Cybersurfers Of Arabia

Jordan and other nations cautiously open the Internet gates

Arab states are not big on public discourse, with most placing limits on what can be published or even talked about. But in the past month, Jordan has opened political debate through cyberspace. Computer users are asking tough questions of the government on official corruption, privatization of state industries, and human rights.

It is all part of an effort to make the government seem more open and responsive. Managers of NETS, a locally owned online service, approached the government about setting up a forum where local residents could talk to senior officials. The government agreed. NETS launched its "Ask the Government" service in April. The roughly 1,000 subscribers to NETS ask the questions, and Marwan Muasher, Jordan's Information Minister, tries to give answers. The Prime Minister, Abdul Karim al-Kabariti, is also online, and there's talk of a weekly Q&A session with him. "This is a long-term process, but we have to start somewhere," says Muasher.

THERE ARE LIMITS. Jordan is leading the Arab world in creative uses of electronic media. While Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates all have Internet access, the various governments control the service because of worries about the free flow of information. But NETS is a private company that charges subscribers $15 per month, as is Global One/Sprint Jordan, the country's Internet provider. Sprint Jordan General Manager Imad Ayoub says he doesn't feel any pressure to censor. "We have no plans to restrict access to any sites," he says. But there are limits. One NETS critic, who charged, among other things, that employees of the royal palace were being permitted to import cars duty-free, was warned by both NETS management and internal security officials to lay off the royal family. He has gone silent, though he hasn't lost his account.

While Jordan may be the most advanced country in the Arab world in computer use, others in the region are also enthusiastically using electronic media. Some Saudis, for instance, are dialing into Internet news groups to debate such topics as the criticisms voiced by London-based dissident Muhammad al-Massari. Massari himself uses the Internet to blast the Saudi royal family for corruption and human rights abuses. With access to the Internet limited in the kingdom, the Saudis dial out to Internet-wired neighbors such as Bahrain or Dubai to cybersurf.

A lot of what they're accessing comes from Jordan. The Web site Arabia On- line, which features news forums, Arabic publications, and cultural and religious information, gets 40,000 visits, or "hits," every day, says Khaldoon Tabaza, its publisher in Amman. "The thirst for this kind of thing is just amazing," says Tabaza.

But so far, Jordan is the only country where citizens can meet officials online. Even here this is confined to the elite, because the service is in English. The system doesn't yet have Arabic online forums. But NETS users lob quite a variety of questions. One session found Muasher admitting the need for improved programming on the state-run radio and television. He also defended Jordan's economic policy--pointing out that the World Bank had praised the nation's tough restructuring program. When one computer supplier complained that censors were opening all incoming CD-ROMs, making them impossible to sell as new, Muasher instructed the censors to open just one out of each shipment.

UPSCALE PARTIES. The talk sometimes gets into sensitive areas. Queen Noor's press secretary sent a message demanding an end to the practice of "honor killings." It is still common for Arab men to murder a female family member over alleged moral indiscretions to "cleanse" the family's honor.

At trendy restaurants and upscale parties, NETS activity is becoming a staple of conversation. One development that has attracted attention is younger, techno-savvy members of the Royal family logging in under first names. Some created a stir recently by saying that Israel's recent attacks on Lebanon made King Hussein's peace accord with Israel seem disappointing.

None of this may appear earth-shaking in the free-wheeling West, but in the Arab world it is a major event, and King Hussein is getting some credit for it. "If it weren't for the democratic process here, we couldn't have this sort of discussion online," says Marwan Juma, general manager of NETS. More to the point, Hussein and his aides are probably shrewd enough to realize that the electronic revolution is here to stay and that they are better off trying to make use of it than resisting.

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