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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 September, 2003, 09:22 GMT 10:22 UK
Egyptians tackle taboos through net
Cairo street
Egypt's streets are now packed with cyber cafes
The massive boom in internet use in Egypt has been hailed by both business and government, but looks set to have far-reaching repercussions on the country's society.

Despite having been officially in a state of emergency for 22 years, with restrictions on press freedom and public gatherings, Egypt has rapidly been emerging as the home of one of the most open internet cultures in the Middle East.

Some 2.5 million Egyptians are registered as online users, with many more crowding the cyber cafes that are springing up throughout the country's cities.

Some estimate that Egypt's unofficial pool of internet users has now grown to about six million.

"Fifty-one percent of our population is less than 20-years-old, so by default this is the internet generation," Egypt's former information technology minister Dr Rafart Radwan told BBC World Service's Analysis programme.

"Those kids are becoming internet maniacs. They need to sit by the internet most of the time," said the minister, who first pioneered internet use in Egypt eight years ago.

"Looking at my kids, looking at the internet cafes, looking to kids' clubs right now, I believe the internet is going to reshape the Egyptian economy in the next five years."

Social changes

The positive impact on Egypt's economy is already being felt in some areas, with business leaders saying the country is in a great position to attract foreign investors.

Advert for the film Girl's Secrets in Luxor, AP
The net is promoting debate over what is acceptable and what is not
The boom is the result of a massive government effort towards expanding the internet. It has provided free access, made computers cheaper to buy, installed them in every school and given encouragement to private internet providers.

But the web is also changing Egyptians' personal lives, putting pressure on traditional social and political boundaries.

The most widely read section of one of the most popular sites, Islam Online, is a problem page which allows Egyptians and others in the Arab world to seek advice in the public arena.

"We have adolescent problems, pre- and post-marital problems, psychological problems, sexual problems," said Ahmad, the co-founder of Islam Online who runs the problem page.

"This page is shocking for the first time, because we still have stigma.

"If you have a social or sexual problem, professionally or privately you can go to the sheikh or the psychiatrist. But on a collective level, for all audiences and all users to see the problem and the answer, is something new."

Ahmad added that he receives about 400 e-mails every week, in which people talk frankly about issues such as homosexuality, impotence and divorce.

But these new cyberspaces are throwing up fresh problems for Muslims.

"There is a debate amongst Islamic scholars. Should they prevent or should they allow relations on the internet?," Ahmad said.

"It is a complex, new situation.

"We have a rule that a man and woman shouldn't stay alone together in a closed space. So is the internet a closed space? Is it private or public? This is one of the main questions."

Islamist groups

It is not just Egypt's sexual boundaries that are being pushed back either. Political groups are also benefiting from the ability to give unrestricted information to the country's population.

Cairo University
The internet is still used by what we call above-standard Egyptians
Dr Rafart Radwan, former information technology minister
Opposition groups who have had publications closed and activities restricted are finding a new freedom of expression online.

The banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's main opposition, is among these.

"The internet is very important, especially as the government has no control over who informs a person," said the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood website.

"The government is not happy."

But Dr Radwan, who now heads the cabinet advisory body on the internet, said that though the presence of all kinds of Islamist groups online is outstripping others, he felt the internet was not going to radicalise many users.

"The internet is still used by what we call above-standard Egyptians," he said.

"The Islamic movement in Egypt is highly tied to the economic situation."

Internet police

But some Egyptians argue that internet access is not as free as it would seem.

"It's clear now that there is a specialised unit, an internet police, in Egypt," said Gamal Aieed, human rights lawyer based in Cairo.

Men accused of homosexuality in Egypt, AP
Homosexuality is at the heart of the debate on internet use
He said that Egypt's police had a way of "handling" internet cafes.

"The police officer who is in charge of the area in which the cafe is operating usually acquires from the cafe managers photocopied IDs from the users.

"They also identify certain pages that are surfed that related to certain political issues, religious issues, as well as sexual issues, especially homosexual sites."

Many in Egypt's close-knit gay community believe it was their use of the internet that caused the authorities to clamp down.

One gay man, Mohammed, alleged that he arranged to meet a "foreign tourist" over the internet, but when he turned up he was instead met by a number of policemen, who assaulted him before imprisoning him for 15 days.

Having committed to the internet and the prosperity it brings, Egypt's main challenge will be to deal with the cultural and social impact on a generation.




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