CAIRO — Faezeh Hashemi, the Iranian politician and daughter of a former president, is banned from speaking publicly in Iran. State television does not give her airtime. Conservative vigilantes have stormed her previous attempts to speak in public.
Yet there she was, holding forth in a six-and-a-half-hour town hall meeting last month to an audience of more than 16,000 Iranians inside and outside of the country, calling for a secular state and for stripping absolute power from Iran’s supreme leader.
“The Islamic Republic has become worse than the shah’s regime,” said Ms. Hashemi, 58.
The venue: Clubhouse, the audio-only social networking app that has offered users from repressive countries across the Middle East a new forum to connect, debate, vent and listen in real-time audio chat rooms.
Saudis have discussed legalizing alcohol and abortion, both taboos in Saudi Arabia. Egyptians have wondered aloud what it would take to challenge their autocratic ruler. Iranians have turned out to question government officials and share stories of sexual harassment.
People on Clubhouse, said a former Iranian vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, are “practicing democracy in real time.”
In a region where most elections are foreordained, rulers are inaccessible, TV programs blare pro-government talking heads and other social media apps are either banned or closely monitored by government security services, Clubhouse has become a virtual town square.
“If you can’t have any kind of political representation or anything, you can have an app where you can sit and talk or at least listen,” said Eman al-Hussein, a Saudi analyst and self-described Clubhouse addict. “That’s why it’s become so important. I see some names sitting there from morning until evening.”
Clubhouse has been downloaded 1.1 million times in the Middle East since it became available there in January, according to Sensor Tower, a mobile app analytics company, accounting for nearly 7 percent of global downloads.
When they were new, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook offered much the same promise as Clubhouse.
Middle East activists and scholars expounded on their potential to foster dialogue and spread calls for change.
A decade ago, when protesters across the Arab world used social media to organize and call for change and the toppling of dictators, Western media christened their movements the “Facebook revolutions” and “Twitter uprisings.” In Iran, Twitter and Facebook helped protesters mobilize in the wake of the contested 2009 election, and Telegram and WhatsApp helped demonstrators connect in 2019.
Many Middle Eastern governments responded by tightening their grip on social media. Iran banned Facebook and Twitter (though the bans are widely circumvented, including by Iranian officials).
Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have arrested ordinary citizens for posting the mildest criticisms of the government. Saudi Arabia deployed armies of Twitter bots and trolls to stoke nationalism and vilify opponents.
Many ordinary users have logged off, if not from fear, then from frustration that the platforms have been overrun by government trolls or reduced to a stage for political opponents to insult and threaten one another.
Already, there are hints that Clubhouse may succumb to the same cycle, or be blocked altogether, as it was in China.
Oman has already done so, and users in Iran, Jordan and the Emirates have reported difficulty accessing the app. Clubhouse has drawn rebukes from state-owned media in Egypt and from government supporters in Saudi Arabia.
And despite its giddy atmosphere of free expression, there are obvious risks. Clubhouse users, who generally sign on with their real names, are easily identifiable, and its chat rooms are easy for government security agencies to eavesdrop on — though with many simultaneous conversations happening in real time, it may be trickier to monitor than a text-based platform such as Facebook.
Privacy advocates have also raised issues about the personal data that Clubhouse collects, which could be even riskier if authoritarian governments can gain access to it.
Saudi Clubhouse conversations about homosexuality and alcohol legalization have been recorded and leaked online, drawing widespread condemnation. An Egyptian pro-government talk show host proclaimed that he had “uncovered” a network of users from the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned opposition group, a signal that more surveillance could be on its way.
Since Saudi downloads of the app peaked in February, more users have begun joining under fake names and photos, Ms. al-Hussein, the Saudi analyst, said. That could protect them, but it could also undermine what users say is one of the app’s chief attractions: that it has so far brought together real people engaging in civilized dialogue, instead of faceless avatars.
While the app is currently limited to iPhone users, who make up a small and affluent subset of the Middle East, Clubhouse may draw more government scrutiny once it releases an Android version, which is expected as early as this month. In Iran, a bootleg Android version is already gaining steam.
“Does anyone get arrested for something they say on Clubhouse? That’s definitely going to cast a pall over the whole thing,” said Timothy Kaldas, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy who studies Egypt. “What I worry about is a lot of people might get a little too comfortable. While the authorities aren’t necessarily monitoring on a grand scale, they still do have people bouncing around these rooms.”
Clubhouse policy bans users from recording conversations without participants’ consent, but the company says it temporarily records audio for investigating reports of policy violations. It has not specified who can listen to such recordings, or when.
A Clubhouse spokeswoman declined to comment.
Yet something about the spontaneous, intimate nature of the conversations — open to everyone regardless of fame or follower count — keeps lassoing people in. Away from government propaganda, Clubhouse is allowing Qataris unfettered access to their Saudi neighbors after years of bitter feuding between their countries and Egyptians access to Muslim Brotherhood defenders.
“People have been longing for this kind of communication for a long time, but I don’t think they realized it until they started using Clubhouse,” said Tharwat Abaza, 28, an Egyptian dentist who said he had listened to rooms discussing sexual harassment, feminism, the need for sex education in Arab countries and mental health. “At this point, it’s one of the freest platforms, and it’s giving us room for important discussions that we should be having without fear of witch hunting.”
There are, of course, many less charged Clubhouse rooms in the Middle East, discussing the cuteness of penguins, entrepreneurship, recipes, breakups and music. During the holy month of Ramadan, users in some countries are offering live recitations of the Quran and communal prayer rooms.
But if Clubhouse can function as group therapy, talk show, house party or seminar, it stands out for its political potential.
In Iran, despite predictions of low turnout ahead of its June 18 presidential election, election-focused Clubhouse rooms are among the most popular. Thousands participate daily at a time when in-person campaigning is limited by the pandemic.
Presidential hopefuls have staged campaign events. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has taken questions. Other speakers have included the vice president, a former commander in chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the telecommunication minister, who denied that the government was trying to block the app.
“This Clubhouse has changed the polarized discourse of Iran,” said one user, Maziar Samaei, in a recent Clubhouse room. “I, as an ordinary person who never has access to any officials, can come here and listen to them.”
But perhaps more remarkable are the other users. Flushed from the geographic, social and political echo chambers that have divided them since Iran’s 1979 revolution, ordinary Iranians inside and outside of the country, conservative and reformist politicians, clerics, dissidents and opposition activists are mingling anew.
“Iranians have not talked to each other for a while,” said Farid Modarressi, 40, a reformist-aligned journalist who hosts a popular election chat room. “On Twitter, we’ve been cursing each other. Clubhouse is making us hear the other side.”
It is much the same in Egypt, where government-controlled media has vilified the Muslim Brotherhood while satellite channels outside the country have vociferously defended it. The crossfire left little room for nuanced discussion.
It’s different on Clubhouse.
“In closed societies, Clubhouse offers an opportunity for people to share their experiences and their thoughts, and to be heard,” said Nael Shama, a researcher specializing in Middle East politics. “It’s part of human nature to have this eagerness to be listened to, to feel that you exist and that you have an identity and that your thoughts matter and that someone is listening.”
Vivian Yee reported from Cairo, and Farnaz Fassihi from New York. Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.