In a speech today (full transcript in Arabic here), Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi addressed the Tunisian people. Amira al Hussaini noticed–and translated–a bit of the speech dealing with the Internet:
This Internet, which any demented person, any drunk can get drunk and write in, do you believe it? The Internet is like a vacuum cleaner, it can suck anything. Any useless person; any liar; any drunkard; anyone under the influence; anyone high on drugs; can talk on the Internet, and you read what he writes and you believe it. This is talk which is for free. Shall we become the victims of “Facebook” and “Kleenex” and “YouTube”! Shall we become victims to tools they created so that they can laugh at our moods? We decide our destiny, based on facts and our needs. Besides, this is not the era of blood, of smoke, of burning, of knives and axes; this is the era of the people, and supposedly the era of democracy. Everything is by election and referendum, ie, through the people’s direct authority, which is the people’s direct democracy, and not through rumours, and Facebook, and YouTube, and the Kleenex and the cables of American Ambassadors. This world wide web Internet is laughing at us and damaging our countries; it is tearing up our clothes; and killing our children for it.
All Qaddafi jokes aside (and there are plenty of them), Qaddafi has essentially insulted the Tunisians and discredited their very real use of the Internet during the recent uprising. Now, I realize that I’ve spent the past two days doing some discrediting myself, of mostly Western journalists who were all too quick to dub the Tunisian revolution as an “Internet” (or Twitter, or Facebook, or WikiLeaks) revolution. But, as I’ve said, that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the very real role the technology played in getting news out of Tunisia and into the mainstream.
Of course it’s worth noting–in case any of my readers aren’t aware, and I would find that hard to imagine–Qaddafi is a regional joke. Nevertheless, we’re talking about a region that is very concerned with its citizens’ use of the Internet. Counting Tunisia, there are only three countries remaining in the Arab world that don’t filter the Internet (the other two are Lebanon and Egypt), and all three have a record of arresting bloggers. The rest of the region ranges from pervasive filtering–Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Syria–to less pervasive filtering with a dose of blogger crackdowns on the side (Morocco, Jordan). Most of the countries in the region have a blogger currently in jail. There is evidence of several using the Internet–in legal or illegal ways–to glean information on its citizens (phishing attempts in Tunisia and Lebanon, surveillance in Syria and Morocco).
So, while Qaddafi may not be taken seriously, any overtures he makes toward the Internet’s dangers could be well-taken by regional leaders. As we’ve seen with Tunisia (and Iran), this matters…and it doesn’t. Tunisians were operating under a strictly censored Internet, and yet still managed to disseminate information across a variety of social networks. On the other hand, any stakes a government can drive through its net-enabled civil society, it will.
Also worth noting (as pointed out to me by Amira) is Qaddafi’s prior support of WikiLeaks (which he now refers to as “Kleenex”*) and Julian Assange. Qaddafi referred to WikiLeaks as playing a “very useful” role in exposing American “hypocrisy and conspiracies”, stating that he was “for freedom and against curbing the voices and ideas.”
This time around, however, it seems that perhaps Qaddafi sees Tunisian Internet usage during the uprising as an American conspiracy (which I would state very strongly, it is not – such a suggestion is offensive to the large and longstanding Tunisian blogging and social media community).
*Others report hearing “Leakyleaks”; either way, he–maybe intentionally–mispronounced it.