Internet connections in Beirut are so bad that people can only laugh … before protesting. About a year ago, one Lebanese wrote a an acerbic post in English saying, “Oh My God, Lebanon you’re number one” on the global download-speed list … if you start from the end of the list.
I found the Ookla NetIndex raking for Lebanon. A year ago, it was ranked 172nd, the worst-ranked country, behind Zambia, Swaziland and Bolivia. The high-speed cable running underground between Europe and India made things better for awhile. Lebanon rose to 160, sitting between Lesotho and Uganda. But according to activist Liliane Assaf, a member of Ontornet.org, a group fighting to improve conditions, “The situation got better briefly, and then the poor connections returned.” It’s what another person I spoke with called “progress with hiccups.”
Ontornet is a play-on-words: “Ontor” means “wait for” the net. And to make things more clear, its logo, “@Y,” represents a snail. Assaf, a search-engine marketer, has a simple motivation. “We need good connections,” she says. “The ones we have right now are terrible. Working is such conditions is exhausting, and we’re losing clients.”
Ontornet’s secret is “not to lie,” says Abir Ghattas, another of the group’s 6 active members (4 are women). The group has a YouTube channel, a Twitter account and Facebook page. “We’ve published articles, studies, serious investigations, and price comparisons, which has given us credibility. In fact, we had sources inside the ministry and in one of the telecom operators, who helped us verify the quality of our information.”
Forced to see the group as someone to listen to, the government has met with them, and they are invited on TV programs to discuss the subject. “It’s the first time that a group of normal (apolitical) people have been able to meet the Minister of Communication of two successive governments,” Ghattas said. “And we didn’t soften our stance when we were before him. We recorded the conversations and put them online. The same with the operators. This shows people in Lebanon that internet tools are useful for real causes.”
It’s also a strategy for bypassing political parties and traditional powers.
“We were really careful to show that we were not political, that we didn’t want to align with one party or another,” Assaf says. “We say ‘the minister’ without saying which one, because when you attack someone you attack their party, and we want this to be a cause for all Lebanese. We don’t accuse anyone in particular, and we don’t name anyone.”
As always happens with this type of initiative, the movement which served to sway a portion of public opinion, ministers and media is “much less active today than in the beginning,” Assaf says.
But I wonder if this isn’t a good thing, if the main importance of movements that refuse to play “politicians’ politics” is successfully uniting disparate interests and advancing causes that the traditional powers willingly ignore.
It’s another way of doing politics, which Ghattas recognizes when she confides to me: “I’m jealous of all the uprisings happening in the Arab world. I’m envious of my friends in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.”