The Second Decade of Middle East Internet

In its second decade in the Middle East, the Internet has been increasingly challenging many of the region's governments – specifically dictatorships that impose strict limitations on civil freedoms. It has brought about the formation of pressure groups for social and political change on FaceBook, allowed for real-time coverage of events through Twitter and YouTube and even hosted online campaigns in support of arrested bloggers.

The Internet reached the Middle East in the early 1990's, but its proliferation rate has really been booming since the turn of the millennia. During these years, Internet use in the Middle East (including Israel) grew by an astounding 1,648%, whereas the global average was just 380%. The penetration rate has reached 28% (higher than the global average of 26%). This is despite the fact that Internet users in the region constitute merely 3.3% of the world users. Interestingly, Iran and Syria boasted the highest rates of growth (12,780% and 11,783% respectively).

The Middle East, however, is quite diverse in this respect too; alongside the Gulf States, with a penetration rate of 50% or more, you find countries like Iraq and Yemen with just 1% penetration. The Internet and its social networks were certainly one of the most powerful influences on the Middle East in this decade, but not necessarily in terms of economic and commercial opportunities recognized by some governments in the region. The influence of Internet in the Middle East stems mostly from its very nature, namely, an immediate, wide-spread medium accessible to almost anyone through any mobile device, a means perfectly suited for information exchange by citizens under highly restrictive rule.

In its second decade in the Middle East, the Internet has been increasingly challenging many of the region's governments – dictatorships that impose strict limitations on civil freedoms. It has brought about the formation of pressure groups for social and political change on FaceBook, allowed for real-time coverage of events through Twitter and YouTube and even hosted online campaigns in support of arrested bloggers.

The recent pinnacle of this phenomenon was the presidential election in Iran in June 2009. The people of Iran have been known to crave information and communication for years – even since the time of Khomeini, who would spread his sermons throughout the country on audio tapes, and to this day, when satellite dishes adorn every rooftop in Teheran. All four presidential candidates employed the Internet vigorously, relying particularly on various social networks.

But the great power of the Internet in Iran and the stark defiance against governance it can harbor were fully revealed when the election results were made public. Hordes of people poured to the streets of Teheran and other cities in demonstrations of protest that were abetted online by Iranian bloggers and regular users who relayed the information to the world at large. Direct reports from the scene were posted on Twitter, hundreds of videos from the streets were uploaded to YouTube almost in real time, and a lot of images were uploaded to Flickr. This flow of information proved how strong the Internet can be in authoritarian countries and made known the aspirations of the Iranian public.

Hence, as far as I am concerned, the true hero of the decade is your run-of-the-mill Iranian Internet user – a user who has to cope with strict government constrictions, limiting laws, stern control, Internet police (in Iran and Syria), lack of adequate technological and communications infrastructure in certain places, and often deliberately high usage costs. The heroes are all those anonymous users and active bloggers who are willing to suffer the direst consequences, including incarceration and even execution.

The deeper the Internet penetrates our region, the wider information and criticism are spread and the call for change heard – and the bigger the problem that local regimes would be facing. Governments’ interactions with their citizens will be altered. The Internet's role as soapbox for infringed sectors and suppressed voices in this part of the world will be enhanced, rendering it a spearhead of democratization processes.

This post by Tal Pavel has been published first in Hebrew.

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