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In the Gulf, Dissidence Goes Digital

Text Messaging Is New Tool Of Political Underground

By Steve Coll
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; Page A01

KUWAIT CITY -- Rola Dashti's cell phone buzzed on the heady evening of March 7, hours after she had helped lead the largest demonstration for women's voting rights in Kuwait's history, a clamorous protest that ended when hundreds of activists were expelled from parliament for shouting from the gallery.

She pressed her phone's text message button and read an anonymous insult circulating on hundreds of Kuwaiti phones, digital graffiti that attacked her family's Persian ancestry and disparaged her Lebanese-born mother. "Here's what voters will gain if they vote for Rola Dashti," the text message read, as she recalled it. "They will learn the Iranian accent. They will learn a Lebanese accent. And they will learn how to work with the American Embassy to get money."

Women demonstrate for voting rights outside parliament in Kuwait City. It was the biggest such rally in the country's history, thanks in part to text messaging. (Gustavo Ferrari -- AP)

In this roiling political spring of protest and debate about democracy in repressive Arab countries, cell phone text messaging has become a powerful underground channel of free and often impolite speech, especially in the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies, where mobile phones are common but candid public talk about politics is not.

Demonstrators use text messaging to mobilize followers, dodge authorities and swarm quickly to protest sites. Candidates organizing for the region's limited elections use text services to call supporters to the polls or slyly circulate candidate slates in countries that supposedly ban political groupings. And through it all, anonymous activists blast their adversaries with thousands of jokes, insults and political limericks.

"It means I'm making them nervous," Dashti said of the lambasting she received. "I'm on their list," she said, referring to Kuwait's conservative Islamic activists, "and I'd better get used to it so I'm not shocked when it happens during the election." Dashti hopes to run for office if the long campaign for women's suffrage in Kuwait succeeds, as many participants expect it will when the elected National Assembly formally considers the issue, perhaps as soon as April.

At about 40 cents per missive, text messaging can be an expensive way to mobilize the masses, but the Gulf countries are lightly populated and afloat on record oil revenue. With political debate at a fever pitch this year, many of the region's well-heeled activists find it hard to resist the chance to compose their own uncensored statements and deliver their political wisdom to targeted audiences.

"My bill is going sky high," said Abduljalil Singace, foreign affairs director of Bahrain's Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the island emirate's largest opposition grouping, a Shiite Muslim movement that is noisily boycotting the country's three-year-old, limited parliament.

Singace was fired as an associate professor and department chair at Bahrain University in mid-March after he traveled twice to Washington to lobby against his country's royal government, a close U.S. ally. He said Bahrain's security services also told him to stop sending dissident text messages. The Bahrain government says Singace was discharged for neglecting his duties at the university.

"They warned me against text messaging on demonstrations," Singace said. Before the warning, he said, "I was not sure they were reading my text messages. Now I'm telling everyone."

Still, he remains proud of some of his compositions. When American management consultants issued a report recently about how Bahrain's government could accelerate reform of its free-trading economy, Singace whipped off a reply and paid a commercial service to distribute his message throughout the island.

"Economic reform without political reform is like a bird with only one wing," he wrote. "How can it fly?"

Text messaging is only the latest in a wave of border-hopping communication technologies to rewire patterns of Arab dissent during the past 15 years. Saudi exiles and Islamic activists waged an underground war of faxed pamphlets during the early and mid-1990s. Satellite television channels transformed the images and ideas available to Arab viewers during the same period. More recently, CDs, DVDs and the World Wide Web have dominated underground political publishing in the Gulf.

As each new technology has spread, the region's authoritarian governments have tried to fight back. They have sent censors to license fax machines and block dissident Web sites, and they have pushed government-friendly investors to buy and manage satellite channels. But the Gulf's monarchies have not yet figured out whether or how to control text message channels.

If they do, they will sorely disappoint the region's profit-engorged cell phone companies, whose stock prices have soared as phone and messaging use has exploded. About 55 percent of Kuwaitis and a third of Saudis now own cell phones, according to mobile service providers, and growth rates show no sign of slacking.

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