Expat-ing Democracy

Dissidents, Technology, and Democratic Discourse in the Middle East

by Nir T. Boms (Author)
©2016 Thesis XI, 246 Pages


Taking Syria and Iran as case studies, this book explores how expatriate groups have used tools such as technology and new media to influence political discourse and to irrevocably alter the political dynamics both in their home countries and in the Middle East at large. Based on over 60 in-depth interviews with dissidents, expat leaders, journalists and researchers from Syria and Iran that were conducted both before and after the Arab Spring, the author examines the tripartite relationship between technology, dissent and democratization. This approach offers a unique perspective on contemporary geopolitics in the Middle East and considers possible scenarios for the future of the region.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Tables
  • List of Charts
  • Introduction: Expat-ing or Exporting Democracy
  • Chapter 1: Media & Technology’s Function in the Quest for Democracy
  • 1.1 Communicating Democracy in the Middle East
  • The Arrival of Technology to the Middle East
  • Technology and Political Camps in the Middle East
  • 1.2 Media, New Media and Democracy
  • Media and Open Society
  • 1.3 Technology and Democratization—A Driving Force or Virtual Illusion?
  • Internet’s Growth and Impact on ICT
  • ICT and Civil Empowerment
  • ICT in a Non-Democratic Environment
  • 1.4 Syria and Iran: Case Studies
  • Internet in Iran
  • Internet Censorship in Iran
  • Chapter 2: The Challenge of Democratization and the Middle East
  • 2.1 Universal Rights and Democracy Promotion: Is Democracy a Philosophy for All?
  • 2.2 The “Democracy Wave”
  • 2.3 Democracy, Elections and Liberalism
  • 2.4 Promoting Democracy in the Middle East during the 20th Century
  • 2.5 Promoting Democracy Before and After September 11th
  • 2.6 Democracy, Islam and Civil Society in the Middle East – Reconciling a Paradox
  • 2.7 New Threats to the Democratic Revolution
  • Chapter 3: Diasporas, Political Diasporas and Expatriate Groups
  • 3.1 The Growing Political Role of Diaspora and Expatriate Opposition Groups
  • 3.2 Growing Diasporas and the Phenomenon of Globalization
  • 3.3 Political and Economic Roles of Transnational Diasporas
  • 3.4 Conflict Generated Diasporas
  • 3.5 Diasporas of Middle Eastern Descent
  • 3.6 The Syrian Diaspora
  • 3.7 Syrian Opposition Groups
  • The Islamist Opposition
  • The Radical Islamist Opposition
  • The Kurdish Opposition
  • Kurdish Opposition Groups
  • “Old Guard” Opposition
  • Abdul Halim Khaddam and the National Salvation Front
  • Rifaat al-Assad
  • Mustafa Tlas
  • “Newcomers”
  • New Structures of the Syrian Opposition
  • 3.8 The Iranian Diaspora
  • The First Wave: 1950–1979
  • The Second Wave, 1979–1995
  • Third Wave, 1995-Present
  • The Spread of the Iranian Diaspora
  • The Iranian Community in the US
  • Other Iranian Diasporas
  • 3.9 Iranian Opposition Groups
  • The Monarchists
  • Republicans
  • Democratic and Minority Parties
  • Islamic Groups
  • The Mujahideen Khalk
  • Marxists
  • The Green Movement
  • 3.10 Do Middle East Diasporas Threat Their Host Countries?
  • Chapter 4: Analysis
  • 4.1 The Role of ICT in relation to the discourse of political reform and democratization in the Middle East
  • 4.2 The Use of ICT by Pro-Democracy Expatriate Groups to Deliver Political Messages
  • The Internet
  • Satellite Broadcasting
  • 4.3 The Reception and Penetration of Expatriate Messages in Syria, Iran, and the Broader Middle East
  • 4.4 Do Expatriate Opposition Efforts and Use of ICT Apply to the Framework of Civil Society?
  • 4.5 The Influence of Expatriate Groups on Democratization in the Middle East
  • Chapter 5: Media, Virtual Media and Real Revolutions
  • 5.1 Media and Political Change
  • 5.2 What’s New about New Media?
  • 5.3 From Virtual Fire to Real Flames – The Beginning of the Arab Spring
  • 5.4 On the Way to Tahrir
  • 5.5 Not Just Media
  • 5.6 The Dark Side of the Internet
  • 5.7 Social Media, a Theoretical Framework
  • 5.8 In Sum—the Virtual Difference and the Meaning of New Media
  • 5.9 Epilogue
  • Appendix I – Methodology and Delphi Interviewees
  • Appendix 2 – Delphi Questionnaire
  • Bibliography

← VIII | IX →

List of Tables

← X | XI →

List of Charts

← XII | 1 →

Introduction: Expat-ing or Exporting Democracy

This book is the culmination of more than a decade of work and engagement with activists seeking to bring democratic discourse and democratic change to the Middle East. That work began on September 11, 2001 in Washington DC where, as a young researcher, I encountered voices of Middle East expatriate who argued about the feasibility of democratic change in their native countries, a process that appeared only too appealing in the months and years that followed. Soon after, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, the US began to pursue a more assertive democracy promotion agenda, providing additional platforms and resources for those who argued that such a change could realistically be achieved.

Technology became a clear factor in these events in light of its rapid dissemination in the region and at large. Egypt had a million cell phones in 2000, 60 million a decade later and more cell phones than people in 2015. The ASDA’A Burston-Marsteller 2015 Arab Youth Survey showed a generation of connected people, 82% of whom use the Internet daily and 77% who use a smart mobile phone. Clearly, people are communicating and somebody is listening – but to what?

As a son of the region, an Israeli who thus far has had limited opportunities for constructive engagement with my own neighbors, I have become fascinated and intrigued by these voices of change. It was not difficult to enlist in a journey aimed at creating a freer, safer and more peaceful region. However, as a student of the region, I have also developed a strong sense of skepticism while beginning to inquire more about the role and reach of these foreign democracy activists. Working in a think-tank that began to examine questions about the future of the region, I was able to engage further and begin my own personal work that included various writings as well as developing a discourse on the feasibility of political change in the region. I have had the pleasure of working with a large number of groups and individuals from the Middle East on different initiatives to promote that dialogue for change. This has been a fascinating journey filled with rare encounters as well as many surprising moments of hope that took place in unexpected ← 1 | 2 → places like a Syrian Refugee camp or at the grave of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. I have since traveled throughout the region and beyond to meet the individuals who dedicate their lives to the cause of freedom and peace in the Middle East, a cause that I endorse. However, I could also not escape from asking the obvious questions: How feasible are these visions? How wide is the reach of these voices? And what is the role that expatriate play in promoting a discourse on democracy and political change in the Middle East itself?

I decided to spend more time on these questions with a focus on the latter, which ended up becoming the subject of my PhD work Technology and Democracy in the Middle East,” published in 2013, a time when the “Arab Spring” inspired at least some democratic hope. The Arab uprising that began to shake the region at the end of 2010 provided a rare case study as well as a unique opportunity to further examine these assumptions and ideas. My work and research as well as the topic of this book were born out of the need to further evaluate the role of expat groups and the significance of technology in the quest for democracy in the Middle East.

While there are a number of recent works that deal with assessing the “Arab Spring” as well as the respected role of technology in forming and influencing these revolutions, this book’s intended contribution lies within a unique component, the work of expat groups toward influencing the “democracy discourse” in the region. It seeks to analyze the influence of information and communication technologies (hereafter ICT) on democratization and democracy discourse in the Middle East with a focus on the work of expatriate groups who utilize ICT to advance political reforms and democratization. I am aware, as I write these lines, that the discourse on “Democratization” and “Spring” may not appear obvious at a time where radical forces like the Islamic State (ISIS) appears to have filled some of the vacuum left by the old political guard. Nervelessness, these developments - as significant as they are -do not contradict the main thesis of this work that should be seen not as an attempt to analyze the contemporary dynamics but rather as a pointer to deeper currents that will likely be indicative of events to come. Syria and Iran are used as the two central case studies that will be introduced in more detail, although the book also includes rather detailed analyses of related events in Egypt and Tunisia. The book focuses more specifically on what is sometimes dubbed “new media,” which consists mainly of satellite, Internet and cellular communications, and on its ← 2 | 3 → relationship to the political dynamics of the Middle East. Above all, this book addresses five major questions:

  1. What is the role of ICT in relation to the discourse of political reform and democratization in the Middle East?
  2. How do democratic expatriate groups utilize ICT in order to deliver and convey political messages?
  3. How are these messages perceived, and what is their degree of penetration in the Middle East, specifically in Syria and Iran?
  4. Can expatriate opposition efforts and the use of ICT be placed within the framework of Civil Society theory?
  5. What is the overall influence and potential of democratic expatriate groups for democratization in the Middle East?

Structure and Methodology

The book is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 deals with the role of media as well as Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the quest for democracy in the Middle East. The chapter looks into the idea of “communicating democracy” and surveys several recent historical events for which media played a role in the pursuit of democracy. The chapter also focuses on the two main countries covered in the book, Syria and Iran, and discusses the relevant technology and communication platforms that existed in them before the eruption of protests in Iran in 2009 and protests followed by a civil war in Syria in 2011.

Chapter 2 deals with the challenge of democratization in the Middle East. Naturally, democracy is a loaded word and one that is much debated. Addressing the question of “democratization” and focusing on efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East implies that democracy should be promoted and that it can be promoted using a variety of policy, advocacy, educational, and technological tools. Both assumptions about the feasibility of democratization and about the benefit or even the right to pursue a democratization agenda are not taken for granted. The chapter spends some time examining the foundations of the “democratization” agenda, including its merits and limitations.

Chapter 3 deals with diasporas, political diasporas and political change. The phenomena of political diasporas has not received significant attention ← 3 | 4 → in the literature, although there are ample instances in which diasporas and political expat groups have been able to change societal and political dynamics in their host countries. This phenomenon has been witnessed in Czechoslovakia, Venezuela, Poland, El-Salvador, Spain, Argentina, South Africa, the Philippines, Turkey, Iran and Iraq to name just a few. Communication has long served opposition groups who began their political campaigns by advocating for competing ideas and political platforms. In this regard, it is important to stress that ICT is not expected to create dissent or lead the opposition effort. Rather, ICT is expected to serve the opposition and empower its ability to communicate messages, particularly to communicate with those in the opposition who are based outside of their native lands. The degree of that empowerment and service will be further examined in this chapter.

Chapter 4 offers a synopsis of the main questions that this book seeks to explore. The analysis featured in the book was built during fieldwork and was further developed as events continued to unfold in the region. This chapter also incorporates the insights gained from extensive field interviews conducted in the period preceding the upheavals in the Middle East.

Chapter 5 serves as a synopsis of this work. It delves into the present day and to the Arab uprisings that served as the ongoing case study for this work. The chapter deals with two additional case studies, Egypt and Tunisia, which enabled me to glean additional insights into the relationship between virtual differences and actual change.

Due to the contemporary character of this work, and the fact that some of the necessary data could not easily be found in a university library, it became apparent that a more comprehensive field survey would be needed in order to collect the needed data and gain access to additional resources and content that otherwise may not have been available. The Delphi Survey method was selected as a feasible solution since it was geared toward “expert-based” data collection that enables the collection of specific data, as well as gaining a broader perspective on issues relevant to the research. My personal contacts with the interviewees often resulted in access to new resources and individuals whom I found invaluable to the research process. A modified Delphi technique was selected for this study, based on a Delphi model of Linstone and Murray (1975). According to the methodology used ← 4 | 5 → for a general Delphi study, a pilot (or pre-Delphi1) process was initiated, followed by one main round of Delphi questionnaires given to a group of established experts in seven categories:


XI, 246
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (May)
Expat groups New Media Syria Democratization Iran
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XI, 246 pp., 7 tables, 12 graphs

Biographical notes

Nir T. Boms (Author)

Nir T. Boms is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and a professor at the Rothberg School of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His research interests include the Middle East, dissidents, democratization, and terrorism.


Title: Expat-ing Democracy
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