Those who see the Internet as a tool for democratic change, as a force to shake hidebound governments and raise the consciousness of the masses, should not look over the shoulder of Walid Ibrahim.

The young Egyptian soldier, browsing the World Wide Web recently at one of Cairo's numerous Internet cafes, was not hunting information censored from the Egyptian press or lurking in the dark corners of cyberspace where militant organizations such as the outlawed Islamic Group display their manifestoes.

Ibrahim was browsing movie ads--"Hope Floats" held a particular interest. Like many Web surfers in Arab and Middle Eastern countries, he seemed more attuned to the pop culture side of the Internet than to its potential as a tool for democratic transformation.

"I just like to see the new stuff," said Ibrahim. "I look to see what movies are out."

In a part of the world where information politics often have erred on the side of suppression, the 1990s have forced governments into some hard reckoning over the global explosion of cell phones and satellite dishes and other ways of swapping data, be it hard fact, fanciful rhetoric or Ibrahim's brand of fun.

The policies that have been adopted often have said much about the government in question: In Syria, which has one of the region's more suspicious bureaucracies, cell phones are not available, while in Egypt, growth in their use is so rapid it taxes the ability of competing phone companies to cope. In Iran, cell phone service is available, but the government turned off the transmitter for several days during the recent student protests in Tehran.

Now comes the Internet, which has crept more slowly into the Arab world than elsewhere but has nonetheless presented policymakers with a dilemma. They must decide whether to embrace its potential for linking people with one another and with the world's vast stores of online knowledge--not to mention movie ads--or to block that possibility with cybercensorship.

It is an issue that has produced an explosion of laissez-faire energy in some countries--Egypt has an estimated 55 licensed Internet service providers--and a backlash of restrictions in other nations, where the whole thing is seen as a tool of Western cultural domination, local political unrest, or both.

In some places, the Internet has noticeably eased the flow of information. Articles that Egyptian authorities censored from some newspapers, for example, are often available on newspaper Web sites, as are the full texts of laws being considered in the parliament. In other places, such as Saudi Arabia, it has left governments scrambling to develop censorship tools, or, in the case of Iraq, feeling left out because phone lines are not up to Internet standards.

"I am afraid to say that your understanding that Iraq has no connection to the Internet was correct" because of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and U.N. sanctions, the former Iraqi U.N. ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, wrote to representatives of Human Rights Watch in response to a study the organization recently conducted on Internet use in the Middle East.

The organization found a small but steadily growing Internet audience in the region. Only about 1 million people are online in the Middle East, the group estimated, and with the exception of Israel at nearly 11 percent, no country has more than 5 percent of its population connected.

Because service is expensive and computers are beyond the budgets of most citizens, countries such as Egypt and Jordan have not felt it necessary to regulate the Internet with the same vigor they do local journalists and publications.

Despite its potential as a political tool--dissident groups in Morocco and Algeria have found the Web to be an open forum for their views, for example--Human Rights Watch concluded that too few people are online in the Middle East and that governments interfere too much for the Internet's full impact to be felt.

Government censors have been busy. Iran allows Internet access, but blocks Web sites dealing in themes considered un-Islamic, or challenging to the revolutionary government. Amnesty International's Web site is blocked in Tunisia, the group reported, but there is a look-alike site with lots of flattering information about the country's human rights record. Saudi Arabia, a tradition-bound monarchy with conservative religious mores, this year began allowing public access through a government computer. But, as in Iran, incoming information is filtered through a "blacklist."

"The major category is pornography," said Fahad Hoymany, director of the Saudi Internet program, although Human Rights Watch reported that sites critical of the country's royal family are also blocked.

As Hoymany and other Internet regulators in the region acknowledge, their efforts to control the new technology will never be fully effective. For those who can afford it, a long-distance phone call to a provider outside the country is one route around local censors. Anti-censorship software, meanwhile can be used to keep some Web sites accessible, while encryption programs and other strategies can keep government snoops from intercepting e-mail.

According to one Cairo-based Internet provider who has helped Persian Gulf countries configure their systems, some pornography services target different areas, including the gulf region, with Web sites that escape detection because they look like unobjectionable mail-order businesses. Customers can subscribe online, "and they send you anything you want by e-mail," said Samar Gamal, a vice president of Link Egypt, a top Cairo provider that aspires to become active regionally.

Middle East Connections

The Middle East is lagging far behind other regions in terms of Internet connections.

Estimated number of people with Internet access:

Israel*

January '98 600,000

July '97 300,000

Egypt**

January '98 130,000

United Arab Emirates

January '98 88,552

July '97 45,150

Bahrain/S. Arabia

January '98 46,538

July '97 38,480

Lebanon

January '98 43,828

July '97 35,520

Kuwait

January '98 42,350

July '97 29,600

Oman

January '98 20,888

July '97 11,425

Jordan

January '98 20,213

July '97 11,840

Qatar

January '98 17,295

July '97 8,265

Percentage of people with Internet access:

Israel 10.8%

Qatar 3.10

United Arab Emirates 2.99

Kuwait 2.15

Lebanon 1.14

All others less than 1%

Estimated number of people with Internet access as of May 1999 by region:

World total 165 million

U.S. and Canada 90.63

Europe 40.09

Asia/Pacific 26.97

South America 5.29

Africa 1.14

Middle East 0.88

* Data for Israel refers to January 1999 and May 1998

** 1997 data for Egypt not available

NOTES: No Internet service available in Libya, Iraq and Syria. Percentage of Internet users in countries whose rate is not listed is below 1 percent.

SOURCES: Human Rights Watch, Link Egypt