Thursday, April 14, 2005

Hyperspace: How the Internet Is Transforming Arab Politics

Two years is a long time in the history of the Internet--especially in the Arab world. Consider the following statement made by Jonathan Alterman, director of the Center for Strategic & International Studies's Middle East Program, in April 2003:

There was a good deal of loose talk in the late 1990s about how the Internet would change everything in the developing world, democratizing information and empowering citizens. It didn't quite work out that way, and Internet penetration remains lower in the Middle East than perhaps any other region of the world. ... Rather than embracing "high-tech," Arab publics have embraced what I would call "mid-tech," basically 1970s technologies like satellite TV, photocopiers, fax machines, and videocassette recorders. These technologies share several things in common: they are relatively cheap to the end user, they have a remarkably easy interface, and they facilitate spreading compelling messages to broad populations.

At the time, I agreed with him. I wrote the following in my book, The New Iraq, which was published in March 2003: "As unruly as it is, the Internet remains merely a nuisance and not an existential challenge to the stability of Arab governments ... due in part to the medium's small audiences." As a then-consultant for Pyramid Research, I gave similar advice to state-owned Arab telecommunications companies as they pondered their Internet development plans.

Arab regimes seemed to buy this argument. Most governments fearlessly embraced the new technology, apparently believing they could promote computer literacy among their populations while filtering out subversive content and keeping tabs on cyber dissidents, all at the same time. So it was that in 2002, Egypt offered free dial-up Internet access in Cairo and promoted "Arab-financed" computer manufacturing; that the Saudi government, with the help of an American company called Secure Computing (which builds corporate firewalls) succeeded for the most part in filtering out Al Qaeda's online threats to the royal family as well as cyber porn; that the United Arab Emirates now boasts a remarkably advanced Internet infrastructure, but also one of the more subtle cyber-monitoring systems in the world.

Yet there is growing evidence of tension. Last week in Bahrain, protestors covered their mouths with tape and silently demonstrated in front of a prosecutor's office; they are demanding the release of a local webmaster accused of "inciting resentment against the government" via his site, Bahrain Online. Several weeks ago an Egyptian blogger announced what he claims is the region's first-ever threat to bloggers by the secret police. Other bloggers, like this one in Syria, write that they are worried of potential interrogations. Two years ago in Tunisia, a man was imprisoned for 18 months for running the site TUNeZINE, which was critical of the government. And recently in Saudi Arabia, a religious court flogged and imprisoned 15 people for trying to march against the government; the instructions to march had come from a Saudi webmaster in London who operates a digital radio station.

These incidents are symptoms of a larger trend: The Internet is now a destabilizing force to Arab governments, some of which are trying and failing to bottle it back up. Despite its relatively modest penetration in the region, the web is threatening the status quo--in societies as conservative as Saudi Arabia and police states as tightly run as Syria and Tunisia--in ways that previous technologies never could. That's in part because it is making obsolete the strategies that Arab governments had used for centuries--with almost perfect success--to quash dissent and cling to power. It may be trite to speak of the Internet's transformative power; but in the case of the Arab world in 2005, it appears increasingly to be real.


Authoritarianism is as old as government, and its oldest tactics have a way of surviving until they're proven thoroughly obsolete. One measure that Arab regimes throughout history have employed against dissidents has been to force them to flee to a distant land--making back-and-forth communication with a homegrown movement nearly impossible. For example, the ninth-century historian Tabari quotes a governor in the Umayyad Arab empire explaining why he banished an insurgent: "What I fear from him if he is banished is less than what I fear from him if he is living here, for a man who is exiled from his country becomes less powerful."

This wisdom persisted for over a thousand years. The advent of the telephone did not fundamentally change it, because Arab phone lines have been, for the most part, effectively monitored. Thus the exile of Egyptian dissident Karam Mutawwa from Cairo to Baghdad in the early 1970s was just as effective, from the perspective of an authoritarian government, as the exile of a medieval rebel to Cyprus in the year 700 would have been. The advent of the tape deck greatly facilitated exile politics, but not enough to shift the paradigm. When the Shah of Iran forced Khomeini to Paris before the 1979 revolution, the cleric had already built a formidable infrastructure and courier network back home; so he continued preaching via recorded sermons, which followers then smuggled into Iran by cassette and reproduced en masse in the country. But it's hard to conceive of his founding an Iranian political movement via cassette from some distant land. Even the advent of the satellite dish--used so effectively by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who continues to inspire his fighters inside the desert Kingdom via Al Jazeera--did not render the ninth-century approach obsolete. That's because bin Laden's speeches, delivered to the Kingdom via satellite broadcasting, remain a one-way form of communication only.

Only through the Internet is it feasible to run an Arab political organization by remote control. For instance, the Saudi dissident Movement of Islamic Reform in Arabia, managed out of London by Saad al Fagih, relies on the web to recruit and expand its base inside the Kingdom. Fagih recently managed to solicit oral oaths of loyalty in Real Audio format from 99 Arabian clans and post them to his website--a feat he achieved by proxy, ten years after having been exiled from the Kingdom. Much of his information on political developments in the Kingdom reaches him through email, which he discusses frequently on his radio broadcasts; and he often encourages listeners to email him directly. The anti-government demonstration he fomented on the ground back in December was relatively modest, but for chutzpah, the 15 protesters--including one woman--were off the charts. As a result of all this, Arab regimes may be rethinking their propensity for exiling dissidents; after all, those dissidents would be freer to wage Internet warfare if sent to a freer country. In Tunis last month, political prisoner Abdallah Zouari finished his eleven-year prison sentence only to be exiled not abroad but to the remote south of the country (near the red desert of Tataouine where portions of the movie Star Wars were filmed). According to Human Rights Watch, he is closely monitored--and prevented from using the Internet.

Of course maintaining tyranny isn't only about targeting specific dissidents; it's also about inhibiting the masses. Here, too, a paradigm has been smashed. For over a thousand years, governance in the Arab world has been marked by an uneasy truce between state and society--namely, the state policed the public sphere but cut society some slack in private. This bifurcation of space was brilliantly delineated by the seventh-century caliph Umar, who instructed his citizens, "Show us the best of your character, while God knows your secrets well." That bifurcation held in Saddam's Iraq as well. As Iraqis who lived through those bitter years will tell you, it was common to spend the day at work, at school, or outdoors feigning loyalty to Saddam whenever called upon to do so. On returning home, however, an oft-repeated phrase was Allah yantaqim minnak ya Saddam ("God wreak vengeance upon you, o Saddam"). In Saudi Arabian cities today, the ubiquitous guardians of public virtue--who whack women's ankles that are exposed in public and haul away teens for having alcohol on their breath--enjoy jurisdiction in public places but shy away from inspecting people's homes. As a result, even though it is illegal to own a satellite dish, Saudis are the biggest consumers of satellite television in the region. You can have your MTV; just close the door to your house.

The growing phenomenon of Arabic-language blogging makes this awkward truce between citizens and their governments untenable. Blogs, by their very nature, blur the line between private and public expression; bloggers are free to publish their most strident personal views anonymously for all to read--and from the privacy of their own homes. In some Arab countries, like Egypt, because of the dispersed way Internet connections are distributed, it is virtually impossible to curb the continued distribution of this content short of shutting down the country's fixed communications infrastructure altogether. And some of those countries' bloggers seem to know it. One blog went so far as to post a poem in Egyptian vernacular called "We'd like you dead, o President" alongside a photo of Hosni Mubarak on February 11. The first of thirteen posted comments reads, in formal Arabic: "We in the secret police have determined from which site this threat against the person of his Excellency the President originated. We will take the necessary measures to punish whoever carries this out. Wait for us." Rather than cow the bloggers concerned, who perhaps believed the note to be a fake, this seems only to have egged them on. The comment that follows, posted in English, reads, "Oh look, I'm shaking in my little space boots." The comment after that begins with the well-known cyber-acronym "lol" (short for "laughing out loud").


The big question, of course, is whether any of these shifting paradigms is actually capable of changing the present distribution of power in an Arab country--and if so, how and where. Maybe all this online noise is just so much noise, and the medium is still no more than an annoyance to the status quo. Or perhaps it has merely grown into a migraine for the status quo. You can live with a migraine. On the other hand, the pressure imposed on several Arab countries today by the United States stands to exacerbate all the internal tensions these regimes already face, making even a migraine no "lol" matter. The fact that Internet penetration of Arab populations remains low--the regional average is below 5 percent--means that the extent of the web's influence will depend on whether it can somehow nudge forward broader political trends.

Some human rights activists will tell you a first nudge has already taken place. Years before Arabic blogs were widespread, email from dissidents across the region made it easier to gather testimony and photographs documenting human-rights infractions. "Twenty years ago, the way we found information," says Neil Hicks, International Programs Director for Human Rights First, "we had to go to the country, in a very laborious process. Even making an international telephone call to Egypt--you'd wait for hours. Just the speed of information flow, there's no comparison." Human-rights groups have long faced a problem: It's easier to level accusations against open societies, where information can be more easily gathered. By making evidence from closed societies more readily available, the Internet may have already begun to correct this imbalance. Which may well lead to heightened global awareness of human-rights abuses in Arab states--and more political pressure on the authoritarian governments that run them.

Then there is the prospect of systemic change in an Arab country owing to a ruler's personal obsession with the Internet. Bashar al Assad, Syria's young president, spearheaded the introduction of web technology to the country himself and reportedly browses in his spare time. Users of the medium there are fewer than 2 percent of the population, and you won't find anything like the seditious sentiments of Egyptian bloggers because the state-run Syrian Computer Society controls the web with an iron fist. And yet there is robust activism of a sort, and the organs of state are acknowledging it. "Sometimes," writes an Aleppo-based journalist for Al Hayat, "it has seemed that the government has responded to some of the desires and suggestions of the electronic 'lobby.'" A group called Restoration of Civil Society in Syria has amassed thousands of signatures in an online petition calling on the government to lift its nearly-40-year state of emergency. The existence of such groups provides western powers--who increasingly seem to be interested in pressuring Assad--with an opportunity to build ties with dissidents and perhaps push the regime toward reform. (To be sure, Assad might also view such groups as a relatively harmless way to placate foreign governments by creating the appearance of free and open discourse.)

There is also the opportunity to draw attention to the abuses of authoritarian regimes that have escaped the ire of western governments because of their inoffensive foreign policies. For instance, this November, Tunisia (where crackdowns on political activity are frequent and severe) will be hosting the International Telecommunication Union's World Summit on the Information Society, a major world convention intended to promote openness through new media. Bloggers in the Arab world and beyond could demand the right to converge on the country and picket--or at the very least use their outlets to draw attention to the amazing hypocrisy of the Tunisian government in hosting such a conference.

Still, it seems likely that the web's most crucial impact on Arab politics won't be in alerting the west to human rights abuses or rallying support in the international community; it will be in allowing Arab dissidents to talk to one another and coordinate their activities. I recently read extensive Arabic blogging, dated from January and early February, on behalf of an anti-Mubarak group called the People's Peaceful Front for the Rescue of Egypt. A series of rambling entries began with an invitation to join an anti-government demonstration planned for Alexandria, "place and time to be announced shortly, God willing." Stay tuned, apparently.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online on March 7, 2005.

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