Feb 26 2011
When Omar Shibliy Mahmoudi exchanged sweet nothings on the Muslim dating site Mawada, it wasn’t for love but for liberty.
To avoid detection by Libyan secret police, who monitor Facebook and Twitter, Mahmoudi, the leader of the Ekhtalef (“Difference”) Movement, used what’s considered the Match.com of the Middle East to send coded love letters to rally the revolution.
It was “for the freedom, not for the marriage,” he told ABC News.
The Libyan businessman turned opposition leader said he was never politically active before, but as he watched revolutions topple governments in neighbouring countries, he knew he needed to act.
So he created a Mawada profile called “Where Is Miriam?” and pretended to be on the hunt for a wife.
The conservative site doesn’t allow men to communicate with other men, so other revolutionaries posed as women to contact him, assuming aliases like “Sweet Butterfly,” “Opener of the Mountain,” “Girl of the Desert” and “Melody of Torture.”
To complete their profiles, they answered the site’s boilerplate questions, such as “How much of your face do you cover?” and “Would a shared marriage be acceptable?”
On the site, the revolutionaries used poetry laced with revolutionary references to gauge support and make initial contact. Then they had detailed follow-up conversations via text message and Yahoo Messenger.
The phrase “May your day be full of Jasmine,” for example, is a coded reference to what’s been called the Jasmine Revolution sweeping the region, Mahmoudi told ABC News.
He said the response, “And the same to you. I hope you will call me” meant they were ready to begin.
If the undercover “lovers” wrote “I want love,” it meant “I want liberty,” Mahmoudi said.
They also communicated in code the number of their comrades supporting the revolution. The five L’s in the phrase “I LLLLLove you,” for example, meant they had five people with them. If a supporter wrote, “”My lady, how I want to climb this wall of silence. I want to tell the story of a million hurts. … But I am lost in a labyrinth. … Maybe we can meet on Yahoo messenger,” it told the writer to migrate the chat to Yahoo Messenger so as not to raise the suspicion of the monitors, Mahmoudi said.
Libya Called ‘Digital Black Hole,’ Cyber Activist Says
In other parts of the Middle East, traditional social media played key a role in revolutionary efforts — a family in Egypt even named their child “Facebook” to recognize the site’s contribution. But cyber activists familiar with the region say Web 2.0 technology never took hold in Libya.
“We used to call it the digital black hole,” said Nasser Wedaddy, a civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress and long-time cyber activist who has worked on cyber outreach efforts in the Middle East for years. “It’s not that they don’t use the Internet. They’re very afraid.”
Activists in Tunisia and Egypt adopted social media on a mass scale, but “for all intents and purposes, in Libya, there isn’t much cyber activism going on,” Wedaddy said.
So as the revolutionary spirit gripped the region, Libyans overseas rushed in to fill the online void.
Libyans inside the country may have uploaded video and pictures to the Internet, but it was Libyan exiles who spread information through social media, according to Wedaddy. That information spread by mainstream media may have helped push Libyan citizens to the street, he said.
“What you have is a very robust community of Libyan exiles who are in Europe and the U.S. They are a buffer layer that is spreading information about Libya,” he said.
Libyan Exiles Speak Up Online
The Libyan-born, U.K.-based blogger behind the website LibyaFeb17.com (who spoke to ABCNews.com on condition of anonymity) said he launched his blog eight days ago, as the protests in Libya began. The 23-year-old blogger said he has dual British and Libyan citizenship and is fluent in both Arabic and English.
“I’ve been following the news ever since, updating my blog with whatever I can get my hands on,” he said.
The Libyan expat said he has an interest in Web technology and Web design and wanted to help spread information for Libyans outside and inside the country.
His site aggregates Libyan radio, video and images uploaded from the region, news reports and social media updates. To help non-Arabic-speakers follow the events, he translates video dialogue, photo captions and other crucial online text.
As Libyans found Facebook blocked inside their country, he posted information about how to bypass online Firewalls.
When they lost access to the Internet altogether, he posted information from the open Internet group Telecomix, which directed Libyans to use dial-up Internet and Google’s “speak to tweet” service to communicate.
Given the unrest in his home country, he said he felt compelled to speak up on the Internet for the people in Libya who can’t.
“I felt it was an obligation to use myself, to use my skills in a field of Web development and Web design to pass on the messages and inform the world,” he said. “I’m trying to blend the best of both worlds — the Arabic and the English. … I can hopefully reach both audiences.”
When Mahmoudi created his pretend profile on Mawada, he figured 50,000 supporters would be enough to take to the streets. But using various aliases on the dating site, he said he ended up with 171, 323 “admirers” by the time Libya’s Internet crashed last Saturday.