Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Blogging from Egypt: Internet for politics in Egypt and Malaysia

Legislative elections are scheduled in Egypt on November 28th. Not surprisingly then, the newspapers are filled with election stories. This is not the Presidential elections - which are scheduled for next year - but the legislative elections are considered to be fairer (however so slightly) than the general elections. One story that caught my was about the use of the internet in this election campaign (Sorry - I cannot find the electronic copy of the article that appeared in The Egyptian Gazette on Nov 21st).

The article talks about the increasing use of Facebook, Twitter, and other blogs and websites for these upcoming elections. Interestingly, since many candidates themselves are unfamiliar with some of the social networking tools, the web-design business (this includes making a Facebook page) is booming. Okay - so this is very interesting. But the article also raised an interesting question about the overall effectiveness of such internet campaign in a country where illiteracy hovers around 30%.

I looked into the numbers for Egyptian internet users - and they are low but not that bad. It looks like there are around 17 million internet users in Egypt, or about 21% of the total population of 80 million. For comparison, Pakistan has 18 million users - but that represents only 10% of the population (180 million), India has 81 million users, representing 7% of its 1.2 billion people. But the growth in internet usage is also quite stunning in the last decade (2000-2010): Egypt with 3700% increase, India with 1500% and Pakistan with almost 14000%!

Internet may not be playing a major role in Egyptian politics today, but it is clear that it will be a factor in the coming years - especially in a country where the population is dominated by those under 30.

Now, while I was thinking about this post, I ran into an NPR story this morning about the role of internet in bringing about political change in Malaysia. Listen to the story here (it is about 3min long). This is very interesting. While the ruling party of the 50 years retained strict control over the print media, it could not contain the usage of the web. And this is tied to economic policies:
And the government has pledged not to censor on the Internet. Ironically, it was former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had a reputation as an authoritarian, who made the pledge as part of an effort to attract investment to a hi-tech "multimedia super corridor."
Sharom argues that the credit for this goes to foreign investors, not the former prime minister.
"He wanted to create a cyber hub, another one of his grandiose plans which I don't think has taken off," Sharom says. "But thankfully for the rest of us, as part of his plans, he had to give in to international demands that there be no Internet censorship."
But what fraction of Malaysian population actually uses the internet? After all, this is what we were talking about in the Egyptian case. Well...it turns out that roughly 65% of Malaysians, or 17 million out of the total population of 26 million have access to the internet! This is quite spectacular - and then it is no wonder that politics has been affected by it so much.

Viva internet!
Except for the spread of conspiracy theories that also fuel mass paranoia and may lead to a divorce from reality. Stay tuned for the next post.

Update (Nov 23): I just saw this piece on the rampant use of Twitter and Facebook in Indonesia (it is the 4th largest user of Facebook!). As far as internet usage is concerned, Indonesia has 30 million users - that make up 12% of its population of 240 million.


Benjamin Geer said...

At the Middle East Studies Association meeting in San Diego last week, I heard a paper by Marc Lynch, a political scientist at George Washington University, about the effects of the Internet on politics in the Arab world. He said that there has been a lot of unwarranted optimism about how the Internet might facilitate the development of effective political opposition. While it's true that there have been more and more people blogging and tweeting about politics in Arab countries, it seems that the effects of this
activity on organised political opposition have been small. Joining a Facebook group is one thing; joining a demonstration is something else. As activists have begun to use social media to express political dissent, regimes have learned that they, too, can use social media to identify and arrest activists. In Lynch's view, regimes can afford to give up control of what people are saying on the Internet, because they have plenty of other ways of suppressing opposition. He argued that in the long term, the Internet may have effects on political culture, but probably not in any direct or simple way.

Salman Hameed said...


Hope you had a good time at MESA. I will attend the one next year.

I think Marc Lynch is correct about the unwarranted optimism - and I think this is definitely applicable in the Arab world so far. However, protestors in Iran and Pakistan (the lawyers movement) did manage to use it more effectively - but that also led to govt crackdowns on the internet. And these were also movements with high level of participation from the middle-class, who may be more familiar with using the social networking tools.

In any case, the use of internet is increasing exponentially - so this will indeed be an interesting experiment.

Benjamin Geer said...

MESA was fun (especially meeting other young scholars and PhD students) but the jet lag on the way back is the tough part. :)

About Iran, what I've read (and Marc Lynch also pointed out in his talk) is that actually social media were not used in organising protests in Iran; instead, they were used to publicise those protests in the rest of the world. Most of the people who were tweeting about the protests were actually outside Iran.

Have a good time in Egypt!