Facebook, the popular social networking site, is becoming more than just a cyber-meeting place, growing into a powerful vehicle for social change. Squeezing out MySpace as the site of the moment and with 75 million users (more than the population of most countries around the globe,) it is the most popular meeting place in the virtual world, and like other virtual endeavors, Facebook has no borders. Its reach is as wide as the reach of the Web, or, perhaps, as wide as the reach of those who attempt to control it.
Facebook offers a “virtual” platform for the advancement of political and social causes, and is quickly turning into a hotbed of “actual” activism - a cause for alarm for many autocratic regimes in the Middle East attempting to block it and curtail its reach.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is now considering blocking Facebook because of its growing popularity among Egyptian youth. In April, a youth group used Facebook to mobilize 80,000 supporters to protest the rising cost of bread. The site also played a crucial role in broadening support and turnout for an April 6 textile-workers’ strike.
The Egyptian government, which rules under emergency law and doesn’t allow more than five people to gather unregistered, was quick to respond. Ahmed Maher, a young activist who tried to organize a second demonstration in early May, was put behind bars where he joined a growing cadre of other cyber-political dissidents.
In Syria, the government has banned Facebook due to an anti-regime, e-mail spam campaign channeled through the site in 2007. But savvy Syrians, assisted by cyber-colleagues from abroad, succeeded in breaking through the government’s censorship. Before Facebook was blocked last November, it had 28,000 registered Syrian members. Five months after the ban, the number of Syrians with Facebook accounts rose to 34,000. Many Syrian Web sites have been blocked since Bashar Assad’s initiation of the Syrian Internet in 2000. Over the past eight years, a rapid Internet usage rate soaring to 4,900 percent, came to be seen as a threat to the regime’s stability as it exposed the Assad government to greater domestic scrutiny.
In the Persian Gulf states, a more sophisticated censorship system attempts to block only the more threatening applications of Facebook and other Web sites like video content, photographic images and computer based phone services. For example, Iran lists 22,151 Facebook users, but the site is mostly unavailable due to government censorship of the applications.
Context is needed to understand this Facebook phenomenon. The Internet provided Arab activist groups with a new medium for expression. It quickly became the preferred domain for many opposition groups who otherwise had little or no access to traditional forms of media. Women’s groups, minority groups and gay and lesbian groups, also have been quick to jump on the Internet bandwagon. In addition to the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society (glas.org), over a dozen gay and lesbian Web sites have been created including some in very conservative countries like Saudi Arabia. Add to that the growing number of political blogs that often utilize video streaming aimed at exposing the brutality of government, political corruption or police violence and it is easy to understand why these authoritarian Middle East governments are concerned.
Not surprisingly, these governments are responding quickly to these perceived new dangers. Syrian blogger Tariq Baissi was sentenced to three years behind bars two weeks ago for posting a comment in an online forum in which he criticized the Syrian security services. In his new residence, Mr. Baissi will find a good number of cyber-colleagues: Massud Hamid, a 29-year-old Kurd, was charged with the crime of disseminating false news over the Internet; Abdel Rahman Shaguri, emailed Levant News, the newsletter of a banned Web site; and Heitham Qatesh, an activist, was charged with posting “illegal material that put Syria and its citizens in danger” on his blog.
Unfortunately, these Middle East governments’ responses appear to be much more efficient than those of the West, which barely acknowledge these brave voices of freedom who dare to challenge and seek much-needed dialogue both inside and outside the region. The Internet allows them to speak freely and we should be encouraged to listen and raise our voices in support of their cries for a discourse free of censorship, brutality and oppression. The growing list of Facebook dissidents and cyber-dissidents should not remain in Middle Eastern prisons unnoticed.
Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East and a fellow at The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.