Arab Bloggers Keep Watch Over Government – And Each Other

Arab Bloggers Keep Watch Over Government – And Each Other

The Current Discussion: Egypt has detained a number of its citizens for using the social networking site Facebook to organize anti-government protests. What online sites are most effective in influencing politics — and is the impact positive?

President Hosni Mubarak, who recently turned 80, has ruled Egypt for 26 years. What compels his regime to arrest and bully young people – who have known no other leader – simply for creating Facebook groups to call for a general strike in support of the poor and to protest spiraling food prices?

The Saudi Arabian royal family is firmly in charge of its kingdom and oil wealth. What compels it to detain a blogger without charge for four months because he defended the rights of dissidents?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, once hailed as Mr. Technology for his keenness to get Syria online and connected, is also firmly in control in Syria. So what compels his regime to block Syrians from accessing Facebook and to arrest and bully the same young people who took him at his earlier word and went online and got connected by blogging?

A desire to express themselves and a determination to use blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace to circumvent censorship has created a thrilling equation in the Arab world: one man/woman + internet = very angry dictator.

Not only are they worrying regimes, but bloggers have also set the media agenda in quite a few big stories. When Egyptian security officials denied that a gang of young men had gone on a sexual assault rampage against women in downtown Cairo during a religious festival in 2006, bloggers posted photographs of the assaults, testimonials from victims and eyewitness accounts, forcing the attacks onto headlines.

In Egypt, a young blogger is in jail after his conviction last year of “insulting Islam and the president.” But two Egyptian police officers were sent to jail later that same year after another blogger – Wael Abbas – posted a video clip of them sodomizing a man with a stick. The presiding judge in the officers’ trial had a laptop open to Abbas’ YouTube account to view the clip. Abbas’ blog gets at least a million hits a day.

Long marginalized from state-owned media, young people and especially women are using the internet to reach those who had been most tone-deaf to them – both officials and the media. Blogger/activists have learned to be inventive online.

In Saudi Arabia, which fuels most of the world’s cars but bars half of its population from driving, women’s rights activists used Facebook and emails to collect petitions against the driving ban which they then sent to the king. One of the activists, Wajeha al-Huwaider, further protested the ban by getting behind the wheel as her sister-in-law filmed her, and posted the video on YouTube on International Women’s Day as an open letter to the Saudi interior minister, urging him to lift the ban.

With some blogging, the personal is very much the political – as when gays and lesbians in the Arab world blog, telling a region that too often denies their existence, “We are here”.

That desire to take on both the regime and the old guard of their movement compels young Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt – men and women – to blog. One of them, Abdel-Moneim Mahmoud Ibrahim, told me he started his blog “Ana Ikhwan” (I am a Muslim Brother) “so that I can show my true self.”

His mentor, Khaled Hamza, was jailed for several weeks earlier this year, in what appeared to be frustration that the site he runs is too effective. Hamza is editor-in-chief of the outlawed Islamist movement’s English-language website, Ikhwanweb, which was launched to get the Muslim Brotherhood’s news and views out to the international media.

And for effectiveness, how about this story: At a discussion I led at the American University in Cairo last year on how girls and women in Egypt use cyberspace to express themselves, blogger Shahinaz Abdel-Salam told us she would take the train from her hometown of Alexandria to Cairo to march in street protests against Mubarak and then she would blog about it.

During one demonstration, a young man asked her if she was “Wahda Masreya” (the name of her blog which translates as “An Egyptian Everywoman”). When she confirmed it was indeed her, he told her he was at the demonstration because of her. “I figured if a girl can take the train all the way from Alexandria to protest, the least I could do was protest, too”.

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif got into a verbal altercation over the internet recently that sweetly captures the generational struggle at hand.

When Nazif gave a speech at Cairo University urging Egyptian youth to go online to express themselves, Bilal Diab, a 20-year-old student interrupted the older man to remind Nazif that there were several young Egyptians in jail for doing exactly what the premier was calling for. Egyptian police had rounded up bloggers and Facebook activists for calling for strikes. Police promptly whisked Bilal himself off for several hours, which turned him into a hero for the independent media. The state-owned media did their best to ignore him.

My family in Cairo gleefully told me during our weekly conversations – which are free thanks to the internet site Skype – that when Bilal was interviewed on a satellite television talk show, the host asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“President of Egypt,” Bilal quickly replied.

One Egyptian arrested and beaten for starting a Facebook group calling for those strikes was Ahmed Maher. Police beat Maher for hours, demanding to know the password for his Facebook group, even though there’s no such thing. The blogger Wael Abbas posted photographs of Maher’s bruised back; frustrated that Egyptian media was ignoring Maher, Abbas decided to interview the Facebook activist on Misrdigital.

That’s the beauty of blogs and those who run them in the Arab world. They have each other’s backs, and they’re determined to stay on the back of their respective regimes.