|Political Web sites offer Lebanese open platform to express views
|Sites promote online discussions on controversial issues
Thanks to a new wave of political Web sites and discussion groups, with the click of a mouse, Lebanese are discovering new avenues to express their views and displeasure with their leaders.
Since the murder of former Premier Rafik Hariri and the ensuing "Independence Intifada," there has been a growing interest in Web sites addressing Lebanese political issues. Due to these new platforms, Lebanese Internet surfers can vote virtually, sign a petition or post a point of view.
Many of these sites also promote online discussions on controversial political issues.
Samer Abdullah, operator of Libanvote.com, said: "I wanted to create a free space for people to communicate, break taboos and go beyond social and political sectioning."
During Lebanon's staggered polls, Abdullah said the number of visitors to his Web site could reach up to 10,000 hits on "politically eventful" days.
In an environment lacking readily available and accurate information, Libanvote.com has become an archive of election data with fully detailed records going back to 1927. Believing in "the Lebanese democratic way of thinking," Abdullah is a proponent of public participation in political life.
With 120,000 registered users around the world, Libanvote.com is hugely popular with Lebanese expatriates.
Istiklal05.com is another interactive Web site with chat rooms for political debate. To participate, one simply chooses a username and an optional icon representing the Lebanese flag or specific political party.
Founding member of Istiklal05, Rawad Yaakoub, said: "Chats are not monitored in any way. Usually, discussions are constructive, but sometimes, people with different political affiliations confront one another aggressively."
He added: "Chatting is a healthy way to express a free opinion. For many Internet surfers not old enough to vote, chatting is very empowering."
Fadi Khoury, 19, said: "Political online forums allow me to understand political views that I do not necessarily share. What we usually get in the media and from our immediate surroundings are lies and rumors."
Apart from forums, Lebanese Web sites have been offering polls on various political issues. Subjects include the possible release from prison of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, the minimum age for voting, the rights of expatriates to vote, to name a few.
Yaakoub said he is also planning to address, in a "diplomatic way," sensitive issues such as Hizbullah's weapons. He insisted his site does not seek provocation. "It's a totally independent space where neutral people feel comfortable."
After the assassination of Samir Kassir last week, Istiklal05.com has offered surfers the chance to send their condolences to the journalist's family.
Many traditional political parties are also present on the Internet. The Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanese Forces and Future Movement have all established online discussion forums.
Thousands of members use these sites for debate on a wide range of issues including elections, reform, and corruption.
Some Web sites, such as Tayyar.org, the FPM' official site , are even being established as alternative sources of information.
On election day in Mount Lebanon and the Bekaa, internet surfers will be able to follow the polls live through Tayyar.org.
"In the absence of credible media we use the Internet to widely communicate our political vision," said FPM member Lucien Aoun.
Despite wide enthusiasm about the Internet's potential, this tool has not been effective yet as an instrument to change political policies.
Lebanese-abroad.com was recently created to promote the right for Lebanese expatriates to vote. By circulating chain e-mails the creators of the site were able to collect over 17,000 votes from 152 countries, mainly France and the U.S., but whether this will influence decision-makers has yet to be seen.
Abdullah said: "When I created Libanvote.com in 2000 I tried in vain to convince candidates in the parliamentary polls then to face people online and convince them of their programs."
Disappointed with the lack of interest of politicians in online debating, Abdullah has since abandoned this idea. "The Internet can be effective in breaking frontiers between candidates and voters. Unfortunately, this is very difficult in Lebanon, because our politicians are not challenging at all."
Abdullah, who considers his Web site a tool for democratization, is hoping international organizations will help in the necessary funding to keep Libanvote.com up and running.
Istiklal05.com has recently asked surfers to post their "wishes for the new Lebanon," promising to compile these opinions and communicate them to the new Parliament.
But according to Yaakoub, many obstacles still exist. "The Internet is still not accessible to everybody in Lebanon. Unfortunately, because of corruption, the government is not providing new cheap technologies that already exist here."
Raed el Rafei
The Daily Star