Growing cellphone use seen as key to ‘Arab Spring’

But Internet access still low across much of region

Bibi netanyahu (photo credit: JPost Staff)
Bibi netanyahu
(photo credit: JPost Staff)
Unrelenting growth in mobile-phone ownership in Arab states is bolstering young people’s sense of political and economic opportunity, and rising Internet access is bringing them in contact with new sources of jobs and information – though at a more modest pace.
These are the findings of an ongoing multiyear Gallup Poll study conducted across the Arab world and released this week.
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Eighty-seven percent of those between 15 and 29 years of age in 20 Arab League countries had mobile phone access in 2010, a jump from 79% the year before. Much of that growth came in middle and low-income countries – cellphone use in highincome countries is nearly universal at 98%.
Home and community Internet access were up as well, though not by as much.
Sixty-two percent of young Arabs said they had Web access in their communities (up from 59% the year before), but only 22% of respondents had home Internet (up from 19%). The findings, according to the report, highlight the particularly important roles played by Internet cafes, schools and community centers where young people can go online.
The poll is the fourth installment of the Silatech Index survey, which aims to chart the views of 16,000 young people in the Arab world on job creation and political freedom. The poll has a 3 to 7-percentage point margin of error.
Among Israel’s neighbors, middle-income countries Jordan and Lebanon performed roughly on par with the broader survey results, and the Palestinian territories registered no perceptible change in mobile-phone and Internet access between 2010 and 2009.
Syria lost ground relative to other Arab states, with Internet and mobile access trailing those of comparable GDP. Mobile-phone access in the country was at just 74%, compared to the 94% median score of middle-income Arab states.
Internet access is similarly low – 60% of Syrian respondents had Web access in their community (compared to a median of 79% for all the countries) and only 17% at home.
The figures were worse still in Egypt, where just 11% of young people had home Internet access, and half had Web access in their community.
The index’s previous installment, released last month, found young Arabs desperate for political and economic reform, but having their ambitions blocked by rigid, intolerant societies in which they fail to reach their potential.
The results now appear prescient, signaling the depth of popular discontent that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and is now undermining the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. In both uprisings, Webbased technology was key in organizing protests and solidifying opposition to autocratic regimes that kept tight lids on job markets and the flow of information.
Web accessibility broadens young Arabs’ “access to all sorts of information, be it political, economic, educational, social or job-search related,” the report said. “Even though they are one of the healthiest and best-educated generations in the region, young Arabs still have difficulties obtaining access to employment and enterprise opportunities.”