The workshop discussed the report that ANHRI has done on the freedom of internet usage in the Arab world under the title “One Social Network with a Rebellious Message”. The executive director of ANHRI, Gamal Eid, discussed the three reports ANHRI has published on the freedom of the internet usage and the constant conflict between freedom of the internet and the repressive Arab governments that consider the internet “the devil’s work”. Eid explained that the government has increased its repression against bloggers and internet activists using the emergency law like Kareem Amer, Hani Nazer, and Mosad Abu el Fajr. He added that the number of cases against bloggers and internet activists is now much greater than those against journalists.
Dr. Nader El Fergany, professor of political science at Cairo University and writer of the UN Human Development on the Arab World, has said that the role of the technological devices has deepened the process of democracy. He explained that this includes the internet, as well as, the mobiles that have been owned by literate and illiterates in the Arab world.
Dr. Fergany gave many examples of democratic countries and undemocratic countries and how to strengthen democracy in both cases. For example, Finland, the internet is very widely used in the democratic process by the government and civil society which further strengthen democracy. Another example was India which practices democracy even though it faces so many problems like poverty, illiteracy, a huge population. In India, there are 700 million voters who have electronic voting cards eliminating fraud. With these cards, anyone can know the list of voters. However, when it comes to repressive regimes, technology does not create change but rather create an atmosphere that constantly demands democracy. For example, Kyrgyzstan has a similar political system as Egypt. However, in Kyrgyzstan, this political system ended as the president left the country after a popular revolution created by bloggers in March 2005.
According to Dr. Fergany, the biggest obstacles to the power of the internet are spread of illiteracy in the Arab world and especially among women (60% of the illiterate population in the Arab world is women) and police brutality. He added that the police brutality is increasing to the extent that police officers torture internet activists to know their password online.
While, Hossam El Hamalawy, the managing editor of the English website of Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, has expressed his admiration to ANHRI’s report on the freedom of internet usage in the Arab world. He stated that the report was done very professionally and academically and documented information about a subject is undocumented.
Hamalway explained that the political blogs increased greatly after the events of what is known as the black Wednesday where security forces sexually molested female protesters that were protesting the Constitutional amendments. He also talked how the government is mostly afraid of the spread of information. A government, he explained, cannot rule on repression alone but has also to convince its people that they are living well and they are much better than many others. This is usually done through the government’s media that to control public opinion.
Furthermore, Noara Negm, writer of the blog Gabhet el Tahyes el Shabya, stated that the internet created strong connection between members of society through different social networks by exchanging their opinions and their different perspectives. Noara states that this is the first step for a people’s representation other than the UN which does not represent the people of the world at all. Arabs, she states, are leaders on the internet for the first time but this is mainly to the problems activists face for uncovering the truth.
In addition, Khaled el Balshy, the editor in chief of the Badeel newspaper, posed many questions regarding the legal framework to blogging and the possibility of issuing a law that governs the internet to protect its users from the government and offer them advice on how to write in a way that does not violate the law.
In the workshop, there was a heated debate about whether to formulate a law on the internet. Some saw that it is necessary to formulate a law that guarantees internet activists their rights and protects them. On the other hand, others saw that laws in the Arab world are formulated only to restrict citizens’ freedoms not to protect them and that the idea to call for a law for the internet will only contain bloggers. They stated that the only way to deal with, for example, an arrest of a blogger because of information he posted is by posted the same information on hundreds of other blogs.