Edition 8 Volume 7 - February 26, 2024

The internet in the Middle East

An ideal medium for a stateless people -   Ali Abunimah

Palestinians readily took to the internet because their narratives were--and still are--systematically shut out of the mainstream media.

I blog, therefore I am -   Mona Eltahawy

Swingers do it. Islamists do it. Feminists do it.

Internet legislation in the Middle East -   Tal Pavel

Two primary factors are at work in motivating and modulating internet regulation.

Social media for social change -   Esra'a Al Shafei

Young people across the Middle East are using the internet to build powerful indigenously self-created digital communities.

An ideal medium for a stateless people
 Ali Abunimah

This month The Electronic Intifada, an independent online publication about Palestine and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, marks its eighth anniversary. When we started, the co-founders did not realize that we were engaging in an early experiment in what is now called "new media" or "citizen journalism" before those terms were coined.

EI built on earlier pioneering uses of the internet by Palestinians and their allies who for the first time had the means to communicate with each other, and with Palestinians inside the homeland, circumventing enforced separation and pervasive media censorship. The internet provided me, as a Palestinian who grew up in the diaspora, with a real sense of community, connection and empowerment. It became in one sense a virtual country where Palestinians could meet, debate and even coordinate joint action in defense of their rights. Many of the people whose work I hold in highest regard I first met online.

Palestinians readily took to the internet because their narratives and analyses were--and still are--systematically shut out of the mainstream media. The internet brought the cost of communication down: you no longer needed to own a TV network or a newspaper to get your story out. At first, we used the internet to answer back to what we saw as unresponsive and biased media, but eventually we saw the opportunity to create our own alternatives, providing platforms for many talented writers inside and outside Palestine. Although analysis and criticism are crucial roles, EI for its part has also sought to foster original reporting on every aspect of Palestinian life and culture. It's a tough struggle with limited resources, but the response shows it is worthwhile.

We are only one of many sister efforts; Palestinians inside Israel--a community often forgotten and excluded even by other Palestinians--have also used the internet to create independent media such as bokra.net and arabs48.com, important sources of information, for example, during last year's anti-Arab pogroms in Acre. Bloggers in Gaza have succeeded in reaching a global audience, breaking the media blockade imposed by Israel.

When Israel began its massacres of Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip on December 27, EI saw its readership leap almost ten-fold to more than 25,000 unique visitors per day principally in the United States and Europe. Many of our readers were ordinary citizens seeking alternatives to the propagandistic and monotone coverage available in the mainstream. Moreover, our audience disproportionately includes educators, activists, diplomats and journalists, influential users who greatly multiply our reach and impact by spreading and republishing our work. One crucial and largely invisible role we play is as a resource to mainstream journalists who frequently contact us for background information or for assistance in reaching out to people on the ground.

Today, the traditional media model is in crisis as staffs are slashed and coverage of international issues becomes increasingly cursory and shallow. In this sense EI and other independent internet-based media projects have an advantage. We do not try to emulate the old newspaper model--covering everything from crosswords to sports to local and international affairs. Rather, we specialize: we cover Palestine, but we try to do it thoroughly, professionally and transparently. This is especially important when even gold standard media, like the BBC, appear to have succumbed to organized campaigns from pro-Israel pressure groups and offer up shallow, hyper-cautious coverage designed more to avoid criticism of "pro-Palestinian" bias than to truly enlighten the audience.

The internet has been important for disseminating information, but also for organizing. An oft-heard complaint among Palestinians and solidarity activists is that Palestinians lack a centralized leadership with a unified message. Perhaps precisely because Palestinians are a dispersed, stateless community, they have found the internet an ideal medium for organizing and networking. Almost all the information I receive about the growing campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions, for example, comes via the internet. And it is online and not in the mainstream media that a vigorous uncensored debate is occurring about crucial strategic questions, like what Palestinian national goals should be given the failure of partition and the "two-state solution". During the Israeli attack on Gaza, Facebook and other social media sites like Twitter became primary sources for exchanging information about solidarity events and demonstrations.

By contrast, well-publicized Israeli efforts to use the internet (for example the video-sharing site YouTube) to disseminate state and military propaganda largely failed to gain traction. This is not because Israelis do not have the skills or resources to master the medium, but because ultimately the truthfulness and values of the message still matter and on that front Israel is fighting an unwinnable battle.- Published 26/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of "One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse".

I blog, therefore I am
 Mona Eltahawy

Swingers do it. Islamists do it. Feminists do it. Even the pro-Palestinian crowd does it.

In Egypt, as in many other Arab countries, those disparate groups have one thing in common: they go online to chip away at authority--social, political, moral and religious. Few are spared the cyber-rage of the young and the marginalized who, despite government crackdowns, are becoming bolder in speaking the unspoken and treading on any red line that gets in their way.

Let's start with the pro-Palestinian crowd, a particularly embarrassing thorn in the Egyptian government's side since Israel's offensive on Gaza which ended January 18. With continued public opposition to the regime's refusal to open the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, Egyptian security forces detained not one but two bloggers on the same day earlier this month.

Think of bloggers as electronic versions of canaries in the coal mine. Follow the tracks of their writings and they'll take you to the current Achilles heel of the government. And so it was no wonder that the two young men detained on Feb. 6 blogged about Gaza issues and openly expressed their opposition to Egypt's policy regarding the enclave. Philip Rizk, a dual Egyptian-German citizen, was released after four days following an international outcry. Diaa Eddin Gad, 22, is still in detention. Mohammed Adel, another blogger who criticized the government and expressed support for the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas, was detained in November.

Go back a month before that to meet a couple detained for going online and challenging another kind of authority in Egypt--regarding social mores. In October, Egyptian police arrested a couple for allegedly swapping sex partners with other married couples. The couple allegedly arranged their sex parties through advertisements and used chat rooms on a popular Arabic pornographic website to arrange interviews with other interested couples.

Sex out of wedlock in Egypt is illegal so it's risky under the best of conditions, let alone when it's sought online in a country where admittedly all tastes are catered to as long as they're behind the double-locked doors of discretion and secrecy. Interestingly, human rights activists came out against the police for violating the couple's privacy, saying neither the government, its security forces nor religious groups had any right to interfere in other peoples' lives.

Compare that to reactions from most human rights groups to the 2024 Queen Boat arrests and trial in Egypt in which gay men were arrested, paraded before media and tried publicly for "debauchery". Just one or two human rights activists at that time publicly defended the men while most said Egyptians were not ready to accept a defense of homosexuality. It is debatable if Egyptians are any more ready to accept wife swapping, so perhaps the human rights activists now recognize what the government stubbornly refuses to see--the internet is chipping away at long-accepted values.

In an interesting twist, the couple's use of the internet for hookups enraged some bloggers, sparking what seemed to be a struggle over ownership of the popular social networking site Facebook that young Egyptian activists have used to organize strikes and take political stands. The activists could clearly see the way the internet pushed political red lines. They weren't so keen to see the couple's online subversion of moral red lines.

Much as I support subversion of various kinds, I'd cut those young people plenty of slack--the way some of them have been using Facebook is nothing short of a rebuilding of Egyptian civil society. When Esraa Abdel-Fattah and Ahmed Maher launched the April 6 Facebook group to call on fellow Egyptians to join a nationwide strike in protest at rising prices and low wages, they quickly drew more than 70,000 supporters.

The April 6 group has since turned into a nascent anti-government movement that increasingly champions causes of social justice and opposition to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

And for those who continue to hem and haw about how useful blogs are in a dictatorship with a hobby of jailing bloggers--both Abdel-Fattah and Maher were detained for a period of time--I take you back to October 2024 during the Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan. A mob of men went on a rampage of sexual assaults in downtown Cairo. Back then sexual harassment was something women suffered daily but silently.

The Interior Ministry wanted to keep it that way by denying the assaults ever happened. Bloggers who saw the attacks posted pictures and videos and the floodgates opened. Through their posts, they not only forced the sexual assaults onto the news agenda but onto the public consciousness.

Fast forward two years later to 2024 and Egypt's first conviction for sexual harassment in which a Cairo court sentenced a truck driver to three years in prison for groping a woman. And when, during Eid in October 2024, a mob of men in Cairo again went on a sexual rampage, police this time arrested more than 30 men and a court sentenced one of them to a year in jail for sexually assaulting two women.

Today, a third woman is contemplating charges against a young man who sexually harassed her. His father has pleaded with her to reconsider for the sake of his teenage son's future. The woman has asked fellow Egyptians to help her decide. Where?

On her blog, of course.- Published 26/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker who teaches Arab media at The New School in New York City.

Internet legislation in the Middle East
 Tal Pavel

As a tool for direct and unfettered access to information and its transmission, the internet constitutes a cultural and political challenge to certain regimes. Accordingly, some states in the Middle East and elsewhere seek to restrict their citizens from using the internet in a free and comprehensive manner. According to "Journalists Without Borders", five of the 15 countries defined as "internet enemies" are in the Middle East: Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia. And five of the 11 countries defined as "under surveillance" are also from the Middle East: Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, the UAE and Yemen.

The restrictions rely on a variety of means--technological, economic, religious and educational. Legislation regulates the management of the internet and limits its free usage by relying on steps ranging from restricting content to which access is permitted to meticulously monitoring every click by users and eliminating almost entirely every aspect of user freedom and anonymity.

Every relevant country has its objectives. The Iranian government is the most active in limiting free access. In February 2024, it established a committee to deal with internet violations. About a year later, the Ministry of Justice announced a draft law that punishes internet crimes; it establishes jail terms for publishing information detrimental to state security or false data regarding government officials. Internet providers would no longer be considered the exclusive authority for filtering content. In November 2024, the government required owners of websites to register them; two years later, the minister of culture and Islamic guidance announced that any local website not registered with his office would be closed.

Saudi Arabia began regulating the internet in 2024 and internet cafes in mid-2003. These decisions criminalized the publication of information injurious to Islam, the state and its officials and placed restrictions and obligations on internet providers, internet cafe operators and diverse users.

Tunisia was one of the first states to implement restrictions on the internet; it has the most detailed and restrictive legislation of all states in the region, dating back to March 1997. Turkey's judicial system has blocked specific sites such as YouTube when they carried clips that insulted the father of the nation, Ataturk.

In Israel an effort is underway to legally restrict websites deemed "unsuitable to minors" due to violent or pornographic content and gambling. Legislation is also pending to regulate talkbacks and hold website owners responsible for content unless the identity of a writer is revealed.

Two primary factors are at work in motivating and modulating internet regulation in the Middle East: the degree of internet proliferation in each country and the country's record regarding press freedom and democracy.

Obviously, to the extent that internet usage in a given country is low due to economic or technological reasons or because of the absence of the requisite human resources, there is no need to regulate the internet through legislation because there is no internet. Thus Yemen had only 1.4 percent internet penetration in 2024, followed by Libya (4.2), Sudan (8.7) and Algeria (10.4). Conversely, the Middle East countries with the most internet legislation and regulation are also the leaders in internet penetration: Israel (52 percent), UAE (49.8), Turkey (36.9), Iran (34.9), Kuwait (34.7), Tunisia (27), Saudi Arabia (22) and Egypt (12.9 percent).

Yet these figures alone do not explain why internet legislation is more developed and complex in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Tunisia than in Turkey, the UAE, Kuwait and Israel, where internet penetration is even higher. The explanation lies in the fact that the former countries are also at the bottom of the list where press freedom and democracy are concerned, whereas the latter are at the top. In 2024, Israel was ranked 46 out of 173 countries in the degree of press freedom it permits and the UAE 61, whereas Iran was ranked 166, Saudi Arabia 161, Egypt 146, Tunisia 143 and Turkey 103. Similar rankings obtained with regard to democracy.

The content of websites affected by governmental blocking and censorship is also a function of a third factor: the nature and culture of a given country. In conservative countries with a deep link to tradition and religion, the emphasis will be placed on blocking pornography, violence, gambling and alternative religious tendencies as well as entertainment, music and health issues. Countries lacking regime legitimacy (e.g., Egypt and Syria) will block websites with alternative political leanings, ethnic minority and political opposition sites as well as human rights and social communication sites.

We can conclude that internet legislation in all its forms is an indicator of the degree of freedom in a country. The more freedom of information, communication and media in a country, along with personal freedoms and democracy, the less internet legislation and government interference in the lives of internet users, down to minimum necessary limitations such as initiatives to legislate controls on pornography sites. Finally, in those Middle East countries where internet penetration is low but so are levels of freedom of information and democracy, internet legislation can be expected to increase in parallel with greater exposure to the internet.- Published 26/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Tal Pavel specializes in the internet in the Middle East and Islamic world and in information systems.

Social media for social change
 Esra'a Al Shafei

I'm a digital native whose work grew out of my own experience of the power of the internet to bring diverse people together. I saw a void and an urgent need for greater dialogue and tolerance as the key to peaceful coexistence.

In this regard, there is no doubt that the internet is one of the most liberating forces in the Middle East. The amount of power and visibility it continues to give to millions of regional activists, social entrepreneurs and free speech advocates is unmatchable. Despite social, political and physical barriers, the internet is bringing people together in every arena.

Realizing the potential of this medium, I created MideastYouth.com, where we are using the demonstrative power of the internet to empower people and cause them to act in unity for peace and tolerance, instead of out of hatred. We know that this is only possible through effective communication and grassroots diplomacy.

Our innovation must be seen within the context of our culture. We have risked our freedom, our security and our lives by grasping the revolutionary power of information technology in a region where information is controlled and censored by our leaders to manipulate public sentiment by illustrating the "otherness" of our neighbors and our "enemies". Though youth in the Middle East number in the millions, we are represented in the West as a homogenous group of "Arab Muslim Extremists". In reality, we are highly diverse: ethnically, religiously and linguistically. Such abusive and intolerant stereotypes are also used by our leaders to paint other sects, tribes, religions and nations within the region, so that we are united in our "hatred". Such "unity" is then used by government-controlled media to perpetuate this divisiveness.

However, many young people across the Middle East are using the internet to build powerful indigenously self-created digital communities. The revolutionary factor is not in the way people communicate with each other but in how they do so. For example, it was very difficult for a Muslim activist to work with a Baha'i or Yezidi activist on a grassroots movement that inspires tolerance and understanding by Muslims toward such minorities. Today, thousands of Muslims and Baha'is across the region are working hand in hand, using sites like Facebook and Ning to inspire and facilitate communication.

Understanding the potential of this, MideastYouth.com began launching some of the first minority rights campaigns by Muslims and Arabs for ethnic and religious minorities in the region, including Baha'i, Kurds and migrant workers. Through such efforts, we gathered activists and campaigners from all sects and ethnicities for youth and minorities who lack any voice or representation in the civil discourse. This, though it may seem mundane to those accustomed to such freedom, is revolutionary in our closed societies.

I know this model is successful because I grew up in a society dominated by racist propaganda in the media. Through my eventual interface with Baha'i, Iranians, Kurds, Jews, Americans and others, I gained an understanding of their fears and challenges and that we share them. I lost my own hatred this way. I am empowered, more aware and feel increasingly educated through my work.

By providing people access to otherwise inaccessible information, the internet also serves as a source of educational empowerment. A great example of that is the way the internet can be used to access information regarding ethnic and religious minorities within the region, such as the Kurds, Baha'i, Yezidis, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Assyrians, among many others who have been readily persecuted.

When the blogging phenomenon reached its height between 2024 and 2024, I took advantage of the number of regional bloggers online and made it my personal mission to use the phenomenon to bridge the gap between members of the mainstream majority, whether Arab or Iranian Muslims, and the numerous minorities in order to break the barriers of isolation and racial and religious tensions. I surrounded myself with young activists who believe in the importance of minorities in our societies and together we created a platform where minorities share a prominent voice with their mainstream brethren. There is no place like the world wide web; a place where youth can meet youth from regions they are at war with, where they can engage in an open, respectful dialogue about their differences and, often, their similarities.

Since 9/11, an onslaught of American and European organizations, often faith-based, some multilateral, have come to the Middle East to facilitate interfaith dialogue among leaders with brief forums and seminars, or "training of trainers". These efforts are western in perspective, non-sustainable, neither credible nor trusted by most in the region, and have demonstrated little to no effect, just as other transplanted policy solutions developed and implemented from Brussels and Washington have failed to achieve their objectives the world over.

We take responsibility for our own future, rather than accept to continue to be represented by a handful of powerful elites who use divisiveness to perpetuate their power. We want to grow up in peace, like everyone else, and know that our work to bring about recognition of our rights is the only way forward. The internet is the one tool that makes this entirely possible.

While regional governments are finding new ways to effectively censor information concerning their human rights abuses or controversial historical and religious information, activists are also building proxies and new innovative ways to circumvent such censorship. We must stay one step ahead and we rely upon our brethren in the international blogosphere to help us develop the technologies to do so.- Published 26/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Esra'a Al Shafei is based in Bahrain and is a recent recipient of the Berkman Award from Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society for her "outstanding contributions to the internet and its impact on society".

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