• Iran
  • March 23, 2007
  • 27 minutes read

Inside the school of the Egyptian blogosphere

It is being made clear almost daily that the dynamism of the Egyptian bloggers isn’t just online; the country’s activist bloggers are also highly engaged on the street as well. They’ve been playing an active part in the pro-democracy reform movement which is contesting Mubarak’s long reign; they’re present at almost every sit-in and demonstration, supporting the Kifaya National Movement for Change and using blogs, text messaging, videos and photos to expose police abuses during rallies, and even inside police stations.

In other words, the Egyptians aren’t merely sitting in front of their computer screens, blogging about the change they’d like to see happen — they are deeply committed to being a part of the process. By acting as watchdogs on the government and on the country’s mainstream media, they have gained credibility beyond their local audience and attracted the attention of regional and international media that is following their every move.

Rarely does a week pass by without news about the arrest of one or more Egyptian bloggers. On March 15 2007, three bloggers were arrested –- then released the same day — for taking part in a protest against the controversial constitutional amendments which were approved by Egypt’s parliament on March 19. On March 20, three more bloggers, MaLeK (aka MaLcoLM X), Mohammad Gamal (aka Gimihood) and Mina (aka Haj Girgis), were arrested en route to a sit-in in front of the People’s Assembly in Cairo. They were also released the same day.

Last month, on February 22, the Egyptian court sentenced the 22-year-old blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman (aka Kareem Amer) to four years in prison for insulting Islam and president Hosni Mubarak on his personal blog. Furthermore, on the March 12, Judge Abdel Fattah Mourad, head of the Alexandria Appeal Court, upheld Kareem’s four-year prison sentence and prepared to launch a lawsuit to block 21 blogs and websites for “defaming Egypt’s image and insulting the president.” Hossam el-Hamalawy republished on his blog the following message from blogger Amr Gharbeia:

The list, 21-websites-long, includes the blogs and sites that took part in the discussion around the book the Judge has written, and the wide plagiarism evident in the book copying HRInfo’s report on Internet Freedoms in the Arab World, and a how-to-blog guide written by blogger Bent Masreya.
Of the 21 blogs and website, I was able so far to confirm Kifaya’s and HRInfo’s websites, in addition to the blogs of Bent Masreya, Yehia Megahed, and my own.

However, and despite the power and the unity that characterize the Egyptian blogshpere, many believe that the Egyptian regime, using the stratagem of sowing discord by condemning Kareem Amer, has succeeded in dividing Egyptian bloggers into two camps: the Islamists, who criticize the way Kareem was writing about Islam and Muslims and, in a way, support his condemnation; and the liberals, who are defending Kareem’s rights and campaigning for his release. According to Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, “many of the people who defended Kareem in the Egyptian blogosphere strenuously objected, publicly or privately, to some of his writings. But they still defended his right to express his views. In any case, as the Egyptian blogosphere grows, it is becoming more reflective of the diversity and pluralism of Egypt itself. Kareem didn’t divide the blogosphere. It wasn’t unified to begin with.”

Ikhwan Bloggers
Snapshot from the Alwatany Alyoum newspaper of the ruling National Democratic Party: “After the communists and Kifaya movement, “the illegal” [in allusion to the Muslim Brotherhood] is infiltrating weblogs to recruit young people“. Source: ana-ikhwan.blogspot.com

Even if the core activist bloggers are linked to the Kifaya movement, we are also witnessing how the Egyptian political blogsphere is changing, as young activists from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and oldest Islamic movement, have started using blogs to raise awareness of their cause and actively campaigning for the release of members of their movement who have been jailed.

But why is nobody in the West talking about this new development, which certainly will affect the entire region, given the central leadership role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sunni Muslim world? The Egyptian organization has been, since its creation in 1928, a major source of inspiration to all Islamic parties across the region. Is the mainstream media, especially the western media, by focusing on “liberal” bloggers while ignoring those with an Islamic slant, applying a double-standard in their coverage of the Egyptian blogosphere? Elijah Zarwan believes, however, that the international media’s lack of focus on the Islamist blogs is a question of ignorance, “both of the blogs’ existence, and of the Arabic language,” and the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood blogs are a relatively new phenomenon.

A few weeks ago, Mohamed Nanabhay blogged about The Changing Face of Arab Blogs, raising an important point:

And now that the Muslim Brothers from Egypt are blogging, it would be interesting to see how much weight Global Voices (and other bloggers) give to these voices.

During a presentation entitled “Blogging Where Speech Isn’t Free” at the recent South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman answered the question:

solidarity and a willingness to agitate for speech for all threatened bloggers, not just the ones we agree with – we’ve got to be prepared to support Muslim Brotherhood bloggers in Egypt as well as dissidents like Karim.

In order to better understand this highly organized Egyptian blogosphere and how bloggers perceive their role in this new, turbulent phase in their country’s history, on March 15, 2007, I talked to three young Egyptian bloggers and Kifaya activists: Rami Siam, Arabesque and Amr Gharbeia.

Sami Ben Gharbia: What is the secret behind the strength and vitality of Egyptian blogs when compared to other Arab blogs?

Rami Siam: I believe that this strength is due to the attachment of Egyptian bloggers to reality, on the one hand, and their attachment to one another, on the other. Their attachment to reality has made them expose a lot of facts which the authorities have worked hard to hide, thereby making bloggers comprehensive media organisations which walk on two legs and observe and follow up through words and photographs political, social and cultural developments, without any additives. This is not all. They also analyse situations and offer alternatives. A quick preview of Egyptian blogs proves how bloggers have provided an alternative constitution, an alternative flag and an alternative national song. They have also covered important incidents like the sectarianism strife, sexual harassment of women, presidential and legislative elections as well as the clashes with the judges. Bloggers have also provided innovative literary and cultural developments online, which the current corruption has prevented from being portrayed in the normal channels. They have tackled all these issues with constructive criticism in the hope of contributing to real change.

Egyptian bloggers have realized the importance of working together and it is truly amazing to see a group of people from various cultural, political, intellectual and sectarian backgrounds so closely bonded to each other. They aren’t content with electronic relations online but you find them actually meeting and present at cultural and artistic activities like bees on a honeycomb. This has led to a strong relationship between them. You find them attracted to certain arts and music, lifestyles and thought processes, so that some assume that Egyptian bloggers look the same too.

Arabesque: I think this is because the Egyptian blogsphere has some influence on the street. This is because an influential part of Egyptian bloggers have been activists talking about their activity, and so encouraging people to join. Plus, the bloom of the blogsphere synchronized with a sort of awakening in the Egyptian politics and provided a safe outlet for all the oppressed, dissatisfied youth. Also, this is because of the great variety displayed in the Egyptian blogs: either from the point of view of categorizing blogs as literary, political or simply personal; or by the political affiliation.

Amr Gharbeia:
There is always the good moment when we started blogging, but it has to do with very early networking done either personally, outside the visible blogsphere, or through the almost only free and tolerant aggregator run by Manal and Alaa (tolerant to speech but not to good technology).

SBG: Why hasn’t Egypt banned critical blogs like other Arab countries such as Tunisia, for example?

Rami Siam: The Egyptian regime has sponsored a project to spread technological culture to delude citizens that they are entering the third millennium with power. In continuing in its devious scheme, it appointed Dr Ahmed Nadheef, who is in charge of telecommunications and the godfather of the technoglobalisation scheme, as Prime Minister. This led to projects like a computer for every citizen, the e-government project and free Internet. However, the regime is now in an unenviable situation as its projects have collapsed and the tide has turned against it. The authorities are stunned that it has not succeeded in its schemes and brainwashed the conscience of a generation. I personally believe that the government is in no position to live with the repercussions of blocking any of the blogs as the situation is now totally out of control.

Well, I think The Egyptian regime really needs to be acclaimed as the one that enjoys the leadership in the region concerning the field of technology. It makes it look good, and helps it to flirt with the West as a country that encourages democracy. On the other hand, blogs don’t really threaten the regime, because people who use them and do have the luxury of the Internet are not numerous enough to be a threat, not to mention that such a place of expressing one’s self provides youth with a means to vent their anger in a “safe” way and gives the regime some clues to know about the mood of the Egyptian youth from time to time.

Amr Gharbeia:
We are witnessing this right now. There is a lawsuit by a very senior judge to block 21 websites, including a number of blogs, for damaging Egypt’s image and insulting the president. Mine is one of those.

SBG: Do you think that the Egyptian authorities will start practicing censorship or blocking the Internet as a remedy to the headaches caused by the liveliness of the Egyptian blogs?

Rami Siam: The Egyptian authorities are now without any doubt practicing censorship, but as I just said, they will not escalate the situation (by blocking blogs) unless we start clashing directly. I believe that the regime is more likely to arrest people and accuse them of crimes than block their sites.

Arabesque: Nothing is impossible. It could resort to playing this game with the bloggers to intimidate and exhaust them.

Amr Gharbeia: Yes, just as it has been blocking other websites for opposition parties, Islamist and secular. Like the site of the Alshaab newspaper website, the Labor Partys website and the website of the Muslim Brotherhood.

SBG: What is the impact of Egyptian bloggers on society? Do they have social activities in line with their virtual activism?

Rami Siam: I can’t say that the impact of blogs is what is anticipated until now. But there is an impact in certain areas and here I would like to draw attention to special Egyptian circumstances, which the Egyptians know of. Illiteracy is high in Egypt, technological illiteracy as well. On the other hand, Egyptians are the people most attached to cultural traditions on earth, and are petrified of new developments in life and technology. A lot of people approach cyberspace with concern and fear. The authorities know that and are counting on it, but in a state of great stupidity, they gave bloggers a great opportunity when they thought they would be able to restrict us when they put us in a situation where we would have to defend ourselves. They started hurling accusations at us through the media, which is under their control, abusing the widespread technological illiteracy in Egypt.

They didn’t realise that this way, they were drawing attention to the blogs and their contents as well as giving bloggers more credibility among the public. This development has helped create a lot of support for bloggers, who were able to transfer their ideas into reality. This was possible through the involvement of bloggers in the activities of legal and civil societies; in culture and arts; in monitoring elections and helping to register constituents; organising protests and demonstrations; taking part in reform and demonstration movements; and participating in political societies.

Arabesque: Yes they do have activities in the street, but I cannot say that their influence is great…yet.
Amr Gharbeia: Not all the blogs have the same effect. The torture videos and sexual harassment incidents certainly reached far and affected a lot. There has also been a group of bloggers who’ve had moments of activism, organizing a demonstration, a sit-in, and a campaign.

SBG: To which extent has the Egyptian political reform movement benefited from the activities of Egyptian bloggers?

Rami Siam: Political reform movements in Egypt are just like the regime and the public. They were all surprised by this new generation, technology and awareness. Until some time ago, not many believed in this trilogy, but reality imposed itself on everyone and now we see all political reform movements trying to get into the graces of bloggers and soliciting their involvement in drawing up plans for their future activities. They are also trying to use the technology of blogging to spread ideas and information about their activities. At present, every political party or reform movement invites bloggers to review their experiences and to transfer them to youth and members of the party or the movement.

Arabesque: To a good extent…I think that any movement that helps to wake the Egyptian society and maintains its vitality is useful to the reformers’ efforts. It also made them aware of a new generation with new tools that is not satisfied and wants change.

Amr Gharbeia: Not as it should have. An opposition movement such as Kifaya could have done itself a lot of good by adopting citizen journalism as a main tool for fighting corruption and getting a better reach. It would also help keep Kifaya activists more involved and give everyone equal voice.

SBG: Do you believe that Egyptian blogs are now a live model for alternative media which is different from traditional media that cannot break free from strictures imposed by the political regime?

Rami Siam: Without a doubt bloggers have played this role in an outstanding manner over the previous two years. The coverage by bloggers of incidents was dynamic and in a way not possible through traditional media. This dynamism is related to the flexible movement of the blogger as an individual in incidents. Coverage is also extensive because of the large number of bloggers. Therefore, the coverage provided by bloggers has more details than can be expected from mainstream media. On the other hand, bloggers are not restricted by any editorial or marketing policies. Let’s not forget that the differences between bloggers, gives us a more extensive and comprehensive coverage – making it more credible. It is enough for us to see the full range of topics they cover from politics to arts and culture as well as topics which no one else is paying attention to, such as the sexual harassment incidents in downtown Cairo and the incidents of torture in police stations, which were first reported on the blogs, then moved to the courts and are finally being covered in traditional media.

SBG: Do you think that the real birth of Egyptian blogs happened alongside the political movement witnessed by Egypt in the middle of last year during the protests in support of Egyptian judges who were demanding an independent judiciary system? What is the symbolism of that birth in your opinion?

Rami Siam: I believe that the activities of Egyptian bloggers started a little before the demonstrations to show support to the judges, specifically with the beginning of the reform movements especially the Kefaya Movement. I personally think that the real day of birth was 16th March 2006, when the bloggers succeeded in organising a protest under the banner “In the Love of Egypt” at the Tahrir Square, in Cairo, without the blessings of any political party. The event was totally organised online, setting a precedent the security forces were not familiar with. That protest was the true beginning of the spread of the idea of blogging, especially after the widespread coverage it got in the media, led by Al Jazeera. Events such as supporting the judges followed after that, especially when some bloggers were arrested for supporting the judges.
Ways of protesting also developed, reaching a peak with the popular concert Sing O Baheya!, which was the second major protest organised electronically. In those protests, the bloggers did not carry any political banners of any type and overcame accusations of illegal gatherings, stalling traffic or insulting the president. The highlights of the blogging world remain attached to political developments in general. Showing solidarity with the judges, in particular, testifies to the interaction of Egpytian bloggers with events happening in Egypt. The demonstrations for the judges too, show that bloggers are concerned with freedom, justice and the sovereignty of the law and that they are a generation which dreams of real democratic institutions in their country.

Arabesque: It tells of a new generation of activists and a growing number of youth who are aware of the critical moment we are living in, conscious of the importance of action, and are willing to change.

Amr Gharbeia: I think the Judges affair was one climax for blogging in Egypt, with six bloggers out of about 700 detainees. There have been other climaxes afterwards as well.

SBG: Is there a role for the Egyptian Blogs aggregator Alaa and Manal’s Bucket in politicizing blogs in Egypt?

Rami Siam: Manaala’s Bucket played the biggest role in marketing and spreading the idea of blogging in general. They also documented the most important blogs in Egypt and provided links for them with each other. The site also encourages interaction between bloggers and provides information about open source technology applications. But I don’t believe it plays a role in politicizing as paying attention to politics was a priority and a reaction to a certain period and part of the interest of bloggers in general affairs.

I cannot say if this is true, but I am sure it helped a lot in raising the political awareness among those interested in blogging.

Amr Gharbeia:
The Aggregator’s main role was not suppressing any kind of speech. It also happened that Manal and Alaa were more on the active side.

SBG: What is your advice to Arab bloggers who are facing blockages, threats and harassment from their governments?

Rami Siam: Although I don’t give advice in general because I believe in the individuality of each situation depending on the time and place, I would like to quote William Blake when he said: “Word which don’t turn into actions… bring pain.” The best remedy for any escalation, is another escalation – provided they work together as an organised team.

Arabesque: To keep the struggle and republish their blogs under new names. They should deliver the true message that the Internet is not a place that could be controlled.

Amr Gharbeia: One can never guarantee safety, even if you are an ordinary citizen, so you might just as well speak out. However, if one decides to do it, then one may be safer by being either totally anonymous (Baheyya is an example) or by going completely public (like Wael Abbas).

SBG: Do you think that imprisoning Kareem Amer is the beginning of harassing other bloggers for insulting the President?

Rami Siam: Imprisoning Kareem has special circumstances in which the regime abused people’s religious sympathies to frame him for insulting the President in addition to religions. This puts anyone wanting to defend Kareem in a situation. It is the first time for someone to be put on trial for insulting the President. However, I personally don’t believe bloggers will be persecuted for the same charges anytime soon.

It could be, but it is not easy to predict such things. Our regime is not systematic in dealing with anything; it tends to direct haphazard blows here and there to intimidate people and test them. We will see anyway.

Amr Gharbeia: Abdolkarim’s appeal was rejected just an hour ago, and the judge went further and accepted ordinary citizens’ desire to involve themselves in the case for the “harm” they claim Abdolkarim caused them. We wait and see if the next court rules for blocking a number of blogs, this time more active and less controversial than Abdolkarim’s.

Many thanks to Elijah Zarwan, Rami Siam, Arabesque and Amr Gharbeia for responding to my question. Special thanks to our Middle East and North Africa regional editor Amira Al Hussaini for translating the interview with Rami Siam.