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Qadafi, the Internet and Progress in the "Happy Great" Jamihiriya!

It became rather fashionable to hear lately that the so-called leader has fallen in love with the Internet. Not only is the Libyan regime hailing the Internet as a sign of progress, but it is also successfully exerting "revolutionary" control over the Libyan web and its use. Sirte has taken care to prevent this incredible technology from becoming political quicksand. But a victory over cyberspace will not be as easy as the colonel may wish it to be.

It will be some time, however, before the Internet becomes a political threat to the Libyan ruling tribe. In the near term, the Internet may in fact strengthen its dirty hands. The regime's popularity (both inside and outside Libya) now so depends on giving an impression of openness that its leader(s) are safer with the Internet than without it. Qadafi's strategy of managing the Internet risks and harnessing its potential will appear to be effective on the short term. It is rather ironic that dictators are always the first to employ any new technology to increase and prolong their power of control and oppression.

Although the Libyan regime recognizes and tries to manage the risks associated with the web, officials close to Qadafi believe that an adequately controlled network will serve first and foremost the interests of the central government. Such control is likely to take shape through heavy regulation, physical force and intimidation. Sheer force, like that applied to other media sectors, will both induce self-policing and back up the regime's pacification strategy, or "liquidation" to use a suitable "revolutionary jargon", for those who openly challenge or dare to criticize the leader's policies or designs. Security forces are actively expanding and honing their high-tech capabilities. Computer "supervision and monitoring units" are preparing to keep records of all subscribers' names, account numbers, and the phone numbers from which they dialed into the Internet. Security forces are planning to keep the lid on local cyber activities and are likely to engage in cyber warfare finding undesirable page targets abroad.

To a large degree, Qadafi's government cannot direct how willful Libyan surfers use the Internet. Routine road checkpoints on geographic space are easier to manage and terrorize the populace. Digital flow of information, on the other hand, is hard to block. After all, the Internet was devised by the Pentagon during the so-called Cold War to survive a nuclear holocaust! With more than four million sites and two billion web pages, cyber crackdown on any potential "subversive" site will consume a lot of energy and hard currency. Furthermore, any additional steps Qadafi makes to control content would dampen the very commercial benefits and foreign investments he is trying desperately to court. Forbidden access to web sites outside Libya would sharply reduce it's ability to utilize the global information market and capital flows.

These days, as the Libyan economy struggles and the political regime remains intact, the lack of aggressive control over the Internet does not pose any critical threats. So far, the small number of web surfers does not seek to make use of its subversive potential. But that potential exists nonetheless. Qadafi and his ruling elite are giving only lip service to the creation and expansion of the net. Compared to Egypt in the east and Tunisia in the west, the Libyan cyber infrastructure is a joke! Only one in ten Libyans has access to a working phone line and the penetration of computer and information technology has been very low. The so-called General Posts and Telecommunications Company operates a dial-up and leased line Internet hub in Tripoli which is connected by no more than 2 Mbps international link to Teleglobe in Canada. Public access Internet facilities are not yet available in many other Libyan cities.

In contrast, Egypt's Internet market is the largest in Africa after South Africa. The Information and Decision Support Center, a special arm of the Egyptian Cabinet, began offering free Internet access to business, government agencies, NGOs, universities and other professionals. The international connection is made through dual 2.048 Mbps links to two top-level providers in the US: MCI WorldCom and Global One. The Egyptians are making use of the new lower-cost asymmetric satellite-based Internet services that have become available through a 3 Mbps connection bursting to 8 Mbps via US supplier, Interpacket. Domestically, Egypt Telecom manages a data network line with multiplexer switches. It provides a high-speed distribution of more than 50 exchanges in Cairo alone while users outside Cairo employ the digital network of Egypt Telecom. In 1998, Egypt Telecom made an agreement with Digitcom of California to establish Internet voice telephony link between the US and Egypt. Users are estimated to grow into millions by the end of this decade.

Tunisia on the other hand has rapidly adopted the use of the Internet. The Agence Tunisienne Internet (ATI) was established in 1996 to manage web services in the country. ATI does not provide access to the end user but operates the international gateway and national backbone for the various suppliers who manage Internet access for the private and public sectors. It operates PoPs in seven towns across Tunisia via 1 Mbps of international connectivity via Sprint to the US and 8 Mbps via Telecom Italia. Two ISPs, Planet and 3S Global Net, provide Internet access via a local call throughout the whole country. A nationwide frame relay and ATM service is being implemented. Furthermore, a national commission for electronic commerce and EDI was created in November 1997 to plan the infrastructure for electronic commerce. Six pilot projects ere launched in May 1999 showcasing a set of virtual stores offering a wide array of Tunisian products, such as crafts, goods, clothing, foodstuffs, tourism packages and hotel reservations.

Of course, the Internet cannot create rebellious social or political forces, but it can nurture and empower those that rise up against tyranny and exploitation. Will it help in the Libyan case? Will cyber cafes help loosen the ugly grip of Libya's dictatorship and fascism? And will the democratic forces attempt to use it to further political, economic, social and cultural reform and enlightenment? Only time would tell.

Abdelrahim Saleh

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