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Morocco's online dissent

Government critics go online to express their opinions.

“Today the internet has become a vector for change in Morocco, to discuss, to denounce corruption and to talk about civil rights,” Jankari said. “You don’t see it in the streets or the cafes. You have to be connected to feel it. But it’s starting to grow.”

The foundations for such growth are quickly being put in place. The number of internet subscribers in Morocco has nearly doubled since 2007, from 430,000 to 830,000, according to the latest data released by the Morocco’s national telecommunications agency.

Morocco also boasts good connections — the fastest download speeds in Africa, according to the broadband tracking site — and a burgeoning cyber cafe industry selling access to those who don’t have it at home. Not to mention a growing Facebook community that’s currently 124,000 members strong.

“I actually think that’s a low figure,” said Ghassane Hajji, the man in charge of social media outreach for the U.S. embassy in Rabat. He estimates as many as 800,000 Moroccans are regular Facebook users who’ve simply registered with networks outside the country. “Morocco is the leading Arab country when it comes to the use of Facebook,” he added.

But Hajji says it will take time before the Moroccan blogosphere becomes as vast, varied and politically vocal as those in Western countries. “In Morocco the internet is used more to socialize, to keep in touch with friends,” he said. “At this point Moroccans are more consumers than creators on the internet.” On the edge of the walled old city in Rabat, the capital, the manager of a cramped cyber cafe said her experience bears out this observation. As she hand-wrote receipts on slips of newsprint, Rekid Bouhlal, 27, explained that only 15 percent of her customers use the internet for research or writing.

“The majority, it’s to chat,” she said.

In a quiet corner of the cafe, Hafid Simour, 20, faced a screen filled with fresh instant messages. He said he’s been coming to internet cafes for the last eight years, but the fees of four dirhams per hour (about 50 cents) mount quickly when you spend time writing. “I like chatting, email, listening to music,” Simour said. “Blogging’s too expensive.”