definitely taking the lead.

Not only does the Dubai Police Force have an official Twitter account. The UAE’s Prime Minster and Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has an account with over 400,000 followers.

Mariam Bakry, Key Accounts Manager for Sarmady, the company behind FilGoal and Mujaz feels that governments still have a long way to go in understanding social media. “It’s something they’ve started without planning or a clear vision. ‘Facebook and Twitter are important, so let’s do them.’ Like many other entities using social media, they fail to see that it’s a means to an objective, rather than an objective on its own.” With a glimmer of optimism, she says, “It’s a step forward – knowing that there’s more than newspapers to use,” but adds, “So far I can’t see they have the finesse or knowledge to fully use it to potential.”

Transparency and communication are all too new a concept in the region, and so it might be too much to expect of Middle Eastern government officials to interact casually on a social network. In fact, a quick glance at the official account of any government official almost anywhere in the world shows that we’re simply following the trend. That said, when your countrymen are the ones out there on the streets, setting a trend that is sweeping the Middle East, it might be worth attempting to a start a trend amongst Middle Eastern government officials on the web. A trend of communication.

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