Edition 7 Volume 5 - February 15, 2007
The Arab blogosphere
The new revolutionaries -
Blogging is fast becoming a serious threat to traditional authority in the region, be it political or religious.
Arab blogs give youth venting space -
One man plus one website equals one very angry dictator.
Blogging for better understanding -
Governments in the region should stop wasting time and resources cracking down on bloggers and should focus more on the benefits they can gain.
Revolution and change in the internet era -
Blogging in the Arab world comes with big risks, which many young individuals understand and accept.
The new revolutionaries
When I launched my blog on February 6, 2005 I never imagined that it would become an obsession of mine or a mini-phenomenon for many people interested in the region. Yet within months of the beginning, it became clear to me that blogging was destined to become an integral part of my life, perhaps for the rest of my life, and a basic pillar of my activities as a dissident and self-declared heretic. Indeed, I am a now on the advisory board of the Committee to Protect Bloggers, a US-based NGO that sheds light on the travails of bloggers worldwide, a regular juror in Deutche-Welle's annual contest the Best of the Blogs, a regular participant in international conferences on blogging and, most important, the founder of a special blogging community (the Tharwa community) that focuses on democracy activism in the region.
It is fair to say, then, that blogging has indeed changed my life. It might even have saved my life, considering the international attention I got when I blogged about my various interrogation sessions in 2005 in the months leading up to my exile from Syria in September of that year.
Blogging seems to have played a similar role in the lives of other Arab bloggers as well, including my Egyptian colleague Alaa of Alaa and Manal Bit Bucket fame, whose imprisonment for his anti-Mubarak activism both in the virtual and "real" worlds led to an international uproar and a campaign fueled by the ever-growing blogosphere that culminated in his eventual release. It is our hope now to achieve a similar development with regard to another Egyptian blogger, Kareem Amer, currently under arrest and facing trial for expressing secular opinions on his blog--a development that caused some grief and chagrin to his former teachers at al-Azhar University.
Blogging, therefore, is fast becoming a serious threat to traditional authority in the region, be it political or religious.
How so? How could a part-time and haphazard activity like blogging undermine any of the region's staunchly dictatorial regimes? And how could such isolated (at least when it comes to the wider society out there) figures as the bloggers come to pose such a threat?
The answer depends in no small part on the oft-neglected fact that politics is frequently perception-driven rather than reality-driven. If this is so in the free world, it is even more the case in our decaying world, still living on the toxic fumes of an ancient glory, still shackled by an overbearing past, still intellectually and even spiritually malnourished more than a century after the advent of modernity into its dark and sinewy alleys.
In short, regimes that continue to perceive their existence as continuously under threat, whether from external or internal enemies, have every reason to fear any independent initiative emerging in their midst from seemingly infertile soil. These initiatives challenge their claim to be the guardians of traditional virtues, AKA the status quo. They also challenge traditional virtue itself by insisting on reform, change and innovation, even if on the virtual pages of a haphazardly updated blog.
Another reason that makes blogging in our region and the world so interesting and alluring is the ability to break barriers that have previously loomed too heavy and unchallengeable in our minds, barriers such as contacting the "enemy" and entering into your own individual dialogue with him/her. Never was the phenomenon more visible than during last summer's 33-day war in Lebanon, when Israeli and Lebanese bloggers engaged in heated yet often and quite surprisingly reasonable and level-headed debates regarding their countries' role in bringing about this new round of conflict in the region, who was really at fault here, and how the war could be stopped.
Blogging diplomacy remains a haphazard affair, like the medium itself. Still, blogging does seem to have the potential to serve as a catalyst for the growing appetite among the regions' youth for charting their own independent paths in life and expressing their own individuality.
For all these reasons blogging, even when it does not deal with expressly political issues, seems bound to be a political phenomenon par excellence and to continue to expand both in scope and appeal. Indeed, even as we speak the elementary germs of a new and long-awaited social revolution in the Middle East might be planted in the more hospitable and friendly virtual environment, waiting for the right moment to unleash itself onto the real and unsuspecting yet desperately yearning world.
I can seriously say that, in our underdeveloped and destitute region at least, this little borrowed prayer might be quite appropriate: "Blessed are the Bloggers, for they shall rule the world."- Published 15/2/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian dissident and democracy activist, currently exiled in the United States. He is the founder and director of the Tharwa Foundation, a non-governmental organization dedicated to facilitating democratic processes and improving inter-communal relations across the broader Middle East and North Africa region.
Arab blogs give youth venting space
To appreciate the power of blogs in the Arab world, ponder for a moment a recent triple whammy--or hat trick, to use soccer parlance--scored by Egyptian blogs:
One: the exposure by blogs of sexual assaults on women in downtown Cairo by gangs of men during a religious holiday in Cairo in October 2006. Bloggers forced the issue onto the national agenda, turning it into headlines from satellite television channels to the Associated Press.
Two: the detention in December 2006 of a police officer accused of sexually assaulting a prisoner. A month earlier, Egyptian blogs had circulated a video showing the prisoner, Imad el-Kabir, with hands bound behind his back and his legs held in the air, being sodomized with a stick as those around him taunted him.
Three: the ongoing trial of 22-year-old blogger Abdul-Kareem Nabil, also known as Kareem Amer, after posting articles critical of Islam on his blog. He is charged, among other things, with insulting the president.
When the security services of President Hosni Mubarak, in power for a quarter of a century, arrest and put on trial a blogger, then surely the phrase "David and Goliath" cannot even begin to explain it. So what is it about the bloggers that can so threaten a regime?
It is the power of youth and their new-found ability to communicate after years of being ignored. Al-Jazeera and its ilk might have pulled the rug out from under state-owned media, but it was one old man challenging another. The bloggers are mostly the young and the excluded and it matters little to them who stands on that rug and who pulls it. One young Egyptian told me he started a blog because he felt he was going to explode if he didn't tell the world how he felt.
In June 2005, there were around 280 blogs in Egypt. By the end of 2006, that number had more than tripled to 1,000. Egyptian blogs were the epicenter of a little earthquake I first felt a couple of time zones to the east at the start of 2005. Bahraini and Saudi blogs were my first heady introductions into the world of online agitprop. The Saudi blogs were particularly sweet for me personally because of six miserable years spent as a teenager in Jeddah. One, simply called Saudigirl, felt like the grown-up version of my latent teen-angst from those years.
At a conference on Arab media at the National Press Club in Washington DC in 2005, I quoted Saudigirl describing herself as "young. Saudi chick. unveiled, unconservatized" who had never voted but who hoped one day "to walk in on a ballot box in jeans, t-shirt, and flip-flops so that everyone can see my pretty toes while I express my freedom." I lost track of her blog for a while until, on a whim, I googled her earlier this year to see how Saudigirl was doing. And to my shock it turned out "she" had been a "he" all along. It was a case of "rhetorical transvestism" confessed Ali K, the man who invented and maintained Alia K.
What a bittersweet twist on the gender play of those writers of yore, those George Sands, George Eliots and others who adopted male names, persona and wardrobes to splinter taboos. Here was a Saudi man pretending to be a woman.
According to a recent Washington Post story on Saudi blogs, young women make up half the bloggers in that kingdom today. There are around 2,000 blogs in Saudi Arabia. Saudigirl has left the blogosphere in good hands.
Bahraini bloggers didn't coopt gender politics so much as the politics of fear that had given birth to the color-coded alert system in place in the US that uses color to describe the "national threat level". When the Bahraini authorities arrested three internet forum moderators in 2005, bloggers launched an appeal on their behalf, posted the times and locations of demonstrations calling for their release and maintained an alert system that used color to describe how close to freedom the men were.
To appreciate such subversity is to appreciate the wonder of blogs.
No words on blogs and no discussion of how effective they are must ever take place without remembering the proto-blogger and cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui who died at the young age of 36 in March 2005. Back in July 2001, Zouhair founded the website TUNeZINE using the pseudonym "Ettounsi," which means Tunisian in Arabic. He used the online newspaper not just to write about Tunisia's dismal human rights record but also posted opposition statements on the site.
After his arrest in an internet cafe in 2002, he was sentenced to two years in prison, and actually served 16 months, for "disseminating inaccurate news"--a police state's euphemism for the truth. It is not difficult to imagine that his early demise was precipitated by the torture he was subjected to during interrogation.
Again, one man plus one website equals one very angry dictator.
No matter how many eyes and ears the blogs have, who can doubt the power of the internet?- Published 15/2/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker who teaches Arab media at The New School in New York City.
Blogging for better understanding
For a very long time, almost everyone agreed that media in the Arab world did not reflect the reality of things in a part of the world that has been plagued with wars and conflicts over the past six decades. Some ten years ago, satellite TV channels started to invade the region ushering in a new era for Arab media, especially with the introduction of channels like al-Jazeera, which changed the way we received our news. However, Arab media remained for the most part either owned and/or controlled by governments, and the few alternative news sources available were highly censored and access to them was limited if not nonexistent.
Then the internet entered the homes of Arab families and with it a whole new world of possibilities: thanks to the internet, people are no longer passive consumers of traditional media. The web has given people the chance to talk and discuss their issues more freely. Of course, governments try to impose censorship over the electronic content, but the fact that getting around censorship online is very easy has made such steps useless.
But the power of the web as a tool for political and social change did not become clear until the appearance of applications that facilitated ordinary people using the web, including fast communication and networking. One of the most important applications of these was '"blogging", which introduced an easy-to-use yet powerful method for individuals to express themselves independently and freed from the filters of traditional media.
The rapid growth of the blogging phenomenon in the Middle East in the past five years, with the number of blogs today estimated in the hundreds of thousands, was marked by the rise of fresh voices who succeeded to make their presence noticed and to distinguish themselves in this age of information overload. But these bloggers were not simply trying to make their voices heard; they also wanted to be an active force changing the status quo in their countries, and some of them have actually managed to do that as we have seen in Egypt and Kuwait. These young men and women were watching the media closely and exposing its lies and hypocrisies as well as organizing demonstrations to call for reforms and protest against corruption.
Unfortunately, this did not come without a price and some bloggers in Arab countries were silenced by their governments in different ways including through threats, jail or torture. And although the Arab blogosphere was at first composed mostly of the liberal reform-minded, it was obvious that it was only a matter of time before the conservatives discovered the new medium and started to use it to serve their agenda. This resulted in flamewars in some countries such as Saudi Arabia where the clash between liberal and conservative bloggers was featured in traditional media several times during 2006.
Blogging and other forms of citizen media such as podcasting, photoblogging and vlogging, can be crucial in the Middle East, where freedom of expression barely exists. Blogs can provide news, analysis and commentary; they can antagonize government propaganda; they can also serve as vehicles for ideas of political and social reforms. Moreover, blogs can provide a good environment for dialogue in the region between people and their governments as well as among people themselves in the same country or in different countries. This dialogue can help create better understanding on the way to resolve conflicts and reduce tensions.
Governments in the region should stop wasting time and resources cracking down on bloggers and should focus more on the benefits they can gain from blogging. Blogs can give indications of trends and public opinion regarding pressing issues in every country, and leaders and officials should learn to be more open to criticism: they should realize that being in the public eye does not give them some kind of immunity. On the contrary, it is the other way around.
At the end of the day, these blogs are written by normal people and are based on people's experiences of life. Bloggers pour their hearts out on these pages, and they don't do it for the money. Why are they doing it? Because they are concerned citizens who do not want to watch their nation's struggle from the sidelines: They want to contribute to ensure reform and progress.- Published 15/2/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Ahmed al-Omran is a college student and a blogger from Saudi Arabia. His blog is called Saudi Jeans: http://saudijeans.blogspot.com/
Revolution and change in the internet era
The Arab region is known as a home to some of the least democratic political structures in the world. Basic human rights are barely met even in some of the apparently liberal countries in the region, such as Bahrain or the UAE.
But with the introduction of the internet in the intellectually sheltered countries of the Arab world, a phenomenon called "blogging" is now challenging Arab rulers. "Blog" is an acronym for "weblog", or online journal. Most online journals in the Middle East are dedicated to politics because the internet has allowed bloggers, also known as citizen journalists, to discuss taboos in their societies and reveal or criticize state information.
There never was a public forum in the Arab world that specifically served to help average citizens practice and bolster their right to freedom of expression. This is why blogging has become an essential communication strategy for many frustrated Arabs who use blogging as a tool to promote democratization. Many have been encouraged to join, and as a result the number of blogs initiated every day is multiplying dramatically. It is particularly attractive to Arab youth, who use blogging to agitate for a better future.
The reason why the internet is so threatening to Arab governments is that it revolutionized the means of communication, making it virtually impossible to moderate or control. Through up-to-date blogging that is often critical of said governments, bloggers point out what is illegitimate in Arab states. It is a highly influential medium, as it welcomes and encourages rebellious movements to blossom within Arab countries. In Deregulation Reconsidered: Protecting Internet Speech in the United States, Germany, and Japan, Jae-Young Kim makes a powerful statement applicable to the situation in Arab societies: "The purpose of expression of opinion has been recognized as the conveyance of an intellectual effect on one's surroundings and the contribution to the formation of public opinion."
Arab regimes have always constructed public opinion with ease due to absolute control over media outlets. Kim's argument shows that freedom of expression can be used to transcend that, and thus the formation of public opinion will not be as systematic. Blogging invites the sociological aspects of public opinion, through public discourse and open forums. In other words, many citizens are now able to publicly criticize their governments, something that never existed in the Arab world without dire consequences. That is not to say, however, that the consequences do not exist. They do. Blogging in the Arab world comes with big risks, which many young individuals understand and accept.
In the book Future Active, Graham Meikle analyzes online activism, noting its growing popularity particularly in countries with strict media laws. Throughout this fascinating book, he tries to answer an overriding question: can the internet revitalize democracy and serve as a prominent weapon for social change? If we apply such concepts to the Arab region, the answer would be yes. The internet is powerful enough to change, promote or enforce laws in our strict and sheltered cultures if it creates overwhelming public pressure and concern. Cyber activism has also increased the amount of political activism. Thanks to the internet, people became more aware of social dilemmas, as well as human rights violations that are noticeably ignored by state-owned media outlets.
Many oppressed Arabs and Muslims would agree that blogging provides a gateway to freedom of expression, and thus the freedom to blog should be maintained at all times for the sake of democracy. However, Arab officials insist on threatening and eventually punishing those who blog, mainly because it threatens their positions and empowers opposition movements.
Blogging in the Arab world is being primarily used to overcome corrupt political practices and introduce social and moral ideals to promote freedom of speech and the free flow of information. It is important to note that despite the lack of press freedom and sufficient access to mass media, Arab bloggers still manage to gain massive worldwide publicity. Ammar Abdulhamid, a prominent Syrian blogger and liberal activist, states on his blog: "The internet and blogging in particular is destined to play an important role in the social and political transformations currently taking place in the region. The democratic forces are bound to continue using it for intercommunicating and for organization."
Even while the Arab world experiences unprecedented economic transformation, Arab leaders are not in favor of the democratization process, and thus the region does not progress socially and politically. The serious and unjustifiable consequences bloggers face within the region serve as testament to the fact that Arab leaders are not open to democracy.
The key to communication on the internet is words. The written word is the backbone of any industrialized modern society. Organic solidarity cannot exist without it. Without the use of the written word, we would have what Durkheim referred to as "anomie", a normless state of disconnection to society. It is very important for Arabs to take advantage of modern technology to further promote human rights and democracy within the region. With consistency, public involvement and non-violent yet forceful activism, democratization is possible. Blogging gives many Arabs and Muslims that much-needed hope.- Published 15/2/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Esra'a al-Shafei, a blogger from Bahrain, is the co-founder of http://www.mideastyouth.com and the Middle East Interfaith Blogger Network. She also runs FreeKareem.org aimed to free a jailed friend and fellow blogger.