Social media sites are a force to reckon with in the Palestinian territories, says former PA communications minister, adding that if a new uprising erupts, that is where it will begin to brew.
WASHINGTON - Although his father Mamdouh Saidam was one of the founders of Fatah, Dr. Sabri Saidam, deputy secretary general of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, entered the political arena at the relatively late age of 34. It was then that he was appointed minister of communications and information technology in the Palestinian government. Today, no longer in government, the former "Mr. Technology" of the Palestinian Authority prefers the hat of researcher and Palestinian Internet guru. He is also one of the activists behind the establishment of the Palestinian domain ps.
"Coming from the IT field, I can tell you honestly that I've always felt as if I were carving in stone - getting computers or talking about e-government in Palestine was mission impossible," he says in an interview with Haaretz. "Now all the politicians are meeting bloggers and talking to them. There was no party interested in these people until the events in Tunisia and Egypt. They were considered to be time-wasters, kids."
Saidam is in Washington now working with the Aspen Institute to promote entrepreneurship among young Palestinians. "All of a sudden, everybody wants to know and have a private session to talk about Facebook and how they can open an account," he says.
Half of Palestinian households in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have computers, according to Saidam, and about 30 percent are connected to the Internet.
"When the demonstrations started in Tunisia, there were 600,000 Palestinian Facebook users, and 200,000 of them were posting about politics. Each one of these 200,000 Facebook users is influencing five people around him. We're talking about over a million Palestinians over the age of 18. In terms of population size, that's 33 percent. In Egypt, that would be 28 million Egyptians, but there it took only 2,890 bloggers and computer activists to do what was done. The moral of the story is that there is a critical mass of Palestinians waiting to see how things are going to swing."
Saidam believes that all those who stormed Israel's borders on Nakba Day were simply in rehearsal mode. "Those who have broken the fear barrier, will be willing to do it again," he says. "Israel focuses on September, but they ought to focus on the 5th of June, the anniversary of the Six-Day War. There are already increased calls to march into the borders again."
There are two schools of thought on the matter, he says. "There's one that says: 'You've done it once, thank God there weren't more casualties, but don't do it again. Go to the borders, amass as many people as you can, but don't cross, because Israel has now learned the lesson. They can go and camp for a while, and this camping will send a message to Israel and the world, and it will help the Palestinians to build up pressure as preparations are made for September.' The other school of thought says: 'No, let's break fences and charge.' There are more supporters of the second approach."
Saidam says that the PA is beginning to understand the power of the Internet, and many of its members now want to meet with bloggers and open an account. "But there is no Palestinian Wael Ghonim [the young Google marketing executive who became a symbol of the revolution] . . . It's the issue of getting bored of the fact that they see leaders who existed for dozens of years. They don't want any leaders."
The trigger, he says, were the demonstrations held in the West Bank on March 15, when young Palestinians marched and called for an end to the rift between Hamas and Fatah. Abu Mazen then announced that he would be willing to go to Gaza, and an agreement was hammered out. "The young people felt they had some influence on the decision," says Saidam. "And I am telling my peers that they should not only passively listen but allow young blood to flow into the decision making of the parties."
Saidam notes that even Abu Mazen has a Facebook account. "He has a page where he posts all his meetings at president.ps. He is interested, but he is overwhelmed. Whenever I talk to him about computers, he is extremely supportive, but he doesn't have time to surf the Internet. He has a lot on his plate."
Saidam finds it amusing that a member of Congress recently asked whether the Palestinians use the Internet: "Do Palestinians use the Internet? Who is to blame for this Congressman not knowing whether we use Internet or not? No wonder they gave Netanyahu 29 standing ovations . . . they are totally ignorant. I've been in meetings in Congress, and there is a major problem, and it's a problem of education. If they visit Palestine, it's usually a courtesy visit of two hours."
Gaza a Facebook champion
Per capita, says Saidam, the largest number of Facebook users in the world is in Gaza.
Read more at Haaretz.