Paper Presented to the Forum:
“Mundos Arabes: Ideas, Players, Spaces”
Held by Casa Arabe *
Madrid 18 – 19 January 2007
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Until recently, the Arab use of the internet was described as a new tool for entertainment, chatting, and accessing pornographic websites. This image may seem logic when comes from the eastern region of the Arab world which is rather conservative. However, the internet has a large number of users in the Arab Gulf region in particular due to the high living standards which allow citizens to purchase computers and internet access tools.
After more than ten years of the public using such new technology, one can still hear similar voices accusing the internet, in addition to the above-mentioned descriptions, of being a new weapon in the hands of “terrorist groups”. However, these accusations are cried out with hesitant tones proving them unpersuasive and doubtful.
Under such climate dominated by the culture of suspecting the other and being cautious of any thing new, the World Wide Web is playing the role of “the other.” On one hand, the internet provides unlimited communication and allows diversity in opinions and approaches without the permission of “those in charge.” On the other hand, the responsible authorities used to offer their own opinions and to protect them by allowing only the exchange of the information which support their approaches. They imposed harsh restrictions on traditional media, freedom of press, and freedom of expression.
In the Arab world, it is also clear that the approaches of journalists, political and human rights activists, and a large number of youth are completely contradicting those of “officials in charge” (i.e., Arab governments). At the beginning of the third millennium, Intel Company announced that the ratios of computer purchase orders in the Arab region are the highest in the world. The new century also witnessed a significant increase in the number of internet users in the Arab world; the number reached up to almost 26 million users after 14 million users in 2004 and 4 to 5 million users in 2002.
The Internet and Political Opposition:
Like other opposition groups all over the world, Arab dissidents considered the internet a great opportunity to express their views. Such groups were previously deprived of the medium where they could present their ideas and concerns for political, religious, and/or legal reasons. The political restrictions include banning (or putting obstacles in front) of leftist and Islamist parties, and human rights groups. Religious prohibitions include the harassment of Shiites and Christians. However, sometimes, the whole three reasons are regarded collectively in one case like for example homosexuality.
It is clear that these groups have actually benefited from the massive potential provided to internet users, particularly the Islamist groups and individuals.
Arab states seek to limit the expansion of “political Islamism” movements which contradict their ideas like the case in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, or movements promoting for distorted secular model like the case in Tunisia. However, the internet allowed all Islamist groups– whether supported by or opposing governments–to offer their ideas and advocate them. The groups based on violence and terrorism like Al-Qaeda, and the moderate enlightened groups like Sufis, are equally interested in this cyber-margin.
The Islamists represented the majority of internet users until recently. However, it is noticed now that their online expansion has retreated for the good of other groups with different thoughts; e.g. nationalists, leftists, and liberals. The gap between the latter groups and the former group is already shrinking, in my view.
Thanks to the internet, pro-democracy movements which are different from legal political parties can announce themselves via constructing a website along side other Islamist websites. This is the best evidence on the important role played by the new tool (i.e., the internet) in respect with advocating different political situations. For example, there are 18 websites launched by Egyptian opponent groups: Harakamasria.org, Saveegyptfront.org, March9online.net, e-socialists.org, etc.
The same applies to Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and most of Arab countries.
In addition, other groups like atheists and Bahaai’s were encouraged to announce their existence. Before the appearance of the internet, these groups did not dare to declare themselves even in secular countries.
Arab governments and some unofficial groups like Muslim Brotherhood used to announce their support to freedom of expression with lots of “buts” followed by phrases like: “… but with considering public morals/state security/ religious values” and many other restrictions. Therefore, the word “but” has become a huge hole wherefrom religious advocators and policemen can confiscate newspapers, block websites, and adopt other practices which turns freedom of expression in the Arab world into a hollow concept playing no actual role.
Many bloggers reacted to these restrictions by overlooking the word “but” and digging deep into practicing their basic right to freedom of expression. Some of them used slander expressions in addressing each other and in addressing governmental officials on their own blogs. However, the general conclusion is that they embodied the freedom of expression in a simple way. They succeeded to approach wide scale of public by providing their thoughts in simple phrases and ensuring the credibility of their news stories, to the extent that they surpassed prominent news agencies and newspapers.
Arab blogs started to appear almost three years ago with blogs like Hawliat Saheb Al-Ashgar http://gharbeia.net, Serdal http://www.serdal.com, Tay El-Motasel http://zamakan.gharbeia.org, Tak Hanak http://digressing.blogspot.com, and Lenta’ada El-Tabi’ey http://beyondnormal.blogspot.com. Certain major events that took place participated in spreading this new media and encouraged many youths to create their own blogs.
Despite the limited number of Arabic blogs in comparison with international blogs, their influence and popularity have exceeded all expectations. The blogs act as a pain in the tooth for many Arab governments which fear citizens gaining the means to reveal their illegal and anti-democratic practices. The Egyptian bloggers, in particular, are pioneers who have guided other Arab bloggers. Some bloggers have suffered harassment and imprisonment upon false and illegal interrogations because of their online activities.
One of the reasons why blogs have become so popular all over the Arab world is their use of Arabic colloquial language (as opposed to the more formal Arabic normally used in the media which is different to the everyday spoken language that people use to communicate with each other in their homes and on the street), they also use the same expressions that are used in the streets and cafes in their writing. This encouraged the youth to use their own spoken language in writing (which is normally discouraged in favor of the more formal language used in written Arabic). These alleged morals were established without declaring appropriate reason for being the use of colloquial language against these “morals”.
The new techniques developed by international companies to support the use of the Arabic language on the internet, participated effectively in increasing the number of Arabic blogs. In addition, the terrorist attacks which took place on 11 September 2001 had an indirect influence on motivating the people around the world to be more interested in the Arabic Language and the Arab region in particular on many levels including the internet.
Arab Human Rights Movement on the Internet
The relative delay of Arab human rights organization in using the internet was not the only problem. Human rights organizations, one could even say, were not interested in dealing with the internet, excluding very few cases.
Funding resources shortage may be an excuse for some human rights organizations for not using such a critical technology. However, some of the major organizations which do not suffer the same shortage wasted their opportunity to benefit from the massive potentials of the internet. They did not care for utilizing the internet in advocacy, campaigning, etc.
It is deploring to learn that these organizations are still wasting such potentials. That is if we excluded their broad use of only email services.
Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (chrla.org) in Egypt has pioneered the use of the internet by Arab Human Rights Organizations. CHRLA was the first to construct a website in 1995. Then, Arabic materials for download were posted in 1997. On the global level, CHRLA was also the first to publish Arabic human rights texts on the internet. However, this website was a one-man-show, attributed to its designer and administrator the human rights activist Gaser Abdel Razek at that time. The website and the CHRLA itself were closed in 1999 after some internal disputes. Thus, the chrla.org website is considered an individual initiative by Abdel Razek more than it being the brainchild of his organization.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has played a great role in establishing Arab human rights organizations using the internet. HRW took the initiative of constructing an Arabic section on its website in 1999. It is noteworthy that the writer of this paper was the person in charge of HRW website at that time. Consequently, the director of HRW Middle East Division Hani Megally at that time encouraged many Arab organizations and international organizations interested in the Arab region to act like Human Rights Watch. And this happened. Few weeks latter, Amnesty International created an Arabic section on its website, and then it was followed by original Arabic websites discussing human rights issues. However, these Arabic websites are still weak to the extent that they may be considered a mere Arabic archive for the texts and materials issued by human rights organizations.
From another perspective, if we reviewed the history of the oldest and biggest human rights organizations in the Arab world (Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) and Arab Institute for Human Rights in Tunisia, Arab Organization for Human Rights (AOHR) and New Woman Research Center (NWRC) in Cairo), we can notice that they are ranked among the worst human rights organizations in respect with using the internet.
The retreated situation of the Tunisian organizations regarding their limited use of the internet may be justified by the repressive climate imposed by the governing regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the absence of rights to freedom of expression and information exchange. However, the abovementioned two Egyptian organizations have no excuse other than bureaucracy and laziness in AOHR and underestimating of the value of the internet in NWRC.
While we are celebrating the beginning of the seventh year of the new millennium and despite the uncountable number of international human rights organizations, we are still unable to count the number of Arab human rights organizations using the internet.
Nevertheless, it is surprising to know that the websites constructed by some Arab human rights organizations skilled at using the internet have reached an advanced position on the international level. That is despite the fact that these websites use the Arabic as its main language. The indices of unique visitors of these websites led to an advanced international classification; for example Aman Jordan website http://www.amanjordan.org and Arabic Network for Human Rights Information website http://www.anhri.net. This proves that the Arab internet users are eager to learn more about the issues offered by these websites. This also refers to the fact that if these websites were published in other languages like English and French for example, they may be ranked the first on the international level. Such expectations are derived from the fact that 11 September 2001 attacks allowed more attention to be paid to the Arab world. Some of the international human rights organizations expressed the same approach, though indirectly, on their websites constructed with the purpose to enrich mutual communication and understanding with the Arab world.
The Internet: The Voice of the Voiceless
According to the abovementioned, being detached from the dominating culture is a difficult task which may but you under risk. That is even if you did not interfere in your fate to be different, and even if this difference is your absolute right which may not harm others.
In the countries regarding the political opposition a breach to governor’s rules and opinion diversity a crime, we can imagine the critical situation of a female Christian political opponent or a secularist from Shiite origins, for instance.
In her book titled “Behind the Veil”, the late writer Sanaa El Masty gave an example of the situation of a poor Christian woman in the dominating culture. It is considered the best example on the point I would like to reveal. The writer described a sarcastic image of this woman in the Egyptian society which classifies citizens as follows:
Rich Muslim Man
Poor Muslim Man
Rich Muslim Woman
Poor Muslim Woman
Rich Christian Man
Poor Christian Man
Rich Muslim Woman
Poor Christian Woman
Therefore, the poor Christian woman is ranked the last in the Egyptian society hierarchy. Only because she is a woman believing in Christianity and poor, she suffers discrimination.
Discrimination here is only cultural and social. In other cases discrimination may be based on legal beliefs like the cases of Bahaists, homosexuals, and atheists.
Being one of these minorities burdens you with false charges and prevents you from seeking legal protection as your basic right as a citizen.
Apart from the meaningless dogmatic allegations on the one tissue of the one nation, etc., discrimination is practiced plainly and most cases it is praised by Arab governments.
If these minorities found difficulty in announcing themselves and concerns in the past, the internet has given them the best opportunity ever to do so.
In today’s world, only one click on the mouse of your computer may take you to several websites created by these feeble minorities. They use the internet to describe their situation under the culture of refusing the other fed by the Arab governments.
In addition, these websites enable internet users to communicate with such minorities.
The internet did not exclude Arabic readers from this support. In addition to the large number of the websites representing these minorities in English, some Arabic websites including the same content began to appear. This way any Shiite in a far Saudi village can communicate with any atheist in a Sudanese alley or in a popular area in Cairo (just like me).
That is in addition to providing them with the appropriate tools to reveal their grievances and deliver their concerns to their supporters.
For example, you can write at any search engine any Arabic word like: Shiite, Atheist, Christian, or Amazig. You will, then, have unlimited number of Arabic websites discussing the minorities issues and subsequently suffering penetration.
Modern telecommunication technology in general and World Wide Web in particular are still novice for the Arab world. Therefore, their use is limited in the Arab region in comparison with the rest of the world. However, it is certain that this new tool gives unlimited potentials for journalists, political and human rights activists, and others. Via the internet, they can reach freedoms and participate in gathering abilities and powers in order to seize the noble values missed in the Arab world today, particularly democracy and freedom of expression. We look forward to an Arab world free from repressions on information exchange, complaining, and disclosing violations.
It is expected to see a daily increase in the number of users of such technology. It is also expected that the use of the internet will develop due to the need of repressed people for a means to break the dominance of mono-opinion, mono-leader, and mono-party in their countries. Such masses look forward to diversity in basic issue like culture and major issues like politics.
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
*The text of the speech delivered by Gamal Eid during the celebration of opening Casa Arabe Institute in Madrid, 18-19 January 2007 (http://casaarabe-ieam.es/index.htm)
“The Internet: New Space of Repression” – http://www.anhri.org/reports/net2004
“Implacable Adversary: Internet and Arab Governments” – http://www.openarab.net/reports