HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH The Internet In The Mideast And North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship
Arabic Version
The Internet In the Middle East and North Africa: A Cautious Start
Previous Page   Next Page






Encryption and Human Rights






Saudi Arabia



United Arab Emirates

The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most under-represented areas of the world in terms of per capita Internet connectivity. In a region where nearly every government censors or punishes speech critical of the authorities,(17) there can be little doubt that Internet growth has been slowed by the fear among those in power that democratizing Internet access will undermine state control over information. Saudi authorities stated bluntly during 1998 that the continuing delays in opening the Internet to public access were due to the search for a system by which authorities could block the flow of "undesirable" information.

But after a slow start, the spread of the Internet in the region has accelerated over the last four years. Pro-Internet forces within governments and in the business, academic, and research communities, wishing to keep current and globally competitive, have pushed for easier access to online data and communications.

As of May 1999, every country in the region except Iraq and Libya had some form of international connectivity. Members in all of these countries except Syria could connect to the Internet in some fashion via local Internet Service Providers (ISPs).(18)

At that time, there were an estimated 880,000 persons "online" in the Middle East, including Israel but excluding North Africa, according to Nua, a Dublin-based information technology firm (see table in Appendix A).(19) In at least fourteen countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian self-rule areas, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Iran, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates) cybercafés afforded the public access to the Internet for an hourly fee.(20)

The Arab press avidly follows Internet news, and conferences on the information revolution have become commonplace in the region. For example, Syria--which has yet to allow Internet access to the public--hosted the "Second Al-Shaam International Conference on Information Technology" in Damascus in April 1999.(21) Another indication of Internet growth is the publication in 1998 of a commercial yellow-pages, the Middle East Internet Directory: A Comprehensive Guide to Middle East Web Sites (<>).

The following examples demonstrate how the Internet is empowering citizens and nongovernmental forces, and eroding government-imposed controls on the flow of information:

  • Through e-mail and web sites, human rights organizations in Egypt, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere disseminate information far more effectively than ever before, despite their modest resources and limited access to the local media.(22)

  • Arabic, English, and French newspapers that have been censored in Egypt, Algeria and Jordan have posted their banned stories online, where local and international readers can view them. Stories that newspapers declined to publish, due to political pressure or other factors, have circulated widely on the Internet.(23) When private dailies in Algeria went on strike in October 1998 to protest pressure from state-run printing presses, they published bulletins daily on the Web to mobilize support for their cause.(24) Internet-based organizations like the Digital Freedom Network (<>) have been making censored materials available online. During 1998, the DFN posted articles that had been banned by authorities in Egypt, Mauritania, Tunisia, and Turkey.
  • Citizens of Arab countries have debated and conversed with Israelis in "chat rooms" and other online forums at a time when it is difficult or impossible for them to have face-to-face contact, telephone conversations, and postal correspondence, due to travel restrictions and the absence of phone or mail links between most Arab countries and Israel.
  • Moroccans can find copious information posted on the Web by the Polisario Front and others who challenge the official Moroccan line on the Western Sahara (see, for example, <>). Such information is either nonexistent or one-sided in the local news media, bookshops, and libraries.
  • Algerians can visit numerous web sites mounted by Islamist groups that are banned and have no legal publications inside Algeria, including the Front Islamique du Salut (<www.>).(25)
  • An Arab Gay and Lesbian web site (<>) caters to people who, in many Arab countries, have few places to go to obtain information pertaining to their sexual orientation.
  • The World Wide Web, with its online newspapers and radio and TV webcasting, has dramatically enhanced the diversity of news available to people in the Middle East. (So have the immensely popular Arabic-language satellite television stations.(26)) The change is especially marked for those living in countries where foreign newspapers are either unavailable, expensive, or out-of-date when they arrive.

Most countries that have allowed Internet access have tolerated freer expression online than is permitted in the local news media. Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon have all permitted relatively unfettered online speech for the thousands of users in each country, even as they enforce press laws against print periodicals that publish "objectionable" material.

The extent of Internet connectivity in a country is determined by many factors in addition to government policies toward freedom of information and expression. These include the affordability to the public of computer equipment and of Internet and phone connections, and the state of a country's telecommunications infrastructure, including such attributes as the number of telephone lines per capita(27) and the international connection's bandwidth.(28)

In most countries of the world that have known rapid Internet growth, the public sector has played a role by, among other things, building "backbone" telecommunications networks, providing initial funding, regulations, and standards, and by encouraging private investment and computer literacy. Thus, governments that favor development of the Internet must adopt affirmative policies, and not simply refrain from censorship and restricting access. Few governments in the Middle East and North Africa have embraced such an approach. The reasons include competing demands for scarce state resources, fear of losing control over information, and a desire to protect monopoly profits of state telecommunications companies.(29) Chakib Lahrichi, president of the independent Internet Association in Morocco, stated that while the Moroccan government had no explicit policy of censoring or restricting access to the Internet, its growth had been stunted by unfair advantages enjoyed by the state-controlled telecommunications company Itissalat al-Maghrib in its competition with private service providers, along with the government's failure to educate the public about the Internet.(30)

The local prices of computer equipment or services also deter Internet use in many countries of the region. Those prices may reflect government attitudes toward popularizing Internet use, insofar as those prices are set, taxed or subsidized by the government. Throughout the region, Internet and telephone costs are more expensive than they are, for example, in the United States. They are even more costly when prevailing median income levels are taken into consideration.

Another factor inhibiting Internet growth in the region is the continuing dominance of English-language materials. Although the volume of material in Arabic is growing and the Arabic software available for browsing the Web is improving,(31) users who do not speak English remain at a disadvantage in their ability to access online resources.(32) French speakers, such as many North Africans, have access to significantly more materials than do monolingual Arabic speakers.

Some social forces have voiced hostility to the Internet or to its availability to the public at large. Legislators in Kuwait, Israel and elsewhere have denounced the Internet as a threat to local culture, morals, or religious sensibilities. In Iran, the clerical monthly Sobh called for a ban on the Internet.(33)

Governments and their supporters have sounded these themes to justify a go-slow, paternalistic approach to allowing public access to the Internet. For example, the spokesman of the Syrian Computer Society, which is chaired by the son of President Hafez al-Asad, was quoted as saying, "Our problem is...we are a traditional society and we have to know if there is something that cannot fit with our society. We have to make it safe."(34)

Similar arguments have been made by Saudis. Saleh Abdulrahman al-'Adhel, the head of the King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), reportedly stated that the Internet presents "an important service in relaying and distributing information but also has a negative side that conflicts with our faith and our Arab Muslim traditions."(35) The chair of the Saudi technology company Silkinet, explaining delays in allowing local Internet access, stated, "Efforts are ongoing to provide the best of modern technology, while ensuring that this does not conflict with the traditions and culture of the region."(36)

While sites of Western origin still dominate the Internet, many advocates of Islam and Islamism have embraced the Internet as a means of projecting their message. Of all the region's political opposition forces, Islamists are among the most active online, thanks partly to a large number of computer-literate activists living in Europe and North America. At an international meeting in July 1998 in Cairo, Islamic organizations and personalities vowed to use the new information technologies to enhance the image of Islam.(37) The Islamic Society of North America scheduled for May 1999 a conference devoted to using the Internet "as a tool for effective presentation of knowledge on Islam" (see <www.islamicinternet. org>). In Iran, an official announced in June 1998 that the complete works of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would soon be available online in various languages.(38) A computer institute in the city of Qom was preparing 2,000 Islamic instructional documents for presentation on the Web. The institute's director, Sheikh Ali Korani, defended the Internet thus: "Many things have...a double nature and the Internet is one of them," he explained. "You can use it in different ways. The main thing is to use it for the good. And at present our clergy have not said that it is forbidden."(39)

No Middle East or North African government, not even the wariest, today wishes to be seen as anti-Internet. Syrian and Saudi officials assured their citizenry that the public would soon have access to the Internet, even as they invoked social conservatism to justify a gradual approach. The official Tishrin daily of January 27, 1997 reported that Internet subscriptions would be open to the Syrian public in six months, according to a dispatch the same day from United Press International. Twenty-eight months later, press reports from Syria continued to forecast that public Internet access would soon be available. In Saudi Arabia, al-Jazira newspaper reported on May 12, 1997 that King Fahd had agreed in principle to allow public access. It was not until January 1999 that local ISPs were allowed to serve ordinary citizens--almost five years after state institutions were first linked to the Internet. The long wait was necessary to "finalize the technology needed to bar access to information which is contrary to our Islamic values and dangerous to our security," explained the head of a group studying the issue at Riyadh's chamber of commerce and industry.(40)

Regulators around the world argue that curbs on freedom of expression on the Internet are needed to protect children from harmful content, preserve religious values, safeguard local cultures, protect national security, thwart terrorists, and silence racists. In the Middle East and North Africa, few officials will admit that blocking unwelcome political information is among their objectives in imposing controls on the Internet. In the Persian Gulf countries, note scholars Grey E. Burkhart and Seymour E. Goodman, pornography is "almost always first mentioned" when it comes to what the Internet "may do to national, cultural and religious values." Among other topics raised were "proselytizing by other religions and the availability of un-Islamic information (such as how to commit suicide), the potential effects on women's roles in society, [and] dilution of local cultural norms." These concerns, they write, surfaced "in the press and in our interviews with government, business, academic, religious and private individuals."(41)

Saudi Arabia has gone furthest in defining the scope of what kind of data it wished to keep off the Internet: its Council of Ministers issued a decree requiring service providers to refrain from "carrying out any activities violating the social, cultural, political, media, economic, and religious values of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."(42)

U.A.E. officials told Human Rights Watch that keeping out pornography was the only objective of the U.A.E.'s Internet censorship regime. Officials of other countries and corporate representatives of ISPs in the region have spoken more generally of protecting cultural values. For example, a representative of Teleyemen, Yemen's monopoly ISP, told Human Rights that the Teleyemen was under "a general requirement" to "limit access to information which is considered to be undesirable in terms of causing offence against social, religious, or cultural standards." Like the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, Yemen filters what users can access through the use of a proxy server and "censorware."(43) A proxy server is a device that is interposed between users and the Internet; in response to user requests and according to the criteria it is programmed to follow, the proxy examines material requested by a user and either delivers it or blocks its delivery.

Pro-Active Approaches by Governments

Governments have responded to the advent of the Internet pro-actively as well as by censorship and regulation. Every Middle East government has launched one or more web sites to get its voice heard amidst the din of alternative information sources in cyberspace.(44) Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia and the Palestinian Authority are among those that webcast state radio and/or television.

Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in getting its message out, through an Internet presence (see, for example, the official site <>) and also through ownership by pro-government Saudis of influential Europe-based Arab newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media. One apparent impetus has been a wish to counter small London-based Saudi dissident groups, such as the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (<>) and the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (<>), which had achieved a high profile through adroit use of fax machines and the Internet.(45)

The government of Tunisia maintains several sites containing official information and links to pro-government media (see, e.g., <>). Its public relations efforts were aided by a pro-Tunisian businessman in Paris who launched a web site that had an appearance likely to fool viewers into thinking they had accessed an Amnesty International web site about Tunisia. The site, <> offered only favorable information about Tunisia's human rights record and nothing related to the findings of Amnesty International.(46)

Numerous articles in the regional press have urged a more active "Arab" presence on the Internet. An article in the official Damascus daily Tishrin, deploring the fact that Web-based resources dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict were dominated by materials of Israeli origin, called for "check[ing] all that is placed on the Internet on Syria and confront[ing] it by giving explanations or correcting distorted information."(47) The Syrian Arab News Agency launched a web site in 1998 (<>) to propagate official news and viewpoints at a time when local Internet access was unavailable to the Syrian public.

In a few countries, national and local governments are using the Internet to make it easier for citizens to consult official information and communicate with authorities. Several of Jordan's government ministries, as well as the General Intelligence Services (<>), maintain their own sites and invite e-mail correspondence. Morocco (<>), Egypt (via <>, the Foreign Ministry site), and the Palestinian Authority (<>) have taken steps in this direction. However, few Arab governments have embarked on a systematic effort to put online information that would enhance informed political participation by their publics--materials such as legal and regulatory codes, draft legislation, official reports and statistics, transcripts of press conferences and parliamentary debates, court rulings, and economic data used to define budget allocations.

17. For country-by-country coverage of press restrictions, see the regularly updated reports of the Committee To Protect Journalists (<>), Reporters sans Frontières (<>), Human Rights Watch (<>), and the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (< human_rights/hrp_reports_mainhp.html>).

18. An ISP is a company that provides Internet accounts, connections, and services to individuals and/or businesses.

19. Nua's surveys, at <>, are regularly updated. Its Middle East survey draws heavily on information collected by another company based in the United Arab Emirates, the Dabbagh Information Technology Group (<>). Nua cautions that the surveys are imprecise.

20. When visited on May 12, 1999, the web site <> provided a noncomprehensive list of fifty-three cybercafés in the Middle East and North Africa. For a profile of the first cybercafé to open in Iran, see Mike Theodoulou, "The Imams Are Wrestling with the Internet in the Battle for Nation's Young Minds," The Times (London), April 17, 1999, and Christophe de Roquefeuil, "Islam on line et croissants," Libération, December 10, 1998. On the first cybercafés in Algeria, see Cherif Ouazani, "Bab El Web City," Jeune Afrique, August 4, 1998. For a commentary by a Yemeni journalist decrying the absence of cybercafés in that country, see Walid al-Saqqaf, "How to Upgrade Use of the Internet," Yemen Times, February 1, 1999, <>.

21. "Syrian Conference Calls for Wider Internet Access," Reuters, May 1, 1999.

22. See Gallagher, "Middle East and North Africa Human Rights Activism in Cyberspace" and Deborah Wheeler, "In Praise of the Virtual Life: New Communications Technologies, Human Rights, Development, and the Defense of Middle Eastern Cultural Space" <>. The web site on which this article appears is entitled Monitors: A Journal of Human Rights and Technology.

23. Al-Quds Al-Arabi was banned from entering Jordan on May 19, 1998. The London-based daily then took out advertisements in Jordanian newspapers directing readers to its online edition at <>. When Egyptian censors excised articles from the Nicosia-based Middle East Times, readers could view the censored material at the web site of the English-language weekly, <>. In Algeria, journalists at the much-censored La Nation were able to post an edition of the weekly at the web site of Reporters sans Frontières, a French freedom of expression organization, after La Nation closed its doors in 1996 (<>).

24. A writer at the Algiers-based French-language daily El-Watan wrote, "Sending out via the Internet special editions of the main private newspapers, which have been on strike for ten days, makes it possible to target a readership that follows what is happening in Algeria. Netsurfers, mostly Algerians who are dispersed throughout the world, can read in real time information that is addressed to them. This decision, made deliberately by editors who denounce the political pressures by the authorities, is a first. The World Wide Web is becoming indispensable. "La presse libre sur le web," October 27, 1998.

25. On Algeria, see Christophe Labbé and Olivia Recasens, "Internet donne la parole aux Algériens," Le Monde, March 22, 1998.

26. See Jon B. Altermann, New Media, New Politics? From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World (Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998).

27. For country-by-country statistics on telephones and computers, see The World Bank, World Development Report: Knowledge for Development, 1998/99 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, published for the World Bank, 1999), pp. 226-227.

28. Bandwidth is the amount of data that can flow over a network in a fixed amount of time. "Low bandwidth means slow, even excruciatingly slow, connections to the Internet which matter more with the more advanced uses such as the World Wide Web, especially under a unit-pricing regime [i.e., a slow bandwidth will require longer online time to perform the same tasks, thus hiking costs for users who pay for their phone service by time segments]. The Web is optimized for direct connection to the Internet such as through a university or corporate network. The more multimedia it becomes, with graphics, animation, sound, even video-conferencing, the greater its bandwidth demands. So the low bandwidth in Middle East local services and the high cost of international telephone calls charged by Middle Eastern telecommunication utilities discourage Web use, which is rarer in the region than e-mail and discussion groups." Jon Anderson, "The Internet and the Middle East: Commerce Brings Region On-Line," Middle East Executive Reports, vol. 20, no. 12, December 1997, </>.

29. On the often regressive role of telecommunication monopolies, see Muhammad Arif, "Al-mustaqbal li hatif al-Internet elethi yadkhal al-mantaqa al-'arabiyya bi-hathr," ("The future of Internet lines that are cautiously coming to the Arab world"), al-Hayat (London), July 8, 1998, and David Butter, "Telecoms Reform Takes the Lead," Middle East Economic Digest, May 8, 1998, pp. 2-3.

30. Interview, Casablanca, April 30, 1998, and e-mail communication from Lahrichi to Human Rights Watch, May 12, 1999.

31. The fact that, initially, much of the Arabic materials that were posted on the Web were posted as graphic files rather than as text files meant that they did not lend themselves to text searches, a key advantage of handling content online.

32. Surveys of the presence of languages on the Web indicate that materials in English account for more than 80 percent of content, although that dominance seems to be declining. See, for example, "Web Languages Hit Parade," June 1997 (< palmares.en.html>), compiled by the Babel Team, a joint initiative of Alis Technologies and the Internet Society. Arabic material accounts for only a tiny fraction of the remainder. See "Expert Calls for Promotion of Arabic on Internet," Xinhua news agency, December 30, 1998.

33. Neil MacFarquhar, "With Mixed Feelings, Iran Tiptoes to the Internet," The New York Times, October 8, 1996.

34. Jack Redden, "Internet Arrives in Syria, But Not without Limits," Reuters, July 10, 1998. An e-mail sent by Human Rights Watch to the SCS seeking comment on the Reuters story went unanswered.

35. Associated Press, May 12, 1997.

36. "Leery Saudis Get Wired," Reuters, May 6, 1998.

37. Muhammad Salah, "Al-Azhar wa al-Jama'at al-Islamiyya yatanafasan 'ala al-Internet," ("Al-Azhar and the Islamic Group compete on the Internet") al-Hayat, July 28, 1998. See also "Egypt's Moslem authorities to launch Islamic web site," Agence France-Presse, July 15, 1998.

38. "Iran to put Khomeini's complete works on Internet," Agence France-Presse, June 1, 1998.

39. "Islam, Iran and the Internet," CNN Interactive (< 9705/22/>), May 22, 1997.

40. Habib Trabelsi, "Saudis Near End of Seven-Year Wait To Surf the Net," Agence France-Presse, July 15, 1998.

41. Grey E. Burkhart and Seymour E. Goodman, "The Internet Gains Acceptance in the Persian Gulf," Communications of the ACM, March 1998, vol. 41 no.3. The ACM is the Association for Computing Machinery.

42. Quoted in Al-Jazira newspaper, May 6, 1998, as reported in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Near East and South Asia (hereafter FBIS), May 12, 1998.

43. Letter to Human Rights Watch from Christopher D. Leather, Teleyemen Divisional Manager, August 8, 1998. The letter is reprinted in Appendix C of this report.

44. Directories of government sites can be found at <> and <>. A brief overview is provided in Jonathan B. Lincoln, "Middle East Governments on the World Wide Web," WINEP Research Notes, no. 6 (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 1999).

45. The strongest manifestation of official displeasure with the dissident groups came in 1995, when the Saudis threatened Great Britain with a cutoff of defense contracts if CDLR spokesman Muhammad Mas'ari was not somehow silenced. The British government attempted to deport Mas'ari but was thwarted by Britain's courts.

46. The businessman denied that the use of "amnesty" in the web site address was intended to fool users. See Country Profiles, below.

47. Husayn al-Ibrahim, "The Internet and Informatics [sic] in the Arab-Israeli Conflict,"

Top Of Page

Previous Page   Next Page

© June 1999
Human Rights Watch