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Seeds of the future

Online activists in Middle East increasing their clout

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AS PEOPLE watch to see what sort of country Egypt will become after this week's elections, they should keep an eye on a shy-mannered but ruthlessly determined young man called Maikel Nabil. His views, boldly disseminated across cyber-space, are unlikely to win agreement from more than a handful of his compatriots. He is a self-declared atheist, a pacifist, a supporter of better relations with Israel and holds liberal opinions on social issues.

But the fate of people like Nabil and his kind is a good bellwether for the atmosphere in the Middle East. He spent much of last year in prison, and some of that time on hunger strike, because he was deemed to have insulted the army. Whether he remains free to proclaim his (in Egyptian terms, idiosyncratic) ideas will say a lot about the country's new order.

At the very least, the advent of electronic and social media has vastly improved the ability of individuals like Nabil to act as a catalyst for change in the Arab world, stimulating and galvanizing people to think and act more freely, even if they disagree with his views. Earlier this month at the Oslo Freedom Forum -- an ever-more-important gathering for those who defy tyranny -- the stars of the show were young Middle Eastern cyber-activists like him, some relishing the half-completed democratic change which they helped to bring about, others still labouring under regimes that wish they would disintegrate.

When half a dozen of them (including young veterans of cyber-protest from Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and Bahrain) held a public debate, every word they said was tweeted within seconds by Sultan al-Qassemi, an Emirates-based activist, to his 110,000 or so followers.

As a master of that medium, he played a significant role in last year's uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, not least by providing an instant translation service between English and Arabic.

Later, the Norwegian gathering of activists (from former victims of sex slavery in Indochina to critics of indentured labour in Nepal) listened spellbound as Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman, described her campaign for the right of women in the kingdom to drive (she began by posting a film of herself at the wheel on Youtube, which duly went viral and earned her nine days in detention).

She said the advent of the Internet had freed her from the "small box" of rigid, rule-bound thinking imposed upon her as she was growing up.

On a lighter note, a puckish young Sudanese called Amir Ahmad Nasr used the Oslo gathering to announced the winding up of his popular blog The Sudanese Thinker tracing his adventures as a "sarcastic Afro-American goofy genius" whose philosophy evolved from conservative Islam to Sufism via atheism.

Henceforth, he told his followers, his eager mind would be focusing on the study of Islam and social media.

Social media has proved a mixed blessing. As the Bahraini activist Maryam al-Khawaja (whose father, uncle, sister and boss are all in detention) put it, "using the social media can get you arrested or killed, but in some countries it can also be a protection." The head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, was probably detained, in part, because of the messages he was sending to at least 140,000 people via Twitter. But the sheer volume of his Twitter followers might also have made the authorities wary of mistreating him physically. Still, the motives of authoritarian regimes are difficult to decipher.

The wider influence of cyber-activists on Middle Eastern politics is also hard to quantify. In the Arab world, the penetration of the electronic media remains relatively low by Western standards but it is rising rapidly.

About 1.3 million Arabs use Twitter, while just over 40 million are on Facebook, according to studies released this month.

Facebook penetration ranges from nearly 40 per cent of the population in the United Arab Emirates to 12 per cent in Egypt and barely five per cent in Iraq.

But Nasser Wedaddy, a Mauritanian-born activist, believes that young, tech-savvy activists have an importance that transcends statistics.

"They are the seeds of a future civil society," he reckons.

Simply by disseminating facts that are both true and important (about protests, or the behaviour of regimes, or the fate of individuals) they have broken the monopoly over information which until recently a submissive, establishment media enjoyed. The effect of that change seems destined to grow and grow, however hard people try to stamp it out.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 J19

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