Core to Commonplace: The evolution of Egypt’s blogosphere
Over the past five years there have been three identifiable stages in the development of the Egyptian blogosphere, each shaped by key episodes of contention. These episodes, which pitted political movements against the state, reveal the mechanisms by which virtual media power is transformed into moments of political struggle through activism, newsmaking, and online interaction.[i]
The first stage is the Experimentation Phase, in which a few dozen Egyptians discovered and tinkered with a new publishing platform. These early adopters formed the core of the Egyptian blogosphere in its early stages and have become a blogger “elite” by influencing the mainstream media and fellow bloggers. This was followed by an Activist Phase, during which many bloggers became activists and activists became bloggers. Although not every blogger was an activist or vice versa, blogs gained exposure because of their role in political movements like Kifaya and the attention of mainstream media and human rights organizations. By the end of 2006 the blogosphere had grown exponentially, the Muslim Brotherhood built a noticeable presence and Kifaya was loosing its momentum. By this time the blogosphere was entering its third phase, the Diversification and Fragmentation Phase. From late 2006 through the present the Egyptian blogosphere expanded to include thousands of Egyptians and the subaltern was pushed into the public realm. During this phase one can distinguish virtual enclaves or communities of bloggers that tend to engage primarily, though certainly not exclusively, with each other, such as activists, Leftists, Muslim Brotherhood, cultural and poetic bloggers, Copts, Bahai, homosexuals, Salafis, social commentators and personal bloggers.
Antecedents and conditions
Egypt got connected to the Internet in 1993.[ii] In 2003 Egypt had 3 million internet users and nearly double that number of mobile phone subscribers; by 2005 the number of internet users had jumped to 5 million and mobile subscribers to more than 13 million,[iii] though connectivity numbers are inherently difficult to obtain because of the lack of data collection and the characteristics of Internet use in Egypt.[iv] Such figures also tend to discount the impact of public places like internet cafes, libraries, and schools that offer access.[v] In 2004 there were about 400 internet cafes in Cairo and high-speed DSL connections at home could be had for $50;[vi] by 2008 internet cafes were prolific and DSL had dropped to between $10 to $22 depending on the speed. Home computers and laptops were common and taken for granted among the middle and upper classes.[vii]
Online web diaries began gaining popularity in 1998 and became available to the general public in 1999 when Pyra Labs developed software that helped people publish online without needing to know any special programming or coding, although it did not become a popular platform until Google purchased the company in 2002. Until the late 1990s publishing in Arabic was technically difficult, but by the turn of the new millennium efforts at facilitating computerized communication in the Arabic language had made great strides. Blogspot, the most popular blogging platform, enabled Arabic script in its posts and its simple user interface meant that anyone, even those with little technological literacy, could create a blog. Online forums, the predecessor to blogs, were popular among many Internet users in Egypt. Many of the core bloggers had participated in them. By the time blogging platforms like Blogspot started to become popular their generation was already becoming familiar with email, online forums, and other technologies that by the third phase had become a relatively common part of daily life in the middle class.
As globalization accelerated in the late 1990s, the new century became a time of great developments in the Arab media industry and saw a relative opening of freedom of expression as Mubarak’s government sought to stay in the good graces of the United States and international organizations like the World Trade Organization. The media industry during this time underwent a substantial makeover as satellite television and especially the Qatar-based news station al-Jazeera reshaped audience expectations and the practice of Arab journalism.[viii] The Iraq war and George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” created a political context in which pressures for democracy had to be balanced against cooperation on terrorism, the war, and foreign assistance.
The experimentation phase: 2003-2005
In 2003, personal computers were still relatively scarce, and Egypt had about three million internet users.[ix] Protests against the Iraq war In January and February 2003 ushered in a new era of activism as thousands took to the streets. They culminated in a demonstration in central Cairo on the day of the invasion that resulted in mass arrests and drew 20,000 – numbers not seen since the 1972 student-led protests.[x] But there was not yet a link between new media technologies and the activists.
As the war got underway in Iraq, blogs written by Iraqis describing the situation on the ground drew international attention, inspiring others to start blogs.[xi] As one blogger put it: “The blogosphere blew up after the Iraq war, 2003, because we needed to document and express our feelings.”[xii] But this blogosphere was primarily English and did not yet extend to Egypt.
Out of the Iraq war protests grew a new political movement that became known as Kifaya,[xiii] Arabic for “enough.” The group made street protests and eventually blogging part of its repertoire of contention as it sought political change at the very top. Kifaya first appeared on the scene in December of 2004 when hundreds of people held a silent protest, their mouths taped with yellow stickers reading “Kifaya” at Cairo’s High Court to demand that President Mubarak step down and hold direct, competitive elections.[xiv] Kifaya’s manifesto called for civil disobedience and sought to break taboos and establish a right to demonstrate and talk about the country frankly.[xv] Over the next two years the movement inspired people to demand change by taking to the streets and speaking out; among them were many of the core bloggers who shared the same desire for change. A natural symbiosis between Egypt’s early core bloggers and the emerging protest movement helped popularize the Egyptian blogosphere as a site of protest as Kifaya grew in popularity during 2005.
Before 2005 there were only a handful of bloggers in Egypt and about 40 total blogs.[xvi] These core bloggers were primarily bilingual twenty-somethings, many of whom were active in the online forums that predated blogs. Several worked in translation or technology jobs and most wrote in English.[xvii] These early adopters were primarily liberal, anti-establishment and often leftists who blogged about personal interests. They were also open-minded and flexible, committed to individual rights and collaboration across political and social divides.[xviii] Several were self-described techies or Linux geeks, such as Malek, Alaa, and Ahmad G., while others wanted to try out a new publishing medium. Blogs entered the consciousness of these forerunners randomly, through Google searches, for example, or through the attention granted to the Iraqi blogs made famous in the Western media in 2003.[xix]
A blogger who wrote his own history of the Egyptian blogosphere, which he argues is a distinct space from other blogospheres, described his discovery and adoption of blogging:
The first time to hear about blogging was when I installed Google Bar in my browser, and saw the Blogspot icon there. I guess Rami Sidhom (Ikhnaton2) was introduced to blogging the same way. Then I found Manal and Alaa”s Bit Bucket, which was a Blog Aggregator created by two married Linux and Programming Gurus. As you can see, at that part of the Egyptian blogosphere history, many blogs were into computers and IT, such as JPierre and Mohamed Sameer”s FooLab. And even now, when there is diversity in blogs topics, away from the technical ones, you can still notice that many of today”s bloggers are Engineers.[xx]
These initial bloggers were early adopters who were influential in spreading blogging among their friends, encouraging them to start blogs and even creating blogs for new users. Diffusion of innovation theory, which emphasizes the function of opinion leaders in creating knowledge of new practices and ideas, and their role in encouraging others to adopt exogenously introduced innovations,[xxi] helps explain why a few people had such a profound influence.[xxii]
Information diffusion does not occur in a concentric circular pattern, as Wilson notes, from richer industrial Western countries outwards to the developing world and the South. Rather, it happens through “key domestic elite innovators” who create social networks through which innovation travels.[xxiii] The core bloggers played this role in Egypt as they adopted new technologies created in the West to local political and technological conditions. Early bloggers like the Gharbeia brothers, Hossam el-Hamalawy,[xxiv] Ramy of Beyond Normal,[xxv] Mohammed of Digressing,[xxvi] Manal and Alaa,[xxvii] Sheriff Ahmed,[xxviii] Sandmonkey,[xxix] Malek Mustafa and others encouraged members of their social networks to create blogs and often provided technical assistance. They were also among the first to use Twitter and Flickr, but in a way not originally conceived of by the creators of such applications.[xxx] As Wilson also notes, IT networks have limited effects on most people but are centrally important to a small national elite who support developing knowledge culture and innovation to support wider diffusion of the information revolution.[xxxi] Core bloggers were overwhelmingly committed to freedom of expression and acted on the belief that the more people who use blogs, the better.
Among the most well-known English language bloggers from this first generation were the Arabist bloggers (Hossam, Issandr, Eman),[xxxii] Sandmonkey,[xxxiii] the Big Pharaoh,[xxxiv] Baheyya,[xxxv] and Nermeena.[xxxvi] Their posts were directed internally at a personal audience of friends and externally to a Western, English speaking audience. Alaa and Manal, the famous couple of Manalaa.net and founders of the Egyptian Blogs Aggregator,[xxxvii] refused to commit themselves to one or the other and have posted in both languages since the beginning. Beyond Normal,[xxxviii] Digressing[xxxix] and the Gharbeia brothers, Amr[xl] and Ahmad,[xli] were the first Egyptian bloggers to write in Arabic.
Unlike their English-language compatriots, Arabic bloggers spoke primarily to an Egyptian audience and sought to enhance the technology available for writing in Arabic on the internet. Ahmad, who started blogging in November 2003, created the Wikipedia entry in Arabic for “blog,” describing what it is, how to set one up, and promoted the term modawana as the Arabic term for blog.[xlii] These bloggers often explain that they write in Arabic because it is their mother tongue and they are more comfortable writing in Arabic than in English, but also because they want to talk to their fellow citizens. “In Arabic people are trying to come up with a new discourse” and create content in Arabic on a range of topics – like climate change or nuclear power – that does not really exist in Arabic, explained Amr G. He told me that if he were to write in English, his posts would just be one more voice in a cacophony and thus “wouldn’t matter” the way they do in Arabic.[xliii]