Empowering Publics: Information Technology and Democratization in the Arab World-Lessons from Internet Cafe's and Beyond
17 Pages Posted: 1 Dec 2008 Last revised: 26 Aug 2012
Date Written: July 1, 2006
With the increasing diffusion of the Internet, especially in authoritarian societies, scholars have sought to identify this technology's effects on politics at the grass roots. By analyzing newly collected ethnographic data on the meanings of the Internet for everyday people and politics in the Arab World, this paper questions whether or not we are likely to see a shift towards enhanced civic engagement and demands on the state in the region as more and more citizens become Internet users. The data analyzed for this article were collected during 5 months of Internet cafe research in Jordan and Egypt during January-May 2004.
The goal of this study was to uncover whether or not the Internet was an important part of everyday life for the average, or below average, citizen in the Arab World. Also key in the study was to identify the ways in which the Internet mattered to their lives. Those interviewed were not prompted to think of the Internet as a political tool. Rather, they were asked, in an open-ended fashion, to narrate 'How and if the Internet had changed their lives?' The answers to this question, and 49 others, provided a rich canvas against which to understand the draw of the lower and middle classes to the technology. Together, their responses tended to coalesce around one of three main themes in terms of the Internet's relevance to their lives:
(i) Boundary-crossing and the politics of gender (ii) Developing political consciousness and broadening horizons (iii) Enhancing life chances and personal skills
After a brief introduction and an overview of Internet diffusion in the Arab world, each of these themes, and a selection of the narrative samples which created them, is examined below. The larger survey is part of a book-length study of the meaning and implication of the information society in the Arab World.
Keywords: internet, politics, grass roots, ethnography, arab world, civic engagement, internet users, everyday life, gender, information society
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