Analysis from BBC Monitoring:
When it comes to Facebook, most users think of "poking", adding random "friends" or perhaps spying on an acquaintance on the popular social networking site. However, in some Middle Eastern countries where governments' grip on the media is tight Facebook has acquired social and political significance. For many Arab governments it is proving to be a challenge.
Syria has taken the lead in blocking the website. Users in Gulf countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia are worried that their authorities could follow suit. In other Middle Eastern societies with a tradition of a free but fragmented media, like Lebanon, Facebook has been turned into a political platform by supporters of rival parties.
Lebanese Al-Safir newspaper said on 19 November that blocking the website in Syria was due to fears that Israelis are enlisting in the Syrian network, of which users have the option to become members when registering for the site.
"I do not believe this" said blogger Joshua Landis. "Facebook has become a virtual civil society in Syria. Many civic groups sprung up overnight and became popular with thousands; groups about preserving the old city, getting back the Golan Heights, supporting civil marriage, women's groups, art associations, and you-name-it," he wrote.
Another blogger, Golaniya, says Facebook has facilitated a cultural stirring in Syria because "people are starting to organize their interests in concerts, galleries, conferences, plays and screenings". "Even though I am not a big fan of this website, I along with some users learned how to use it to promote my projects," said the blogger. The Damascene blog mockingly notes: "Facebook has joined the windmills that our leaders in Syria are fighting. They want Syria's face to remain black."
A quick glance at the Syria network, which has more than 29,000 members, finds a vibrant online community discussing sensitive issues in Syria. One group called "Syria without Iraqis" bluntly discusses and complains about the problem of the Iraqi refugee influx into Syria. Another online petition calls on the Syrian authorities to intervene and rescue a woman allegedly threatened with an honour killing.
Many are linking the sudden cabinet reshuffle, which replaced the communications minister on 8 December, to criticisms over banning an increasing number of websites in Syria, from YouTube to Facebook.
Thousands have already joined groups like "Say no to blocking Facebook in the UAE" or "We hope they don't block Facebook in Saudi Arabia". Many of the groups and postings in Arab networks, which are predominantly in Arabic, voice support for governments or are religious in character; however, a minority are raising very volatile topics.
Taboos are being broken, not only politically but also socially. Facebook is facilitating social and sexual freedoms in very conservative societies. The "Single and Looking in Saudi Arabia" group has more than 1,600 members. Several Arab gay and lesbian groups have mushroomed to advocate rights or just simply create a space for the outlawed community. There is even more than one group solely for Saudi homosexuals.
On the other hand, religious users have a strong presence on the website's pages. In Egypt for example the most popular groups seem to be of a religious nature. The "I am Muslim and Proud" group has more than 76,000 members. In groups such as "the Quran is the most perfect book" and "God willing, gain a million rewards from Allah" members share religious videos, articles and prayers. They discuss topics ranging from whether abstinence "is practical in this day and age" to the hijab to how realistic it is to establish a Muslim caliphate.
LebanonIn Lebanon, Facebook has been used as a platform for propaganda and political bickering by supporters of rival political groups. While one group thanks former Lebanese President Emile Lahhud, another discusses how Lebanon misses assassinated leader Rafiq al-Hariri.
A group called "Government versus the Opposition: The Race to 100,000" says that it is difficult to tell which political camp has more supporters in Lebanon. "No one can be sure but on Facebook we will find the answer," says the group's creator.
Other than groups, the 166,984-member Lebanon network has an active discussion board. Supporters of Lebanese parties exchange insults about their leaders. Even leaders' wives have not been spared the obscenities. The sectarian divide cannot be missed, with Sunnis accusing Shi'is of betrayal of Islam and Christians accusing Muslims of seeking to eliminate their role.
No such thing as Palestine?A form of cyber warfare has also been fought on the pages of Facebook. As the Jerusalem Post reported on 9 October, there was confusion by Facebook administrators on whether to include "Palestine" on the list of countries from which users could choose when registering for the site. Facebook included it on the original list of countries "but mysteriously took it away in October 2006", said the newspaper.
This led to the fury of Palestinian supporters. Tens of thousands signed petitions and reacted by joining groups like ""Israel" is not a country! De-list it from Facebook" and "No Such Thing as Palestine?.. REALLY!?"
Facebook "re-added Palestine to the list of countries in early 2007. No press release was ever issued by Facebook regarding either the elimination or the reinstatement of Palestine", said the Jerusalem Post.
Facebook remains mostly a social networking site to write short messages, share photos and play games about pirates and zombies. The significance of the website's impact on cultural and political life in the Middle East is debatable.
Facebook defines itself on its homepage as "a social utility that connects you with the people around you". There is evidence that users in many Arab countries do not think their governments share the same goal.
Monitoring research 11 Dec 07