Bloggers may be the real opposition

How the authorities are being nettled

THEY call themselves pyjamahideen. Instead of galloping off to fight holy wars, they stay at home, meaning, often as not, in their parents’ houses, and clatter about computer keyboards. Their activity is not as explosive as the self-styled jihadists who trouble regimes in the region, and they come in all stripes, secular liberal as well as radical Islamist. But like Gulliver’s Lilliputians, youthful denizens of the internet are chipping away at the overweening dominance of Arab governments.

In Egypt, for instance, blogging has evolved within the past year from a narcissistic parlour sport to a shaper of the political agenda. By simply posting embarrassing video footage, small-time bloggers have blown open scandals over such issues as torture and women’s harassment on the streets of Cairo. No comment was needed to air widespread disillusionment with last month’s referendum to approve constitutional changes, after numerous Egyptian websites broadcast scanned images of a letter from one provincial governor to junior bureaucrats, ordering them to vote yes. (The government claimed a 27% turnout, with three-quarters approving; critics claim fewer than 5% voted.)

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main Islamist group and most powerful opposition force, has countered a recent government crackdown not with street protests, but far more effectively with a web-based campaign to help its arrested members. More playfully subversive, an anonymous blogger has drawn a rave following for his spoof version of Egyptian politics, which pictures the country as a village ruled by an ageing headman. Through overblown praise of this exalted leader, and of his plans for his son to inherit the post, the blogger runs mocking circles around the suspected ambitions of Egypt’s 78-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak.

Such pinpricks have yet to puncture the dominance of any Arab state. But with internet access spreading even to remote and impoverished villages, and with much of its “user-generated content” pitched in pithy everyday speech rather than the high classical Arabic of official commentary, the authorities are beginning to take notice. In February, an obliging Egyptian court fired a shot across the bows of would-be web dissidents by sentencing 22-year-old Abdelkarim Suleiman to four years in jail. A law student in Alexandria, he had strayed by penning bitter critiques of Egypt’s main centre of Islamic learning, al-Azhar university, and of Mr Mubarak, and posting them on his personal blog.

Bahrain, another country that hides authoritarian rule behind a veneer of democratic practice, has taken to summoning bloggers for questioning, and tries to make them register with the police. Saudi Arabia, which blocks thousands of websites, has silenced many web critics with quiet warnings. Syria’s most prominent web activist, who runs a news service reporting opposition, as well as government views, recently quit the country for similar reasons. But like the controversial opinions of Mr Suleiman, the Alexandria blogger, the real story of what goes on in Syria is still on the web, for anyone inclined to find it.

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