The ruling regime in the UAE employs digital authoritarianism on social media, placing severe restrictions on its use by citizens and expatriates to the state in its gross violations of public freedoms.
An AFP report highlighted the rise of digital authoritarianism throughout the Arab world, with some governments banning social media applications including WhatsApp, especially free access.
The report said the UAE bans online calls without a proxy server, while messages deemed offensive have led to prison sentences for some UAE users.
From organizing and mobilizing mass protests in Baghdad and Beirut to coordinating relief missions in the bloody conflict in Syria, WhatsApp messaging and communications has become an indispensable tool for millions of people across the Arab world.
In Lebanon, where communications are expensive, citizens are increasingly relying on WhatsApp for free calls.
When the government decided to impose a charge on these contacts on October 17, popular protests erupted to an unprecedented level.
More than a week after the protests, the protesters reject the term “WhatsApp revolution,” arguing that it detracts from their demands for radical political change.
But they acknowledge that this technology is an indispensable tool in mobilizing protest rallies that have attracted hundreds of thousands of people of about six million.
Yasmin Rifai, 24, one of the organizers of the protests in Tripoli in northern Lebanon, said that WhatsApp is working in virtual form as a tool to support the “revolution behind the scenes.”
“We are connected to all whatsapp groups … Lebanon is a small country and everyone knows someone else in another city,” said the young woman who works for a local NGO. We reach people in the form of transient religions and places. ”
Across the border in Syria, WhatsApp could make a difference between life and death.
Mustafa al-Haj Younis, who heads a group of first responders in Idlib province, said civilians were using chat groups to seek help from relief teams. “We coordinate through these groups when our services are needed,” he said.
WhatsApp is particularly useful because of weak telecommunications infrastructure in opposition-controlled areas.
“People can communicate with us only through WhatsApp or our mobile phones,” Yunus said.
Like the UAE, authorities in Morocco have banned VoIP technology since 2016.
A 26-year-old Moroccan journalist relying on the application to contact officials and sources spoke of a “national drama” when the decision came into effect, prompting a popular reaction immediately.
In the midst of small-scale protests in Egypt, police stopped people randomly and checked the content of social media apps on their phones.
Police arrested several people immediately after searching their mobile phones, an AFP correspondent saw in September.
That month, the Egyptian prosecutor’s office announced that investigators had orders to “check social media accounts and pages of detainees”.
In Iraq, where nearly 200 people were killed in protests during October, another battle is being waged online.
When anti-corruption protests broke out in many Iraqi cities earlier this month, authorities cut Internet services in an attempt to calm unrest, as they have done in the past.
“We consider WhatsApp to be the most dangerous application at this stage,” a senior security source said.
He explicitly acknowledged that “disconnecting WhatsApp was intended to prevent such gatherings.”
Yasser al-Jubouri, an Iraqi activist who participated in the protests in Baghdad, said the implementation was crucial to forming activist groups to publish details of the protests.
“We have specifically created WhatsApp groups to quickly share information and distribute it to social networks like Facebook and Twitter.”
Adel Iskandar, a professor of media studies at Canada’s Simon Fraser University in Canada, said the exchange raised “existential fear” for governments that had witnessed the Arab Spring protest movements.
But he said governments believed such applications could also be useful.
“The state considers these programs not just a threat, but also an opportunity to replace supporting messages with critical messages,” Iskandar said.
With more than 1.5 billion users transforming the world, WhatsApp remains the most popular social media application in the young, technology-driven region, according to a recent study by Northwestern University in Qatar.
In addition to sharing horrific content and communicating among protesters in troubled hotspots via encrypted messages, the app is also widely used in everyday conversations.
Jordanian officials, like other politicians in the region, regularly communicate with journalists via WhatsApp groups to publish data or even conduct sensitive interviews via free app messages and calls.
In Iran, Iranian officials banned Telegram, saying it was used to spark unrest during a wave of protests in January 2018.
This has prompted many young people to use WhatsApp. “The ban on Telegram made me use WhatsApp more,” said Ramin, a 26-year-old who lives in Tehran.
Ramin called the idea of taxing social media to offset the budget deficit “ridiculous.” “I would be (willing) to help my government in this situation, but not by paying for something that is supposed to be free,” she said.