Web Becomes Arab Mini-Mecca But It's Not Surf's Up for All

The small room is lined with PCs. A young man studiously works at one while a woman sends e-mail from another. Western rock music from the group Enigma blasts the dimly lit room.

Welcome to the Cyber Cafe, an oasis of computer power just off a dusty Cairo street. It's a new magnet for Egypt's Web surfers to explore the bytes and sites of the Internet in a land where ancient hieroglyphics are still studied and the Koran rules much of daily Muslim life. Business is so brisk that the owners say they'll open a clone soon.

As elsewhere, the global computer network has invaded the Arab world, with authoritarian leaders scrambling to get a handle on it. Supporters herald a link that may bring democracy and economic development. But critics say the Internet is the latest intrusion by infidels, bringing smut and liberal politics to a conservative realm.

To them it represents a threat in a region where magazine photos of scantily clad women are blacked out and antigovernment papers disappear from newsstands.

Egypt is among the most tolerant Arab states. After the government offered free local access in 1993 to the Internet to spark public interest, it began allowing private companies to offer users more and better access for a fee. Seven private Internet providers have since sprung up. More than 10 additional firms are expected to follow by the end of the year.

In Jordan, a locally owned on-line service offers a forum where local residents can talk to senior government officials. The service's "Ask the Government" forum, which opened in April, allows residents to ask questions, while Jordan's Information Minister Marwan Muasher gives answers. Prime Minister Abdul Karim al-Kabariti is also "on-line".

Other more conservative Arab governments, however, aren't ready to open their doors to the Internet and allow taboo subjects like sex, religion, and political dissent into residents' homes.

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the regime has limited local access to hospitals and universities. Most Internet users must make a long distance call to surf the Net, an expense few can afford.

"The government has put its head in the sand," says a Saudi journalist who asked not to be named. "It has to face up to the information superhighway and stop complaining that we are the victims of the bad ugly Western media. The age of the censor is as extinct as the dinosaur. You can't censor anymore."

The Internet has awakened a recurring debate in the Arab world that returns with any new communication technology - radio, television, satellite dishes and now the Internet - over whether to allow the public open access to the medium or to tightly control the new information.

For Internet supporters the benefits from this new technology far outweigh the risks. "The golden opportunity for the Arab world is to make use of the information superhighway and to leapfrog to the 21st century," says Dr. Hisham el Sherif, advisory board chairman of the Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center, which develops Egypt's information technology. "Information is development," he says, "and accelerating development is a key challenge, a great opportunity for the Arab world."

Supporters also say the Net is the only way Arab countries can compete in a global economy. Ultimately they hope the Internet will promote democracy in the region by encouraging the open exchange of information and ideas.

But critics of the Internet, including government officials, religious conservatives, and even some intellectuals, call for caution. They don't want the public exposed to pornographic materials. They also think an invasion of liberal ideas could threaten political stability and undermine the Islamic culture.

"If you have certain values you don't want them to be neglected," says Adel Hussein, secretary-general of Egypt's Labor Party, an Islamic opposition party. "Our society is Islamic, and we have our own values, which may not be the same as the West."

Regardless of the Internet's merits or faults, some fundamental issues in the Arab world could limit Internet use. Because of high illiteracy rates, coupled with even higher numbers of Arabs unable to use computers or speak English, the language of the Internet, some 99.9 percent of the population cannot use the Net, says Hussein Amin, communications professor at the American University in Cairo.

If more people aren't educated to use the Internet, some warn of greater instability. "The Internet is going to be monopolized by the rich and by governments," says Issam Mousa, communications professor at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan. "The mass media was the poor man's medium. This is different. [The Net] will increase the information gap. It will add to the fragmentation of the society."

Amin and others also say the lack of modern phone lines, a necessity for Internet use, as well as governments' hesitancy, could cause the region to stand idly by while the rest of the world speeds away on the information highway.

While the Arab debate continues, worldwide Internet use is on the rise, not waiting for Arab governments and the public to decide how best to handle it. But as the Internet's reach expands, in the end they may have no choice.

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