Libyans hope their revolution will also be tweeted
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Opposition to Muammar Gaddafi was inconceivable in Libya for four decades. But that was before the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings embraced the power of the Internet. Now Libyans are hoping their revolution will also be tweeted.
It started in Tunisia, Libya’s western neighbour, before going on to engulf Egypt, Libya’s eastern neighbour. Now the region’s most oppressed, hermetically sealed nation has caught the fever of Internet-driven dissent, as young Libyans are embracing the power of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and online Arabic rap to voice unprecedented opposition to the regime.
Ever since Colonel Muammar Gaddafi seized power in a 1969 coup, the international community has had little access to independent reports from the North African nation, which has endured prolonged periods of international isolation during Gaddafi’s quixotic, unfailingly autocratic 42-year reign.
But this week, the video-sharing Web site YouTube was inundated by amateur footage of violent anti-government protests that rocked the second-largest city of Benghazi Tuesday.
The footage was picked up by major international news organisations and a multitude of Twitter users and Facebook pages as Libyan opposition groups prepared for Thursday’s “Day of Rage”.
The call for Thursday’s protests came on a Facebook page set up on January 28 – three days after protests broke out in Egypt – to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of a Libyan teenager, shot by a policeman in Benghazi.
Titled “Feb. 17, 2011: Day of Rage in Libya” in Arabic, the Facebook page was launched by Swiss-based Libyan dissident Hassan Al Djahmi and has clocked more than 14,000 fans at last count.
“The Internet has played a very important role in sparking dissent in Libya,” said Guma el-Gamaty, a London-based Libyan writer. “In the last two months, the rate of people – mostly young people – joining Facebook groups and signing on to Twitter has increased hundredfold. There are tens of thousands of people connecting with each other, talking with each other and coordinating on Twitter. Some of them are outside Libya, but most are inside Libya.”
Telecom giants headed by Gaddafi’s son
Like many countries in the region, Libya has a large young population, with 33 percent of the country’s 6.5 million people under the age of 14. Unlike Egypt, an impoverished Arab nation with an 80-million-strong population, Libya’s relatively small population and rich oil reserves have ensured higher living standards and low food prices.
Businessmen and the odd tourists who visit Libya say the capital of Tripoli and the port city of Benghazi have a number of cyber cafes, frequented by mostly young people in a country with a 30 percent unemployment rate.
But Internet penetration is not very high in Libya due to the lack of infrastructure, says el-Gamaty.
Under a quixotic ideological mix of socialism and Islam known as “Jamahiriya,” the bulk of the country’s infrastructure and assets are nationalized and controlled by a clique of Gaddafi cronies in the highly centralized economy.
The chairman of Libya’s two state-owned telecom companies – Libyana and Al Madar, which provide mobile phone and Internet services – is Mohammed Muammar Al Gaddafi, the eldest son of the longstanding Libyan leader.
Twitter to the rescue
Internet access is tightly controlled in Libya, according to Mojahed Bossisy, a Qatar-based Libyan journalist. “Three months ago, they blocked access to YouTube and access to Facebook has been cut before. We’re all expecting Internet access to be cut in the next few days,” said Bossisy.
It happened in Iran in 2009 – when access to social networking sites was blocked following a flawed election – and in Egypt, where Internet access was cut across the country during the peak of the uprisings.
Now Twitter is geared with an arsenal of online censorship evasion tools.
A day before the Libyan ‘Day of Rage’ the microblogging site was inundated by tweets providing Libyans with a plethora of online tools to skirt censorship bids.
“dear friends in #Algeria, #Bahrain, #Yemen, #Iran, #Libya, #Morocco: use TOR to bypass censorship, stay anonymous http://torproject.org,” tweeted @Ramy Raoof, an Egyptian digital activist.
“IF internet is slow/down call in reports, we will translate and distribute +16504194196 +442033184514,” tweeted @BaghdadBrian.
“Work arounds for Egyptian Gov Web shut off http://bit.ly/f4wxR3 Work for U too, ” tweeted @Geraldanthro, a self-described cyber-warrior.
Rap to the rescue
Libyan dissident sites are not a new phenomenon. The web site, Khalas! – which means enough in Arabic – was launched by Libyan exiles in the US in 2009, in response to Gaddafi’s first speech to the UN General Assembly, a rambling discourse that famously wore out professional UN translators.
The site’s goal is to increase awareness of Libya’s dictatorial regime in the Arabic- and English-speaking world.
One of the most effective awareness-raising tools on the Khalas! site has been a compilation of hip-hop music from across the Arab world, which features artists such as Algeria’s Lotfi Double Kanon and a Libyan rapper who goes by the name, Ibn Thabit.
In a single titled, Al-So-aal – The Question, in Arabic – Ibn Thabit asks if the Tunisian uprising can be duplicated in Libya.
Few believe that an uprising in Libya would be easy. El-Gamaty lists the difficulties: “There is no organized, recognized opposition because the regime has a zero-tolerance policy. There are no civil society institutions, no trade unions, no freedom of expression, no free press, no dissent allowed.”
But there are also many factors that make Libya ripe for a revolt: an overwhelmingly young population, high unemployment, rampant corruption within the ruling regime, poor healthcare and widespread resentment.
El-Gamaty is one of many Libyan dissidents who concede that a revolution may be difficult, but not impossible.
As Libyan rapper Ibn Thabit answers in his song, Al-So-aal, “There are many reasons why Libyans should stand up. It may not be next week, it may not be the week after that, but it will happen. One day, it will happen.”