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Arab IGF 2015, Beirut, December 2015Arab IGF 2015, Beirut, December 2015

As the Arab Internet Governance Forum reaches its fourth iteration, it continues to struggle to mature into a space where multistakeholder engagement can start producing the dialogue and efforts the region needs in order to face the many challenges in the field of internet governance. Attending both the global IGF and the Arab IGF within the space of one month, I believe that the region has missed yet another opportunity to tackle inequality and repression on the internet, and it remains to be seen if it is an opportunity we can afford to miss.

The Arab IGF was divided into workshops and plenary thematic sessions, and the gulf in quality between the two couldn’t have been more apparent. The workshops organised by civil society in the region had exceptionally good conversations on human rights issues, particularly in a period where the region faces increasing repression online. The plenaries, however, had no civil society participation, and except for one or two speakers, provided little in terms of substance towards the challenges they were meant to address.

I recall two instances in which a bureaucrat from my country (Jordan) read a canned speech warning about the dangers of internet addiction, and another case where an “expert” droned about futuristic applications of the internet in a session dedicated to access, while he was from a country where three quarters of the people don’t have basic access to the internet. The expertise and knowledge, particularly that of dedicated civil society in the region, was sorely needed to bring the level of the discussion to a more expert and relevant level.

One shining exception was Moez Chakchouk, whose contributions to the plenary sessions hit the nail on the head. Furthermore, it has to be said that while there were many youth among the attendants, this failed to translate into more youth participation across the board. While this problem isn’t specific to the Arab IGF, it must be said that this is another missed opportunity, and that it is vital for the future of the region that the forum becomes better at making good use of the energy and presence of youth in attendance.

The challenges and expenses of organising an Arab IGF pose a further challenge. This year, the forum was made possible by the generous support of Ogero, the Lebanese government internet service provider. Ogero didn’t miss an opportunity to let that be known, from canvassing the venue with their materials, to providing Ogero swag to participants, as well as having their CEO give speeches in every session, whether he was a speaker or not. Ogero also took over secretarial duties for the Arab IGF, deploying their own website and phone application for the forum, and deployed security personnel all over the conference venue.

This raises difficult ethical questions about the undue influence of one stakeholder and the impact it can have on what is supposed to be an open multistakeholder forum. But as the Arab IGF is struggling to find venues in the region and governments that find it valuable enough of a process to foot the bill for it, these questions become more difficult to raise. Furthermore, there is nothing to stop Ogero from hijacking the podium, and saying things like human rights don’t matter, or that the internet is only a commodity, and one of these instances actually happened.

I often get asked if I think that the Arab IGF is useful, or whether it should continue. I don’t think that’s the right question to ask. I believe the question should be, how long can we afford to miss the opportunity for getting this process right, and back on track. The Arab IGF needs to evolve, in a manner that should reflect on the landscape of internet governance in the region. Governments and businesses can’t do that alone. They must seize the next opportunity to work closer with civil society and the technical sector, building on existing global internet governance principles like those outlined in the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement (you can find the document here and APC’s statement on NETmundial here), harnessing the youthful energy in the region, and despite facing a difficult and tumultuous time, building the internet that people living in the Middle East and North Africa need. An internet that is managed in the public interest, without undue influence from any side of the equation.