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The BBC's Frank Gardner
"By the time they are eight, they will be surfing the internet."
 real 28k

Monday, 13 March, 2000, 12:23 GMT
Internet addiction strikes Egypt
Getting addicted: Three year old Egyptians
Egyptian children start their computer training as early as three
By Frank Gardner in Cairo

Egypt has been hosting a major international forum for the Internet.

It is the first time such a large event has been held to discuss the internet in the Middle East or Africa.

Fewer than 1% of Egypt's 64 million population are online yet the country has one of the fastest growth rates of internet users in the region.

Online translation possible from English into Arabic
Online translation possible from English into Arabic
It is a trend the Egyptian Government here is backing all the way.

At Egypt's first major internet forum this month, the Minister for Information Technology, Dr. Ahmad Nazif, said his country had a pioneering role in the industry.

"As ancient Egyptians inscribed their vast knowledge on the walls of temples and tombs their descendants in recent history have made Egypt the intellectual capital of the Arab speaking world," Dr Nazif explains

"Today we see Egypt as the main provider of Arabic content in literature and in arts, in science and in business, in the media and in the internet."

Friend or foe

Yet the internet has been both friend and foe to Arab governments.

Arab countries and the internet
Around 1% of Arabs use the internet
12m users expected by 2002
Greatest use of internet in Saudi Arabia
On the one hand, it is stimulating business and educating their people. On the other, it is allowing ordinary citizens to circumvent government censorship.

On the streets of Cairo and other cities, popular internet cafes are now a common sight.

Computer-literate Egyptians can e-mail each other with their views on life, love and current affairs.

Illiteracy question

But nearly half of the population is illiterate. Most of those who can read cannot afford a computer.

And then there is the problem of language. The internet was never designed for Arabic-speaking users.

Internet cafes: Popular in Cairo
Internet cafes: Popular in Cairo
However, an Egyptian company is about to launch a product which could move millions of Arabs online.

Achraf Chalabi, the chief designer at Sakhr Software, is about to see 15 years of research come to fruition.

"We perceived a huge demand in the Arab world for an automatic programme that translates automatically from English into Arabic,"

"This is why three years ago we started developing our machine translation programme that has been used later on to develop the first of its kind service on the internet for online translation for any internet page from English to Arabic."

Such a service is bound to break down the barriers between the Middle East and the rest of the world.

'Islam Online'

It will also help Islamic websites like the Cairo-based 'Islam Online', which offers an Islamic view of politics, economics and even entertainment.

We must warn the people from bad [pornographic] sites. But it is not enough, we must give them the alternative

Hossam Eddin, Islam Online
Hossam Eddin Hassan is one of Islam Online's developers.

He believes good Muslims must be shielded from the pornography that is available on the internet, and steered towards more wholesome websites.

"We must warn the people from these bad sites. But it is not enough, we must give them the alternative," he says.

"We must teach them how to use the internet as informative media. We have to deal with their needs. We must fulfil their needs."

"Especially the youth they have a very important interests."

Love on the net

To the alarm of devout Muslims, some young Egyptians are already flirting and dating on the internet.

For some, this new found freedom has been a mixed blessing. Menal Aly is one of those who met her fiancÚ through cyberspace.

Menal Aly: Chose internet over fiance
Menal Aly: Forced to choose between internet and fiance
However, soon after they met up in person, her addictive love of the internet cost her engagement.

"We loved each other very much, except the problem of chatting on the internet," she says.

"He asked me to stop chatting on the internet because he was jealous and the jealousy developed into lack of confidence. He made clear later I have to stop chatting with other men. I couldn't stop. I couldn't stop, so we broke up."

Menal's sad story shows that not all of Egyptian society is yet ready for the fast-moving world of the Internet.

As it spreads through the country, it also risks creating a new division. Those who are online are being drawn closer to the rest of the world.

However, those not connected are being left ever further behind.
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13 Mar 00 | Middle East
Qatar aims for online government
30 Oct 99 | Middle East
Dubai launches cybercity
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