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The Internet in the Arab World: Egypt and Beyond

Author: Rasha A. Abdulla
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2007
Review Published: August 2009

 REVIEW 1: Antonio A. Garcia
 REVIEW 2: Laurence Raw
 REVIEW 3: Natasha Ritsma
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Rasha A. Abdulla

Rasha Abdulla's The Internet in the Arab World: Egypt and Beyond is the first book length study investigating the history, uses, and challenges of the Internet in the Arab world. This comprehensive study fills a gap in an under-examined area of Internet research, as relatively little has been written about how the Arab world utilizes emerging technologies, specifically the Internet. This book functions as an excellent starting point for scholars interested in investigating uses and issues related to the rise of the Internet in the Arab region.

The Internet in the Arab World is a highly accessible and well-organized book, published in both Arabic and English, and draws upon Abdulla's years of scientific observation and research in both the United States and Egypt. Born in Egypt, Abdulla is currently an Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo. This project is based on her dissertation, which she completed at the University of Miami in 2003.

Filled with illuminating statistical evidence, Abdulla demonstrates that the Arab world exists on the low end of the digital divide constituting only 2% Internet users in the world. She usefully distinguishes between the Arab world, consisting of eighteen countries belonging to the Arab League of Nations whose official language is Arabic, and the Muslim World, defined by a religion rather than an ethnicity. Arabs only constitute 23% of Muslims worldwide, yet 95% of Arabs are Muslims.

At the time the book was written only 7% of citizens in the Arab countries regularly accessed the Internet. Many Arab governments are currently taking measures to increase the growth of Internet use, such as building internet cities, improving infrastructures, and investing in IT education to rapidly increase the growth rate of Internet use. Nevertheless, rather than promoting a strictly celebratory view of the Internet in the Arab world, Abdulla contends that there are many obstacles to overcome before this technology is accessible to all Arabs.

Abdulla's account of the Internet's impact on the Arab world is divided into twelve chapters. The first two chapters focus on the historical significance of the rise of broadcast media technologies, the privatization of telecommunications sectors, information technology, and communication technology in the Arab world. Chapters three to six trace the global rise of the Internet by first broadly focusing on the Arab world and then looking specifically into its inter-workings in Egypt and in relation to Islam. Chapters seven and eight raise ethical dilemmas about government censorship and the use value of the Internet in the Arab world. The last chapters of the book look to original research Abdulla conducted with Arab students in Egypt.

The Internet in the Arab World begins with an overview of how emerging technologies such as radio, television, telecommunication, and direct broadcast satellite technology were introduced, adopted, and eventually changed aspects of society in the Arab world. Statistical evidence demonstrates how these communication media have proliferated throughout the Arab world in the last fifty years. Radio listening has become a part of everyday life, cellular phones are increasing in popularity and decreasing in costs, and more than 90% of Arab citizens are reported to own at least one television. The popularity of these technologies are socially significant as they allow audiences to stymie government-controlled programming and provide accessible information to the still significantly large illiterate community. Abdulla argues that the prevalence of these technologies indicates that Internet use will drastically increase in the Arab region. Abdulla highlights Egypt as a broadcasting and IT leader as it has historically catered to both rural and urban areas in making broadcast technologies available to as many people as possible. For example, the Egyptian government subsidized radio and television sets, invested in producing high quality programming, and installed free television sets in coffee shops, cultural centers, and public gathering places throughout the country. More recently, the Egyptian government has committed to making computers more readily available along with facilities and training opportunities. Abdulla points to work done by media theorists such as Mustapha Masmoudi, Jon B. Alterman, and Mohamed Abdel Raouf, in predicting the rise of these technologies in mobilizing Arab public opinion, creating a more democratic and decentralized political system, improving education, and interacting with the outside world.

Chapter 4 specifically addresses reasons for the "digital divide" between developed countries in the West and the Arab world. As of 2006, the United States had a penetration rate of 69.3% in contrast with the 7% of the Arab population. Abdulla sites lack of IT resources, illiteracy, computer illiteracy, lack of funds for IT research and development, lack of telecommunication infrastructures, cost of Internet connectivity as well and lack of e-business and e-banking culture and unavailability of secure e-commerce Web sites as the major factors of this divide in the Arab world. It is also important to note the significant discrepancy of Internet activity within the Arab countries. For example, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar maintain the highest rate of Internet users (all above 20%), and Iraq, Sudan, and Yemen yield the lowest percentage of Internet users (under 2%) (Table 4.1). In all these countries the majority of Internet users are "youths" between the ages of 18-35. Although the penetration rate of Internet use is low, Abdulla maintains that the growth rate is increasing, as most Arab countries are making it a priority to increase Internet connectivity among their citizens. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Jordan, and The United Arab Emirates have taken notable strides forward in education and accessibility. Dubai and Cairo have invested in Internet cities in attempts to draw in commerce and currently host companies such as Microsoft, HP, Dell, IBM, Canon, and Sony Ericsson. Abdulla highlights Egypt's annual growth rate of 500% as well as the government's investments in Internet awareness and education programs, subsidizing computers and internet connections, and building upon the IT infrastructure.

In Chapter 6, "Islam and the Internet," the author notes that there are more Internet sites dedicated to Islam than any other major religion in the world. This is largely due to the fact that it is the fastest growing religion in the world as well as the most misrepresented and controversial religion. In this chapter, Abdulla investigates the credibility of Islamic websites and questions the content of these sites and their ability to provide an online community for Muslims throughout the world. Islamic Web sites have drastically increased in number since September 11, 2001, responding to increased prejudice and misunderstanding of the religion throughout the world. Abdulla explains that anyone with access to the Internet can become a publisher, and this has resulted in a plethora of sites presenting problematic information in the name of Islam. Abdulla warns that in addition to a rise of credible informative sites that attempt to clarify the beliefs of the religion, there has been a surge of sites that perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation. The author provides a selection of popular credible sites and argues that these sites provide useful tools for dialogue and education about the religion, and grant Muslims a way to construct new forms of community.

Issues of government censorship and freedom of expression in the Arab world are the main focus of Chapter 7. Abdulla acknowledges the variation in political systems and freedom each country allows ranges from fairly liberal to strict. Jordan and Morocco are hailed as the most liberal in regulating the online free flow of information, while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia are the most stringent. Gleaning much of her information from Human Rights Watch, Abdulla draws attention to how Arab countries tend to block sites that are sexually explicit, as well as sites dedicated to gambling, homosexuality, religious conversions, and filtering circumvention tools. The most restrictive policies of Internet use are in Saudi Arabia, which has also been reported to block sites featuring political opposition groups, the Bahai faith, the Holocaust, free Web hosts and women's rights issues. "Overblocking" is an enormous problem, as many medical sites remain inaccessible because of images showing the human body or describing body parts. While the Syrian and Tunisian governments have recently made efforts to promote Internet use, they have also been reported for detaining individuals based on their online communications. The United Arab Emirates is the leader of Internet connectivity in the Arab world, but is also one of the most censored countries. Ironically, many Arab countries have been encouraged to impose stricter censorship on the Internet by the United States (world leader in advocating for democracy) after the September 11 attacks, with filtering systems, software and servers being made in the U.S.

The last section of the book is dedicated to Abdulla's case study investigating Internet use by students at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt. While the study provides many interesting insights, it does not reflect the use of the Internet in the majority of the Arab world. Abdulla's subject pool consists of a small population of the most educated and privileged in Egypt. Generally belonging to the upper-middle and upper socioeconomic class, students at the AUC all speak English and about 90% use the Internet. These demographics differ drastically from Cairo University where only 3-5% of the student population is online. Nevertheless, Abdulla's book provides an excellent entryway in looking at internet use in the Arab world considering its potential for community building, education, and economic growth as well as taking into account cultural and religious concerns and state dictated censorship.

Abdulla's book is at its most interesting when exploring specific examples of how educational efforts are disseminated throughout the region such as "Internet Caravans" implemented in Tunisia (40) and how individuals bypass government censorship in Chapter 7. Abdulla's argument that internet growth in the Arab world is "exploding" is well taken as late adopters such as Syria are making efforts to drastically increase internet accessibility, and cities such as Dubai and Cairo are heavily investing in e-commerce. As a result, it is imperative that more work be done following Abdulla's timely introduction to the Internet's infiltration of the Arab world.

Natasha Ritsma:
Natasha Ritsma is a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University in the Department of Communication and Culture. Her research interests include documentary, educational and experimental film as well as media representations of Arab and Arab Americans.  <nritsma@indiana.edu>

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