Enjoying the anonymity of the web, more people in the Middle East are going online to share their political opinions, but authorities are tightening their grip on users’ activities, with reports of arrests and torture.
Hosting a site for a year where Egyptians can speak their mind can come at a cost, like for Karim Al-Bukheiri, the founder of Forum of the Working People of Egypt.
Because of his online forum, he has been arrested, tortured, and is now under constant surveillance.
“When I had a textile factory job, the secret services paid no attention to me,” Al-Bukheiri said.
“But as soon as I launched the forum, they became concerned. I started participating in strikes and other actions to defend my rights. I don’t believe the internet is there only for us to speak freely on websites like Facebook. People should also take to the streets with their ideas and aspirations.”
Egypt’s number of web users is among the highest in the Arab world – a fact that hasn’t escaped the authorities.
As a result, the Egyptian government is clamping down on the cyber opposition that has become increasingly critical of its performance.
“We realize that the development of technologies is a natural process,” admitted Dr. Ali al-Din Hilyal, chairman of the National Democratic Party of Egypt.
“The general principle is this: a view is opposed to another view, and a pretext or motive is opposed to another pretext or motive. The best reply to a forum that publishes inaccurate information is creating a forum that will publish accurate information.”
Meanwhile, a number of high profile bloggers have been arrested. In one incident, a student was freed from jail when he used the networking site Twitter to alert his friends that he had been arrested at an anti-government protest.
In a country like Egypt, where 40% of the population live below the poverty line, most don’t have internet access and the situation is not that much different in the rest of the Arab world.
Mohammed Abu Halaweh, head of Ramallah Arabic Study Centre, opened an internet café in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. It lasted just two months and ate up all his money. He’s now returned to teaching and converted the chat room into a classroom.
“I thought it was a good business in the beginning,” said Abu Halaweh.
“Most of my friends who own them said that it can be a good business for Ramallah, but all of a sudden I found out that it was not successful after a few months of opening it. So I decided to move it to my village and it was also successful for a couple of months, then it was down, because I think people got internet at home.”
Equipment costs and the absence of email as a common communication tool in the Arab world has stopped the internet from establishing itself in the Middle East. However, there is still a need for it.
Like many of his friends, Rami Mehdawi has a lot to say, but nowhere to say it.
Two years ago he set up an online forum for thousands of Palestinians to post stories they can’t voice anywhere else. To Rami, it is his creative outlet.
“I sent a lot of articles to the local newspaper, but they didn’t publish it and not because I am a bad writer, but because I have a different opinion from the local newspaper.”
“Sometimes I have some calls from my friend who works in the Palestinian authority and he says, ‘Look, Rami, we are watching you – don’t do that’ for example, and some of them they say ‘Rami, you are now behind the red line – you should take care.’”
Even though the Arab world may lag behind the world in internet use, for Egypt the web provides an important watchdog on those in power, and is a democratic tool that Egyptians like Rami will fight to preserve.