Saudi Arabia’s Information Minister put his profile on Facebook and got more than 5,000 “friends.” And when the king fired a senior cleric for criticizing co-education at a new Saudi university, the cleric’s supporters struck back in cyberspace. Hacking into the website of Al Watan-a champion of the king’s move-they posted the cleric’s picture on the paper’s home page.
Saudi Arabia is increasingly wired, but so is the rest of the Middle East. In Egypt, potential presidential contender Gamal Mubarak answered questions in an online interview as part of an Internet-based outreach to voters. And Iran’s post-election protests last summer acquired a global audience through 140-word “tweets.”
As these scenes demonstrate, the virtual world is offering new opportunities for political expression and communication. Across the region, legions of bloggers are mouthing off as never before. And ordinary folk are having their say in chat rooms, forums and online newspaper sites.
Why political discussion has migrated to the Internet is obvious. In almost every Middle East country, a tight state grip on the media, books and films severely limits freedom of expression. Digital space offers an affordable, accessible, and, if desired, anonymous, soapbox far freer than its terrestrial counterparts. So moving there is a no-brainer, as natural as water running downhill.
But the question that political scientists are still pondering is this: What impact is this free-wheeling political discussion and debate in digital space having on real life politics? How is the Internet changing actual politics?
When the Internet began arriving in the Middle East in the late 1990s, some had high expectations that it would usher in a more democratic Arab world. Certainly the Internet--and its twin power tool of web-linked, SMS-enabled mobile phones--have played crucial roles in moments of high political drama.
Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution, Egypt’s Kifaya movement and Kuwait’s successful campaign to grant women the vote all tapped the Internet’s powers of mobilization and information dissemination. But it was last summer’s huge street protests against election results in Iran--the so-called ‘Twitter Revolution’--that underscored the Internet’s ability to virally connect people around the world.
With the foreign press forced to leave Iran and local television and radio under state control, images and news about the violent suppression of the protests was broadcast abroad through emails, YouTube videos and blogging. But it was Twitter that offered instantaneous immediacy to the protests by creating the illusion of “being there.” As such, it created a virtual global community emotionally linked to the same event.
How Much Impact
Still, a decade after the Internet’s arrival in the Middle East, political structures in most Arab countries have not changed much, leading some to conclude that the new medium has had only minor impact. “While the media scene has changed, and once forbidden views are accessible, the greater amount of information hasn’t really translated into the political process because the formal political institutions have not changed,” observes Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of Beirut’s Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
“You can get information,” Khouri adds, “but you can’t do anything with it. You can’t change
the government….so the ultimate impact is quite minimal.”
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut agrees. “From Morocco all the way to Yemen [the Internet] has had an impact on the way, particularly young, people do politics and mobilize. It’s definitely part of the new landscape,” he said.
But as for influencing the macro political scene, he added, “it’s hard to judge.” Helmi Noman, a researcher with OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative partnership of several universities that monitors Internet censorship and surveillance, put it this way: “The Internet has democratized access to information, but it has not democratized a regime in the Arab world.”
There are many reasons for this. Unlike television and newspapers, the Internet requires active effort from users. “You have to go and get the information,” noted Khouri. “You have to also have access to it.”
Indeed, less than a quarter of the Arab world’s population (23.7%) uses the Internet, according to Internet World Stats, a market research company that compiles online data. Some Arab countries have lower rates of usage, such as Egypt with 15.4% and others are higher, such as Qatar with 52%. (In North America, users are 74% of the population and in Israel, 73%.)
In Syria, where about 16% of the population are users, “there are populated parts of the country with no access to broadband,” observed Jillian C. York, project coordinator for OpenNet Initiative.
This is changing fast, however, as more people come online. Internet World Stats found that users in the Middle East increased by more than 1,300% between 2000 and 2009.
Government Control Spreads
But just as rapidly as Internet use is spreading, governments are scrambling to control it. According to OpenNet Initiative, the Middle East “is one of most heavily censored regions in world” with Internet censorship “on the rise” as governments increase the “the scope and depth” of their filtering, or blocking, of websites.
“More users in the Middle East and North Africa are using the Internet for political campaigning and social activism,” says the Initiative’s latest regional report. “[H]owever, states continue to introduce more restrictive legal, technical and monitoring measures.”
Saudi Arabia, where more than a quarter of its population now uses the Internet, is one of the most aggressive at blocking websites, targeting pornography but also selected sites relating to religion, politics and human rights. But, as ever, the Saudis are polite. Users attempting to visit a blocked website get this message: “Sorry, the requested page is unavailable. If you believe [it] should not be blocked, please click here.” Not an invitation many are likely to take up.
At the other end of the spectrum, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories do not filter out any political websites, according to OpenNet Initiative.
But it is commonly assumed that these countries assign scores of security police to monitor sites people are reading. Police also monitor Internet cafes, probably a necessity in these security-conscious times but also intimidating to potential users. Jordan, for example, installed cameras in its cyber cafes, and the Saudi Interior Ministry issued a similar order in April, along with instructions to owners to record customers’ names, according to OpenNet Initiative.
The paradox, wrote the Initiative’s Noman, is that “the Internet has to various degrees given
Arab political activists unprecedented access to information [but] has, at the same time, exposed the activists and their activities to the authorities.”
Governments are also trying to control cyberspace as if it were part of their sovereign territory by extending existing press laws to website content. And there has also been talk in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia--so far unenforced--of requiring websites to be licensed by the state.
The region presents “a contradiction,” said the Initiative’s York. “All these countries are trying to catch up [and spread] computer literacy,” in some cases promising to put “a computer in very home,” she noted. At the same time, “there are severe restrictions on access to information….You have information starvation.”
Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, one of OpenNet Initiative’s partners, offered some reasons why initial political expectations for the Internet have not materialized. The “emergence of the Internet and digital technologies does not in itself constitute a one-way road towards political liberalization,” stated the Center’s June report on the Arabic blogosphere.
“The ideas and debates of the blogosphere are not effectively open to all. Many have no access to the Internet, and linguistic obstacles prevent most from easily tapping into the full range of ideas available online,” it said. “Furthermore, effective engagement in the field of ideas requires technical skills and media savvy, which are not uniform even among those with regular access to the Internet. Moreover, governments have acted to limit the influence of this digitally-mediated public sphere.”
Diversity in Use
And yet, it is clear that what the Berkman Center calls “an emerging networked public sphere” made up of “multiple genres” of sites, including blogs, forums, chat rooms, video sharing and photo sharing, is affecting the citizens and governments of the Middle East in a variety of ways.
For one, it has “opened up the communication process to absolutely everybody,” said Khouri,
providing a platform for otherwise unheard voices, such as gay and lesbian groups. It also is magnifying some very menacing voices. Terrorists were among the first to demonstrate the Internet’s capacity to be the loudest silent megaphone ever devised. Beheadings and kidnappings in Iraq were first announced there. Recruitment videos for extremist groups can be viewed in even the remotest of villages. And online forums allow jihadis to communicate with each other, bolster morale, and spread their ideas.
Increasingly too, people are turning to the Internet for education and news. [Among bloggers, Al Jazeera is the top mainstream media source, followed by BBC and Al Arabyia, according to the Berkman Center.] When a violent terrorist campaign hit Saudi Arabia in 2003, many Saudis, aware of the official limits on local newspapers, surfed the Internet to learn more about what was happening in their own country.
It also is increasingly popular for social networking, especially for women whose physical mobility is circumscribed by finances and conservative social conventions. And it is an essential ingredient in shaping public opinion, exposing people to different points of view and new possibilities. Arabs, for example, can now read Israeli newspapers online.
Finally, there are the bloggers. The Berkman Center’s survey of the Arabic blogosphere found over 35,000 Arabic language blogs. The largest group is in Egypt, where thousands of politically attuned bloggers range across the political spectrum. Their influence was underscored in 2006 when several bloggers posted a video showing a man being sodomized with a stick by policemen. Such abuse occurs regularly in Egyptian police stations, but the mainstream media usually avoids reporting on it. The immediacy of the blog videos, however, were hard to ignore. A year later, the policemen were sentenced to three years in prison.
Saudis are very active in the Arabic blogosphere, and almost half -46 %- are women, according to the Berkman Center. Many of these female bloggers focus on their personal lives, but others are issue-oriented, with some regularly pointing out, for example, the ban on women drivers and rising trends in domestic violence.
And Reem Asaad, a Jeddah-based lecturer in finance who launched an online campaign to replace male clerks in lingerie stores with women, says at her (bright pink) blog, www.reemasaad.blogspot.com, that her aim is “to raise and promote socio-economic awareness in Saudi Arabia.”
Ahmed Omran, who blogs in English about Saudi Arabia, has noted a change that suggests growing acceptance of blogging by both society and the government. “The interesting thing,” he said, “is that over the past two years, more and more people are using their real names in forums and blogs.”
Whether or not decision-makers are being influenced by what they see on the Internet is hard to tell. But it is at least exposing their failings. Gamal Mubarak got an earful of complaints about Egypt’s high rates of inflation, unemployment and corruption when he
invited the public to ask him questions online at www.sharek.eg (Participate).
And the Internet’s high visibility does cause second thoughts. One Arab media executive who asked not to be identified said it’s not unusual to hear this refrain in staff meetings: “I can’t do that. We don’t want another YouTube clip.” It seems, the executive added, that “a YouTube clip can haunt you now.”
But politicians are starting to realize that this visibility can also be an asset. Gamal Mubarak’s online interview, for example, was part of the ruling National Democratic Party’ effort to harness the Internet’s hold on the young. And scores of groups have blossomed on Facebook both supporting and opposing the question of the day in Egypt: Will Mubarak make a bid to succeed his Dad as president?
Sowing the Seeds of Transformation
Some experts say that given all these different online experiences, the impact of the Internet should be viewed more like a volcano in slow motion, one that will eventually reshape Middle East politics. Their argument is that the Internet’s greatest influence is on how individuals’ real lives are being altered by their online activities and that, eventually, these millions of individual
transformations will affect society.
Deborah L. Wheeler, a professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, has spent more than a decade interviewing Arabs who use the Internet mostly for non-political activities. “These citizens’ Internet practices are seemingly benign in the state’s eyes,” Wheeler wrote in a 2006 research paper. “But if one looks closely, they just might contain the slow growing seeds of significant transformations by shaping the masses into more information aware global netizens.”
She found that online activities, from reading news to entering chat rooms, helps make “people more open minded, more confident, better informed [and] more secure in their opinions.” Expanded Internet access, she also noted, has coincided with “unprecedented public outspokenness in politics,” suggesting “that the two are mutually reinforcing.”
She concluded that “global pressure to join the knowledge economy means that states in the
region can no longer afford to keep their publics digitally muzzled and blindfolded….Just as in the past it has proven difficult to liberalize economically without democratizing, in the same way, it is hard to sustain freedoms to be creative and entrepreneurial digitally speaking, while at the same time, keeping these same concepts and tools from being used to re-engineer political and social life, from the family, to the community, to the state.”
In short, we may be looking for big results too soon. The Middle East is only at the beginning of the digital revolution, which has much more in store for all of us in terms of cyberspace experiences. But the changes that the Internet has already brought to the region in terms of social awareness, information access and grass-roots engagement all suggest that eventually and inevitably it also will usher in a new political world.
Caryle Murphy - Pulitzer Prize Winner in Journalism in 1991, is an independent journalist based in Riyadh. She is the author of “Passion for Islam”