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Home / News

Use of the Internet for Political Action in the Middle East

2003-11-04 07:58:10

From First Monday
The use of the Internet for political action by non-state dissident actors in the Middle East by W. Sean McLaughlin
For the full text of the article click here


In the past decade, the rise of Internet technologies has wrought swift and sweeping changes around the world. Increasing global interconnectivity has changed the global financial architecture, as international financial markets have become linked together across time and space, allowing a transnational "electronic herd" [1] of investors to trade currencies around the clock. At the micro level, the explosion of Internet-enabled electronic commerce has changed business models and impacted local economies. Societal interactions have been impacted as well. Internet users from around the world fill up popular chat rooms to argue and discuss an inexhaustible range of topics. Politics has not been immune to the impact of the Internet either, as the Zapatistas, a dissident group within Mexico, used the Internet as an important tool in their campaign against the Mexican government, attracting international support and effectively constraining the government’s response [2].

This final example highlights the ability of the Internet to impact political action in new and surprising ways. Dissident actors seeking to alter the political status quo may see the Internet as a potentially potent tool, capable of shifting the balance of power between states and dissidents in favor of the latter. However, this is only part of the story. The Internet is not all-powerful. State policies have important implications for how accessible and usable Internet technologies are.

To fully understand the political implications of the Internet’s impact on the balance of power between states and dissident actors, a more detailed and focused discussion is needed. This paper represents one step towards a more complete understanding of this state/dissident balance of power. Rather than focus on this interaction at a global scale, this paper seeks to examine how this balance of power plays out within the context of one region: The Middle East. In this way, this paper seeks to understand how non-state dissident actors in the Middle East use Internet technologies in affecting political action vis-á-vis the state in the face of state-imposed Internet constraints. This paper continues by defining key terms and then by providing an overview of relevant literature within this paper’s purview. It then goes on to present a dynamic model of Internet-based dissidence which takes into account both dissident and state objectives as well as dynamic responses by dissident actors to state-imposed Internet constraints. To test the applicability of this model, this paper then examines three case studies of dissident actors within the Middle East. The paper concludes by providing an overview of the paper’s evidence and analyses and by drawing broader implications from these findings. Despite this paper’s regional focus, the implications drawn from its analyses are global in scale and have important implications for the future of non-state dissident activities everywhere.

Defining terms: Non-state dissident actors
Non-state dissidents actors have two defining characteristics. First, as their name suggests, these actors are not states. This distinction is logical and perhaps seemingly trivial but it is critical in understanding the relationship between states and non-state actors. As sovereign actors, states exercise supreme authority within the international system and therefore are free to formulate domestic policies and conduct official relations with other states. Non-state actors have no such official powers and ultimately come under the sovereign jurisdiction of one or more states. This means that all non-state actors, be they dissident or not, are subject, theoretically at least, to the power of states. While the media has often identified non-state actors with terrorist groups, narco-traffickers and other insidious groups, the term is definitionally neutral. Non-state actors can include businesses, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and single individuals as well.

Second, non-state dissident actors oppose the political agenda of one or more states. This is what makes these actors dissident. The focus of this political opposition can vary. Dissidents may dispute specific domestic or foreign policies that states are pursuing or hope to pursue. Dissident actors may also oppose an entire political regime. The means of opposition can vary as well. While dissidence is often associated with violence, the two are not necessarily linked. Non-state actors can use non-violent means such as demonstrations, strikes and political pressure to demonstrate their opposition [3]. Regardless of the focus and the means of political opposition, dissident groups are inherently revisionist and challenge state power.

The relationship between states and non-state dissident actors is therefore inherently frictional. Theoretically, the sovereign power of states is supreme. In reality, non-state dissident actors seek to challenge this sovereign authority through political action. A balance of power therefore exists within states, pitting the relative strengths of states and non-state dissidents against each other.

The Middle East is a valuable forum to examine this internal balance of power. Within the region, there is no shortage of non-state dissident actors — some seeking limited objectives and others demanding the overthrow of entire regimes. The emergence of these dissident activities is not a regional coincidence but rather is linked closely to the types of regimes found in the region. While a full discussion of the comparative politics of the Middle East is not possible here, suffice to say that democracies are the exception rather than the rule in the region. Within the Middle East, one finds a multitude of non-democratic regimes, ranging from monarchical kingdoms to authoritarian polities. Unlike democracies, which enable citizens to express political opposition through the voting booth, non-democratic regimes provide little or no formal outlets for political dissent. In the absence of these formal outlets, actors that oppose specific policies or entire regimes must express their opposition via extra-legal means directed at state authority.

Literature review
The emergence of the Internet has spawned an extensive range of literature that assesses the impact of this technology on a host of levels. Perhaps the broadest and most ambitious effort at synthesizing these impacts can be found in sociologist Manuel Castells’ three volume tome, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture [4]. For Castells, the Internet and other network structures "constitute the new social morphology of our societies," impacting the "processes of production, experience, power, and culture" [5]. Castells’ work is representative of current sociological analyses that examine the macro-level impacts of information technologies on societies and cultures in the globalized, post-industrial, information era [6]. While these cultural and societal interactions are important, these discussions are broadly theoretical and non-political in nature, viewing the Internet as part of a larger globalizing process that is largely distinct from politics.

Beyond this broad theoretical work, there is a growing pool of literature that examines the Internet’s potential as a political tool. A considerable amount of attention has been paid to the technological capabilities of the Internet to influence politics through cyberattacks [7]. The networked structure of the Internet and the increasing dependence upon these networks for key infrastructures may enable "hacktivists" and cyberterrorists to influence political decisions or to pose security threats. Dorothy Denning’s work has highlighted how groups have utilized virtual sit-ins, denial of service attacks, Web site defacements and viruses in efforts to influence foreign policy [8]. While there has been much talk about the prospect of cyberterrorism, the worries of a crippling attack on a state’s infrastructure have not materialized to date [9]. However, this work has focused too narrowly on the area of cyberattacks, ignoring the possibilities of using the Internet as a broader political tool. Defaced Web sites and denial of service attacks may cause short-term inconveniences, but the utility of such measures for gaining long-term political goals is difficult to ascertain.

Building upon the aforementioned sociological analyses, a second school of political writing examines how networked structures (such as the Internet) influence the nature of the security environment. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt of the RAND Corporation have written extensively on this topic, arguing that the information age has heralded the dominance of the network, diffusing power away from hierarchical state actors to networked non-state actors [10]. While enlightening in its theoretical rigor, this set of literature has been too broad to shed much light on the Middle East region. General discussions on the coming of "netwar" and a new political order enabled by the Internet and other information technologies provide a broad theoretical framework but do little to assess how this framework relates to the Middle East. In a region where Internet access is often limited by infrastructure constraints or governmental censorship, the theoretical power of the Internet may face serious practical challenges.

Within the regional literature on the Middle East, discussions of the Internet have likewise remained general in nature [11]. In the broadest sense, there has been a realization that the Internet does present something new for the region. Anthropologist Jon Anderson’s work has provided an overview of how Arab society "enculturates" the Internet and has assessed the interaction between the new technology and culture, society and religion [12]. Presenting the situation from a more political perspective, Jon Alterman has provided a general summary of the new media in the Arab world [13].

These initial attempts at understanding the Internet in the Arab world have remained largely descriptive in nature. These broad descriptions have summarized the new possibilities offered by the Internet, the legal and cultural restrictions often placed on the technology, and the reality of how Internet technologies are used throughout the region. These works provide an initial understanding that the Internet is causing change within the Middle East. Yet, this understanding is only somewhat helpful. Case studies of Internet portals, examinations of governmental policies and similar descriptive exercises do nothing to shed light on the processes behind the historical descriptions.

A more useful exercise is to distill these initial descriptions into more specific analytical frameworks that are explanatory and predictive rather than merely descriptive. While it is the conventional wisdom that the Internet is an important potential political tool in the Middle East, analyses of how this tool is used, for what purposes, and to what effects are critical to understanding and explaining the power of the Internet. More importantly, a useful framework can detail not only how the Internet has already been used as a political tool but also under what circumstances actors in the future may use Internet technologies. This paper seeks to fill this gap by providing a theoretical model of Internet-based political dissidence that will yield both predictive and explanatory results.

Assumptions for use of Internet technology
The Internet is a tool: It can be used and manipulated by humans to accomplish a wide variety of tasks. The networked nature of the Internet allows actors to tap into a nearly limitless source of information and data that can be shared across the network. People can use the Internet to educate themselves, to conduct business or to carry out forms of political action. Yet, there is no a priori reason why actors should use the Internet over any other potential tool. Generally speaking, for actors to use the Internet, three conditions must be met.

First, the Internet must offer advantages. Examining absolute advantages is a useful starting point, but does not tell the whole picture. As with any tool, the Internet does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, actors are presented with different options and make choices based on relative advantages. If actors are to seek to use the Internet, it must offer relative advantages over other potential tools. If no such comparative benefit exists, actors will see no utility in using the Internet, opting instead for some other, more effective option.

Second, potential users must have access to the Internet. If actors are to capitalize on the advantages of the Internet, these actors must be able to access and use the technology. Assessing user access requires going beyond pure numbers. Statistics about the number of computers or Internet hosts in a given population provide only a basic understanding of potential access. Internet access also depends on other context-dependent factors. Issues such as the security environment and government censorship can directly impact how specific actors are able to utilize the Internet. While Internet access may be thought of as a given within the United States, as will be discussed below, user access in much of the world, including the Middle East, faces many possible constraints.

Third, and related to actor access, use of the Internet requires audience access as well. To a large extent, the Internet is an interactive technology. Actors create Web sites, post messages and write e-mails for one or more audiences, be they intra- or trans-national in scale. The Internet offers little utility if websites go unvisited, messages unread and e-mails unchecked. The effective use of the Internet therefore requires that potential audiences have access to the technology. As with actor access, context-dependent factors can and do influence the ability of messages to reach their intended audiences.

With this understanding of the Internet in mind, it is possible to examine the use of the Internet for political action and to translate this understanding to the Middle East region. The next sections provide brief overviews both of the advantages associated with Internet use in political action and of the theoretical constraints on such Internet use. Based on this discussion, this paper develops a model for how non-state dissident actors use the Internet for political action, and seeks to apply this model to the Middle East. This model examines how Internet-based forms of political action influence the balance of power between non-state dissident actors and states in the Middle East.

Advantages of the Internet for conducting political action
As discussed above, for the Internet to be used by political actors, the Internet must offer advantages. In the realm of political action, the Internet offers two primary advantages: Reduced transaction costs and altered transparency.

Reduced transaction costs
Perhaps the most far-reaching advantage of Internet technology is its ability to reduce transaction costs. At the broadest level, the highly networked structure of the Internet allows information to be exchanged cheaply, quickly and globally. Registering a Web site costs less than $50 and many Internet sites allow users to create Web sites at no cost at all. Free e-mail services are commonplace on the Internet while newsgroups and message postings are likewise available at no cost. Perhaps more importantly, these low-cost Internet technologies offer access to a truly global network. This global network allows actors to transmit and share information throughout the world nearly instantaneously. The networked structure of the Internet finds the quickest and most effective route for information flows. Web sites from anywhere in the world take only seconds to view while e-mails can circle the globe in an instant. The Internet therefore enables political actors to share and disseminate political information at reduced costs and gives these same actors access to a pervasive venue with global reach.

Altered transparency
The Internet also enables political actors to alter transparency. Whereas transaction costs are a measure of the speed and scale of information, transparency is a measure of the accuracy, clarity and freedom of information. Internet technologies can therefore be used to increase or decrease transparency. For increasing transparency, the Internet provides a forum for actors to share and disseminate political information that can clarify or bring to light political realities. Web sites and e-mail lists can be used to document and publicize political improprieties, such as corruption or human rights abuses. Political actors can also use the Internet to decrease transparency by using these same technologies to spread disinformation and propaganda. While the two are separated here for analytical purposes, reduced transaction costs and altered transparency are clearly interrelated. The high speed and global scale of the Internet is the driving force behind the technology’s ability to alter transparency.

Constraints on Internet use
There are two practical constraints that may limit or prevent actors from accessing the Internet for political action. First, infrastructure limitations can negatively impact actor and audience access to the Internet. The Internet relies on a significant amount of technological infrastructure, requiring that computers, routers and means of connection all be present for the Internet to work within a given locale. The absence of one component within this infrastructure can cut off localities from the larger Internet network. While this basic infrastructure is often a given within the United States, in much of the world, including the Middle East, Internet diffusion has been limited by the lack of this basic infrastructure. Based on statistics from 2000, there were less than two million total Internet users in the Middle East out of a total population of over 220 million [14]. More recent statistics further highlight the lack of connectivity within the Middle East, as Arabic speakers constitute only 0.9 percent of the global online population [15].

Second, government censorship can likewise limit actor and audience access to the Internet. Whereas infrastructure limitations constrain actual Internet access, censorship limits the freedom of Internet activity. Through a variety of legal and technological means that will be discussed later, governments can put limits on the Internet content acceptable within their sovereign territory. This type of government censorship is particularly commonplace in the Middle East where authoritarian regimes seek to maintain near-absolute control of information flows within their territory. According to report from Human Rights Watch on Internet censorship in the Middle East, only Algeria, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority have avoided efforts to limit or control Internet content within their territories [16].

Internet-based dissident model
With these general understandings in mind, it is now possible to develop a model that explains and predicts how non-state dissident actors use the Internet as a political tool in the face of infrastructure limitations and government censorship. This model is constructed around three interrelated dynamics. The first dynamic assesses the objectives of non-state dissidents, presents the types of political action undertaken to achieve these goals and examines the Internet’s role in conducting these forms of political action. The second dynamic assesses the goals of states and presents ways that states can limit the effectiveness of Internet-based dissidence. The final dynamic examines how dissidents are able to adjust to efforts by the state to limit political action via the Internet.

Dynamic I: Non-state dissident objectives, political action and the Internet
As political actors, non-state dissidents have political goals. Ultimately, these actors exist because they are dissatisfied with the political status quo within their respective countries and therefore seek to influence and change political outcomes. As noted earlier, non-state dissidents can have either limited or total objectives. Actors seeking limited goals attempt to use political action in an effort to influence and change specific policies of states. Non-state dissidents seeking total objectives do not simply oppose specific policies, but rather oppose the very existence of entire regimes.

Accomplishing political objectives requires resources. Dissident efforts to exert political pressure on states require both political and financial resources. However, non-state dissidents face considerable disadvantages vis-á-vis the power of states, which have at their disposal a wide range of financial, institutional and military resources. Dissident groups are often initially based around a core group of individuals, limiting the amount of resources available to them [17].

Political action undertaken by non-state dissident actors seeks to level the playing field between themselves and the power of the state. For dissidents, attempts to improve this relative balance of power can involve trying to accumulate their own resources or trying to erode the resources of states. Based on this understanding, it is possible to identify three types of political action that dissidents can seek to undertake: Mobilization, internationalization and support erosion.

Mobilization seeks to organize and mobilize key domestic actors in support of political objectives. For dissidents, the goal of mobilization is therefore twofold. First, non-state dissidents seek to increase their overall base of power to increase their access to domestic resources. Efforts at recruitment are designed to move from an initial core group of supporters to larger groups of adherents. As an example, the student-led pro-democracy movement in China has recruited actively from liberal university settings, giving the movement a membership in the hundreds of thousands [18]. Increasing this powerbase to larger and more powerful segments of society gives non-state dissidents access to domestic resources that can be used to exert political pressure on states.

The second component of mobilization involves rallying the established powerbase behind specific political objectives, be they limited or total. In this way, the recruitment phase gives non-state dissidents access to domestic resources, but it is the rallying phase that seeks to "cash in" those assets and produce tangible political changes within states. This component of mobilization can include calls for financial support or, more often, involves calls for political support. With sympathizers numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the pro-democracy activists in China were able to mobilize their supporters in a series of demonstrations that culminated in the famous standoff at Tiananmen Square [19]. A dissident group armed with material resources and backed by the support of key domestic actors is well equipped to exert political pressure on a state. It is this domestic political pressure that can directly influence and pressure the policies of states.

Based on this understanding of mobilization, one expects dissidents to direct this type of political action at two important actors: Domestic elites and society at large. Elites are clear targets for mobilization because they possess considerable resources, both financially and politically. Denoeux’s important work on urban unrest in the Middle East demonstrated the disruptive power that "counterelites" possess within the region [20]. In the aggregate, society at large likewise controls significant resources. Within the Middle East, the 1979 Iranian Revolution demonstrated the power of a society mobilized for political purposes [21]. Combined, the cumulative power of these two societal actors gives non-dissidents good reason to recruit and mobilize them. Successful mobilization of one or both of these groups can help to tip the relative balance of power in favor of non-state dissidents.

The Internet and mobilization
The reduced transaction costs associated with the Internet offer clear advantages for non-state dissident actors seeking to mobilize domestic support. Since mobilization focuses on the organization of resources within states, the Internet provides an avenue for dissidents to bring their messages to entire populations at limited costs. Web sites and e-mails offer low-cost and convenient ways of disseminating recruitment messages and symbols to a targeted audience. Moreover, Internet technologies allow dissidents to communicate with established supporters across long distances instantaneously. This ensures that supporters receive political messages quickly, enabling political support to be drummed up in limited time. In 1999, members of the outlawed Falun Gong in China were able to use e-mails to stage a series of surprise demonstrations in Beijing [22]. In the context of the Middle East and other areas where initial Internet access is limited, efforts at mobilization through the Internet may "piggyback" on other preexisting networks within the state. It may be unreasonable for dissidents to focus mobilization efforts on entire populations. By directing Internet-based mobilization at key nodal actors within preexisting networks, dissident messages can be passed on through these preexisting connections through low technologies or personal contact. In the same way that taped sermons from the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini were circulated through preexisting religious connections in Iran, [23] Internet-based messages need only reach certain key actors in order to be circulated more widely.

Efforts at mobilization are likely to involve messages, symbols and images that resonate with the domestic population. Within the context of the Middle East, one expects Internet-based mobilization to be conducted in Arabic, the lingua franca of the region. Mobilizational messages within the Middle East may also utilize overarching religious and political motifs with wide appeal. While political motifs vary from country to country, dissidents may use powerful Islamic imagery and references in order to build domestic support.

Internationalization is a political objective that seeks to gain support from groups or countries within the international community. Whereas mobilization is focused on generating support domestically, internationalization seeks to mobilize resources at the transnational scale. By internationalizing a conflict or political dispute, non-state dissident actors give themselves access to a broader range of resources not available domestically. These resources can include concrete financial assistance or may involve intangible assets such as political support and sympathy. The sheer size of the international community makes internationalization an appealing type of political action. By gaining access to international support, non-state dissidents further equalize the relative balance of power between themselves and states.

As with mobilization, internationalization involves both recruiting and then rallying supporters in efforts to accomplish political objectives. These political objectives are achieved by directing internationalization efforts at five different types of actors. First, dissidents can focus their efforts directly towards other states within the international community. The efforts of Iraqi dissident groups such as the Iraqi National Congress and the Iraqi National Accord to gain U.S. support for their efforts to undermine Saddam Hussein’s regime are useful examples of groups seeking direct support from a state [24]. The difficulties associated with this type of internationalization make it rare. Communication between states and non-state dissidents is constrained because it takes place outside the normal channels of inter-state communication. Furthermore, assisting a dissident actor within another state’s sovereign territory can be a recipe for international conflict.

Second, internationalization efforts can be directed at societies within other countries. Society-directed internationalization seeks to bypass the problems linked to direct communication with states. By recruiting and mobilizing transnational populations, non-state dissidents can indirectly pressure foreign governments and establish dissident objectives on the international agenda. Dissidents may also be able to garner material support from individuals within other states. The Zapatistas, an insurgent group in Chiapas, Mexico, capitalized greatly on its ability to ally itself with powerful societal actors within the United States, such as student and faculty organizations that were able to publicize and support the Zapatistas’ objectives [25].

Third, non-state dissidents can focus internationalization attempts at diaspora populations. Within the context of the Middle East, this audience may be particularly germane owing to the large and influential community of expatriate Middle Easterners. Gaining access to this population allows non-state dissidents to tap into the financial resources of the diaspora community. For example, several dissident groups linked to terrorism such as al-Qaida and Egypt’s al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya have been linked to international charities that tap directly into diaspora populations for financial support [26]. Diaspora communities may also be able to influence the domestic environment by demonstrating support for the dissident group to relatives and friends who remain in country.

Fourth, internationalization can seek to involve what has come to be called "transnational civil society" [27]. This term most often refers to international organizations, specifically international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). The resources offered by INGOs are rarely financial but rather come in the form of political support. INGOs are increasingly powerful players in the international community because of their ability to exert political pressures on states. INGOs can directly change state policies or can influence states indirectly, by altering public perceptions and opinions [28]. INGOs are therefore a potentially powerful ally in non-state dissidents’ efforts to balance the power of states. By gaining access to the political resources of transnational civil society, dissidents improve their chances of directly influencing state behavior and also tap into a larger network of INGO supporters. The previously mentioned Zapatistas of Mexico were able to tap into a variety of human rights INGOs that served as political observers, successfully constraining the Mexican government from using violence against the Zapatistas [29].

Finally, dissidents can focus internationalization efforts at the media. The media provides a multi-faceted way for dissidents to broadcast their message to a variety of actors simultaneously. Media broadcasts, be they regional or international, have the ability to reach policymakers, societal actors, diaspora populations and INGO activists. Media coverage therefore presents itself as a powerful political resource for dissidents, enabling dissident messages to reach multiple audiences with minimal efforts. Referring back to democratic activists in China, the powerful media images streaming out of the country during the Tiananmen Square showdown proved to be a critical component of the students’ political strategy [30].

The Internet and internationalization
The Internet offers unparalleled access to the international community. The Internet’s ability to limit transaction costs over transnational distances makes the technology an appealing one for non-state dissidents seeking to gain access to various international communities. Web sites are simple and cost-effective ways of providing information to global actors, giving the international community the ability to access the information from anywhere in the world at any time. E-mail lists and message boards likewise provide instantaneous access to potentially global audiences. It is no surprise to find that many dissident actors do in fact use Web sites and e-mails to generate international support. The Zapatistas from Mexico have used the Internet extensively and built an online network of support throughout the world [31].

For non-state dissidents in the Middle East, the messages and symbols used to communicate with the international community are likely to be different from those directed at domestic populations. Arabic-based messages appealing to Islamic values are unlikely to find broad support within the international community. Internationalization efforts are more likely to be conducted in English, the lingua franca of the Internet [32] and, arguably, of the world. Internationalization efforts are also more likely to appeal to broader international norms, such as human rights.

Support erosion
Support erosion is a political activity that seeks to erode public support for an opposing actor in a conflict. Whereas mobilization and internationalization are focused on the positive accumulation of resources for dissidents, support erosion seeks to break down the resource and powerbases of states. By eroding support for the state, dissidents can limit the overall amount of financial and political resources at a state’s disposal. This in turn can further improve the relative balance of power of dissidents vis-á-vis states.

While support erosion is separated for analytical reasons here, in practice, this political action is often coupled with efforts at mobilization and internationalization. Messages designed to increase support for dissidents are likely to be paired with messages that are designed to damage support for the state. For example, Falun Gong activists have been active in seeking international and domestic support for their movement but have also actively highlighted human rights abuses against Falun Gong practitioners within China [33]. In this way, non-state dissidents can level the playing field with states by improving their own relative power while decreasing that of the state.

Since support erosion is closely linked to both mobilization and internationalization, the audiences for this political action can be domestic and transnational. By eroding domestic support for state policies or for the regime itself, dissidents can exert political pressure on the state and undermine overall regime stability. Likewise, the erosion of international support for a regime or its policies can further weaken regime legitimacy within the international community.

Internet and support erosion
The Internet’s ability to increase transparency and reduce transaction costs offers non-state dissidents considerable advantages in their efforts at support erosion. For non-state dissidents, the Internet can increase transparency by bringing to light the political realities within states. The power of transparency is particularly forceful for those dissidents in authoritarian regimes such as those in the Middle East where political information and internal media coverage is limited. Web sites and e-mails provide an outlet for dissidents to provide information about political improprieties and abuses that can effectively erode both domestic and international support. The reduced transaction costs associated with the Internet allow these messages to be highly visible and constantly updated. China’s Falun Gong activists have actively used the Internet, both through Web sites and through e-mail lists, as a forum to highlight political oppression within China [34].

Since support erosion is focused on denying and eliminating resources to the state, the messages and symbols associated with this political action are expected to be negative. For domestic populations, dissidents can use the aforementioned religious and political motifs to negatively portray the state. In the Middle East, one might expect dissidents to present regimes as un-Islamic. For the broader audience of the international community, support erosion is again likely to focus on broad international norms. Dissidents may therefore seek to erode international support for a state by accusing it of oppression or other human rights abuses.

Dynamic II: State goals and access constraint
Based on the above discussion, it may seem as though non-state dissident actors have the upper hand in attempting to equilibrate the relative balance of power between states and dissidents. Allowing dissident actors to accumulate power at the expense of state power is clearly not in the interest of ruling regimes. Dissidents capable of matching or exceeding the relative power of states stand as a direct threat to the rule of the regime. The objective of the state is therefore to limit efforts by non-state dissidents in equilibrating the balance of power between dissidents and states.

The state is not impotent when faced with dissident actors seeking to use the Internet for political action. Rather, states possess a myriad of tools to limit and constrain how dissidents are able to use the Internet to conduct mobilization, internationalization and support erosion. The successful use of the Internet for these three types of political action are based on the assumption that both users and audiences have access to the messages communicated via the Internet. States therefore can constrain the effectiveness of these political actions by limiting user and audience access to Internet technologies. States can limit Internet use by controlling the Internet infrastructure, by actively censoring Internet content or by a combination of the two. Though this paper presents state-imposed access constraints as the second component of its model, this does not imply that these potential constraints are temporally dependent upon dissident activities. In many cases, states’ efforts to control the Internet infrastructure pre-date dissident activities and are taken into account by dissident actors seeking to use the Internet for political action.

Infrastructure constraints
As noted earlier, the Internet relies on significant amounts of infrastructure. The need for a technological infrastructure means that states can impact the ability of dissidents to use the Internet by controlling this electronic infrastructure. This in turn constrains what is available for domestic actors and audiences to use. Since states exist as sovereign actors, they have ultimate control over the scope and scale of their domestic Internet infrastructure [35]. While the Internet may be perceived as a monolithic technological structure without geographical boundaries, this view is misguided. On the contrary, the Internet exists in states only through the approval of the ruling regime. Indeed, it is possible for governments to forego the possibility of an Internet infrastructure altogether. Myanmar provides an example of such an extreme case where the ruling junta banned the essential computer infrastructure needed for Internet access [36]. In less extreme cases, states can put physical limits on the Internet infrastructure by constraining the number of servers, hosts and Internet providers allowed domestically. In the Middle East, Syria has maintained a firm grip on the Internet infrastructure, slowly providing Internet access to government institutions while altogether preventing widespread public access to the technology [37].

State efforts to limit domestic Internet infrastructure negatively impact the ability of dissidents to use the Internet as a political tool. By controlling the scale and scope of the Internet infrastructure, states limit dissident access to the Internet while also limiting the access of domestic audiences. This most directly impacts the ability of dissidents to use the Internet as a tool for mobilization and for domestic support erosion because these two forms of political action rely on domestic access to the Internet for both users and audiences. This is not without costs for the state. A strategy of limiting Internet infrastructure likewise limits the beneficial impacts of the Internet, imposing opportunity costs on the ruling regime.

Government censorship
In addition to efforts to limit access to Internet infrastructure, states can likewise impact the political use of the Internet through censorship. Unlike infrastructure constraints which limit what is available to actors and audiences, censorship limits how dissidents can use Internet technologies. As sovereign actors, states have the authority to promulgate and enforce censorship regimes within their sovereign territory. States can censor Internet content through legal channels, through technological means or through a combination of the two.

States can impose legal limits on how users are able to use the Internet. Legal censorship can constrain what actors are able to view on or do through the Internet. States concerned about dissident activity can therefore make it illegal to disseminate or view such types of content on the Internet. States can practice explicit or implicit forms of legal censorship. Explicit censorship relies on standardized, written laws that express and define what Internet activities are illegal. In the Middle East, where information control is commonplace, written laws often curb the freedom of political expression, be it through the press or through the Internet. Tunisia in particular has enacted a wide range of Internet-specific legislation that limits any use of the Internet for political activity [38]. Implicit censorship is not formally written or promulgated, but exists as informally recognized "red lines" that cannot be crossed without punishment. In Jordan, criticism of the royal family is one such unwritten but widely recognized red line [39].

This legal approach to censorship may be backed up with a host of technological approaches. As noted earlier, Internet infrastructure exists within states only with the approval and oversight of the state. This allows the state to use technological tools such as proxy servers and state-controlled Internet service providers (ISPs) to filter and censor certain types of Internet activities. Proxy servers are special Internet servers that operate as a "middleman" between personal computers and the Internet. By serving in this function, proxy servers can limit which content actors are able to access via the Internet. States can use proxy servers as part of the domestic Internet infrastructure to filter out unwanted or illegal content on Web sites or in e-mails. Furthermore, proxy servers enable states to determine which computers attempted to access what Internet content. Proxy server technology therefore enables states to block messages and Web sites with dissident messages and to determine who is attempting to view such content. Within the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has used a system of proxy servers to filter out both pornographic Web sites and overtly political Web sites [40].

States can likewise censor Internet content via government-controlled ISPs. ISPs are companies that provide Internet access to domestic subscribers. With their sovereign authority, states can prevent private companies from providing Internet services, keeping Internet access in the hands of the government. Through government-controlled ISPs, states are able to limit what actors have Internet access and can likewise track the Internet use of subscribers. Dissident organizations or individuals can be denied Internet subscriptions, limiting their ability to use this technology. In Tunisia, a state agency, Agence Tunisienne d’Internet (ATI), maintains a master list of Internet subscribers, enabling the state to deny or shutdown Internet access for specific individuals or groups [41]. Government-controlled ISPs also provide an opportunity for state institutions to oversee how domestic actors are using the Internet: what Web sites they are viewing and what types of e-mail they are sending. Saudi Arabia’s ISP reportedly logs and warns users who attempt to access blocked political Web sites [42]. These ISPs therefore provide a technological way for the state to limit and monitor dissident content on the Internet.

In general, more authoritarian regimes are more likely to use these government tools to limit dissident activity on the Internet. In the Middle East, highly authoritarian regimes that view open information as inherently threatening and see the Internet as a tool for political dissent are likely to use the full repertoire of infrastructure limitations and censorship activities to limit online political activity. More open regimes are likely to recognize the potential benefits of the Internet, making these governments more likely to use censorship alone as a tool for limiting dissident activity on the Internet.

Dynamic III: Dissident adjustment
Faced with these challenges from the state, non-state dissident actors must either adjust to the constraints put on Internet use or must seek ways to circumvent the barriers erected by states. Based upon the above description, non-state dissident actors can adjust to state limitations in three ways: By adjusting the content of their messages, by adjusting technologically or by adjusting organizationally. Each of these three possible adjustments by dissident actors is a response to state efforts at Internet control.

Message adjustment
Message adjustment is an effort by non-state dissidents to change the content of their political messages. In the face of government censorship that actively limits and constrains the political content of dissident communication, dissidents can avoid politically charged messages that will most likely be censored and perhaps be punished by the state. In the short term, message adjustment is a victory for the state because it signals that dissidents cannot immediately overcome the censorship barriers erected by the state. In the long run, non-state dissidents may use this strategy of message adjustment as a strategy of delay. Rather than disband and cease dissident behavior altogether, message adjustment allows dissidents to keep their dissident organization intact and use the Internet to spread non-political information. This allows dissidents to preserve contact with their powerbase until the dissident actors are able to undertake more sophisticated responses to state barriers.

Technological adjustment
One such more sophisticated change can involve making technological adjustments to circumvent the many technological barriers erected by states that limit free Internet use. Non-state dissidents can use a host of technological tools to evade state efforts at controlling and overseeing Internet use. Messages can be encrypted so as to avoid government censors, and Web sites can use authentication processes to limit access to certain types of materials. Neither of these methods is foolproof as encryption and passwords can be broken. Even if states cannot break coded messages or gain access to password-protected areas, governments can still determine that an e-mail is encrypted or that Web sites require password authentication. Dissidents can also use anonymous electronic mailers or Internet anonymizers which allow users to send e-mails and browse the Internet anonymously, further limiting the censorship powers of the state. Dissidents can also resort to steganographic tools which can hide messages in seemingly harmless pieces of data such as pictures, allowing dissidents to communicate secretly through the Internet. The tradeoff associated with technological adjustment is that increasing technological complexity sacrifices a considerable amount of simplicity, limiting the initial reduction of transaction costs associated with the Internet.

Organizational adjustment
One final way that non-state dissidents can overcome state barriers to Internet use is by adjusting organizationally. Faced with centrally organized and bureaucratic state apparatuses, dissident actors can adjust organizationally, moving towards more networked forms of organization. These networked forms of organization offer dissident actors advantages over the hierarchical structure of states. The horizontal structures associated with networked organizations make it difficult for centrally organized states to counter dissident activities [43]. The networked structure of the Internet proves to be an important enabler in becoming increasingly networked. The international scope of the Internet allows dissident actors to network themselves at a transnational scale. This in turn allows dissident actors to conduct operations outside the sovereign territory of certain states. The organizational changes empowered by the Internet are particularly potent for dissidents because it allows these groups to operate transnationally and overcome the constraints of internal censorship and domestic infrastructure limitations.

Case studies
With this dynamic understanding of Internet-based dissidence in mind, it is now constructive to apply this model to case studies in an effort to test the model’s predictive and explanatory powers. This paper will examine case studies from Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In all three countries, the dissident actors examined are Islamist movements seeking domestic political reforms. These three countries were selected because they vary in regime style, ranging from the relatively moderate and open Jordanian regime to the more autocratic Saudi Arabian regime. This allows one to assess how the model of Internet-based dissidence plays out across varied regimes.

1. Jordan and the Muslim Brotherhood
This first case study examines the interaction between the comparatively moderate Jordanian regime and its political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Muslim Brotherhood does actively utilize its Internet presence for certain political goals, the Brotherhood’s official online activities appear to be constrained by the presence of informal censorship regulations. To overcome these regulations, the Brotherhood has spawned an unofficial Internet presence that allows the organization to operate covertly outside the control of government censorship.

Brief background
The Jordanian sect of the Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwan al-muslimoon) was founded in 1945 as a localized offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that had originated in Egypt [44]. As with its Egyptian counterpart, the Jordanian Brotherhood is an Islamist organization that seeks to promote Islamic ideals and practices through all aspects of life. The Jordanian regime originally supported the Brotherhood movement during its early years, viewing the organization as an important tool to legitimize the regime’s commitment to religious ideals. In 1953, the Jordanian regime legally recognized the Muslim Brotherhood as a political organization, allowing the Brotherhood to move beyond its grassroots campaigns to true political activism [45].

This political activism did not last long as the Jordanian regime dissolved all political parties in 1957. While it was banned from engaging in political activities, the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to continue its existence as a grassroots movement, partaking in programs that stressed education, charity and social activities [46]. The Brotherhood remained in this informal non-political capacity from 1957 until 1989 when King Hussein reinstated the Parliament and again allowed the formation of political parties.

Since 1989, the Muslim Brotherhood has acted primarily as a sort of loyal opposition group to the Jordanian regime. In the 1989 parliamentary elections, Brotherhood-supported candidates captured 22 out of 80 seats, [47] and the movement has consistently remained the largest bloc within the mostly symbolic Jordanian Parliament [48]. In 1992, the movement formed its own political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). While there is no official connection between the IAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, the former clearly operates as the political wing of the latter, allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to remain as an informal Islamic grassroots organization, thus avoiding political regulations [49].

The political activities and objectives of the Muslim Brotherhood are therefore twofold. First, in its grassroots capacity, the organization serves to call Jordanians to live a more Islamic way of life. The Brotherhood operates charity organizations, educational institutions and local NGOs within Jordan to further this goal [50]. Second, in its political capacity, the movement seeks to harmonize Jordanian policies with its Islamic ideology. To this end, the movement rejects the secularization of politics within Jordan, seeking instead, "the application of Islamic Sharia [sic] in all fields" [51]. In this political context, the Muslim Brotherhood’s goals are limited in nature. The movement has never sought to directly challenge the power of the state, opting instead for limited political reforms rather than total regime change [52]. To achieve these limited goals, the Muslim Brotherhood has rejected all forms of violence, opting instead to use peaceful forms of political pressure. The Internet has presented new opportunities for the Muslim Brotherhood to accomplish its political objectives. The following sections examine how the Jordanian case fits within the previously presented model of Internet-based dissidence.

Dynamic I: Dissident objectives, political action and the Internet

The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan began its first large-scale Internet activity in 1999 with the establishment of its Web site, http://www.ikhwanmuslimoon-jordan.org, which remained the official online voice of the Jordanian Brotherhood until July 2002, when the Web site changed its URL to http://www.ikhwan-jor.org. Though the Web site has undergone alterations to its appearance over the last three years, the fundamental underlying structure of the site has remained largely consistent [53].

The website, which is entirely in Arabic, provides both frequently updated components as well as more static pages that have changed little since 1999. The dynamic component of the Brotherhood’s Web site consists largely of what the organization terms "statements." These statements are officially released by the communications office of the Brotherhood and therefore represent the organization’s official view on subjects [54]. The Brotherhood prominently displays links to several of these statements on its homepage, updating these links every two weeks or so. A full archived list of statements is likewise provided from the homepage.

Based on an examination of these statements, they appear to fall into three distinct categories. The first type of statement provides basic information about the Brotherhood’s political activities. These statements are typically neutral in tone and simply provide updates about the Brotherhood’s political activities. In the past, the organization has used its Web site to highlight the success of Islamist student elections at Jordanian universities [55] and to publicize the winner of the Brotherhood’s own internal elections prior to the national parliamentary elections [56].

Second, the organization’s site provides statements about domestic issues within Jordan. These statements serve to critique the status of domestic policies within Jordan and to call for specific actions to rectify them. In this area, the Brotherhood has been most critical of the state’s quashing of any form of political protest. Many statements make frequent note of protests and demonstrations that the regime has put down, sometimes violently. The Brotherhood occasionally puts forth calls for action, but these calls are kept general in nature and never provide detailed information or instructions. For example, a statement released in July of 2000 affirms the right of anti-Israeli/pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Jordan and calls on Jordanians to continue exercising their lawful right to protest [57]. Unlike the informational statements, the domestic-focused statements often include Islamic rhetoric that characterizes Jordanian policies as un-Islamic. The Brotherhood presents its solutions to these domestic problems as viable and truly Islamic. When the Jordanian regime arrested and expelled members of the violent Palestinian group Hamas, the Brotherhood released a statement decrying the regime’s abandonment of the Islamic cause and asserting the Brotherhood’s support for the Palestinian group and its "Islamic" activities [58].

The final type of political statement focuses on foreign political issues. The vast majority of the Brotherhood’s statements fall into this category. In general, the focus of theses statements has been to attack "Zionist" policies and to show support for the Palestinian movement. Since the Web site’s debut, the Brotherhood has consistently demonstrated its support for the Palestinian cause and has issued statements calling for Arab governments, including Jordan, to more aggressively support the Palestinians. The rhetoric within these statements is Islamist in tone, criticizing Jordanian foreign policy, particularly its peace treaty with Israel, as un-Islamic. The Brotherhood presents its own views as appropriate Islamic alternatives to these secular policies. A statement released in 2000 during an Arab League Summit begins with a Qur'anic quote that warns of betraying Allah and then continues to demand that Jordan and the other Arab government reject the legitimacy of Israel and support violent Palestinian groups instead [59].

The Brotherhood’s static content is almost entirely informational. The organization provides a general history and a general political platform of the Muslim Brotherhood movement [60]. The Web site then provides a history of the movement within Jordan and presents the Brotherhood’s official position on Jordanian policies [61]. All of these informational components clearly present the Brotherhood as an Islamist organization committed to Islamic law and ideology.

In addition to this informational static content, the site also prominently displays links to several Palestinian organizations, to other Muslim Brotherhood wings and to Islamic da'awa organizations [62]. The movement also provides links to fatwas [63] from prominent Islamic scholars on questions of Islamic jurisprudence. These scholars fit within the organization’s anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian framework. For example, the Brotherhood links to fatwas that legitimize Palestinian bombings for the sake of "martyrdom" [64].



There is clear evidence that the Jordanian Brotherhood focuses its Internet activities towards gaining domestic support for its activities. The entirety of the organization’s Internet presence is in Arabic, indicating that its Web site is designed for local consumption. This mobilizational political activity involves both building a support base and calling for political action. As an Islamist organization, the Brotherhood focuses its recruitment efforts by using powerful religious and political motifs, such as the Palestinian issue. Its effort to paint itself as a truly Islamic organization that supports the Palestinian cause is clearly designed to generate support from likeminded individuals within Jordan. Beyond this recruitment component, the Brotherhood uses its Internet site to rally support for specific activities, most notably demonstrations and elections. While the Brotherhood steers clear of providing explicit instructions to its members, the fact that the Brotherhood’s Web site has implored supporters to demonstrate against Jordanian policies signifies that the organization seeks to use the Internet for more than simple recruitment. In addition, the organization has placed its party platform and candidate lists on its Web site in preparation for parliamentary elections. This focus on domestic mobilization fits the general modus operandi of the Brotherhood, as the organization has traditionally focused on mobilizing support through speeches, seminars and conferences within Jordan. Unlike speeches and conferences which can reach only limited audiences at limited times, the power of the Internet allows the Brotherhood to provide mobilizational material to all of its supporters around the clock.


There is little if any evidence that indicates that the Jordanian Brotherhood is seeking to use the Internet for internationalization efforts. Since the entirety of the Brotherhood’s Web site is presented in Arabic, the only international audience for their online material would be regional Arabic speakers. However, the domestic focus of the organization’s Web site activities indicates that the Brotherhood is not in fact seeking outside support. It appears that the only possible international audience for the organization’s message would be diaspora Jordanians. However, there is no evidence that any of the organization’s online material caters specifically to this audience. This lack of internationalization is not surprising given the Brotherhood’s political objectives which focus on achieving domestic changes from within Jordan.

Support erosion

The Brotherhood does seek to erode support of the Jordanian regime, but it does so in an interesting way. While there is some criticism of specific Jordanian policies and actions, the Brotherhood most often seeks to attack Israel and its "Zionist" policies. This is an indirect way of attacking the Jordanian regime, which is one of two Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is diametrically opposed to this relationship. By attacking Israel and its policies, the Brotherhood therefore seeks to criticize the Jordanian regime by association.

Dynamic II: State goals and access constraints

The Jordanian regime is one of the most progressive in the Middle East and operates as a constitutional monarchy [65]. In modern times, parliamentary elections have been allowed since 1989, though the parliament is largely symbolic in nature. The ruling Hashemite family holds the power within Jordan, and despite its moderate leanings, the regime closely guards its political power. While the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has been co-opted within the regime’s existing political structure as a loyal opposition party, the Brotherhood’s efforts to undermine the Jordan-Israel peace agreement and to create a more genuinely Islamic state are clearly potential threats to the stability of the Jordanian ruling regime.

Unlike many regimes in the region, the Jordanian government has actively sought more local Internet access and has been wary of imposing any sort of restrictions on its use. The state has been an active participant in expanding the scope and scale of the Internet infrastructure within Jordan [66]. While private ISPs rely on government-controlled communications infrastructure, the state has done nothing to filter out or limit Internet activities [67].

Despite this comparatively moderate view of the Internet, the Jordanian regime has typically maintained a certain level of control over information within the kingdom. In the past, the regime has censored newspapers and other published material that the state viewed as hostile to the regime. A press law within Jordan restricts any form of expression that "conflicts with the principles of freedom, national responsibility, human rights and values of the Arab and Islamic


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