Role of Twitter and Facebook in Arab Spring uprising 'overstated'
The role of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring uprisings has been overstated, according to Hisham Matar.
The author, who was raised in Libya and Egypt, said the social networking sites had provided a vital means of communication for protesters in the Middle East but their importance should not be exaggerated.
"There have been a lot of bold statements about the uprising in Egypt and Tunisia: that they couldn't have happened without the internet. I think that is an exaggeration," Matar told an audience at the Telegraph Ways With Words Festival.
"The people who have access and know how to use it are the elite. The Egyptian uprising didn't happen on Facebook or Twitter because it couldn't have happened without the working classes, and they don't have access to those things. But it allowed the agile, internationalist elite to mobilise and play to the international media. That was very important.
"Revolutions are a boring thing. They take years. Social change takes a very long time. The internet is one of very many different tools and I don't think it's always going to make or break an uprising.
"I think it's useful but a lot of times I get slightly irritated. It's basically fashionable to talk about Facebook or Twitter but we don't focus on other very important elements of human life that played a role.
"For example, we don't talk about how mythologies played a role. There is something incredibly comforting in the knowledge that we have been around for a long time. It's not just sentimentalising - in Libya, people asked, 'Who are we exactly?' and the answers stem from mythological ideas of the self.
“So to be Libyan means we have been fighting fascism for 100 years - first Mussolini, then Gaddafi."
However, he acknowledged that social networking had transformed political discourse for the masses. "What's really exciting is that it allows a new generation a new way of communicating. It is almost like a new language - it makes them feel empowered in a culture that is very disempowered, politically speaking.
"In Tunisia and Egypt, I think Facebook and Twitter have created a political discourse that is bypassing the old regime. Political dictatorships take possession not just of money and belongings but of narrative. The internet has created a new language."
Matar was speaking in a debate - Free Speech: The Great Middle East Revolution - at the festival in Dartington, Devon.
He said that mobile phone technology had played a key role in documenting events in his Libyan homeland.
"In Libya, in the early ‘90s, there was an uprising in the Green Mountain region in the east. Almost the same thing happened is as is happening now. People went onto the streets, Gaddafi sent in helicopters and bombed them.
"And nobody knew about it. Nobody reported on it. That's not possible now and it's largely the mobile phone, actually, rather than internet. People can post photographs and film clips online."
Matar's father, Jaballa, was a Libyan political dissident and the family were forced to flee Tripoli, moving to Egypt where they lived for many years in exile.
In 1990, Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and has never been seen again. In 1992, he managed to smuggle a letter out of the political prison where he was being held, and another followed in 1995. The family received news from an ex-prisoner in 2002 claiming that Jaballa was alive, giving them renewed hope.
Matar's two books - Booker-nominated In The Country of Men and his latest, Anatomy of a Disappearance - draw on his experiences.