The Loss Of Popularity Of Egyptian Blogging

The Loss Of Popularity Of Egyptian Blogging

In 2005, in front of the Al Jazeera cameras, the octogenarian Egyptian author Mohamad Hassanine declared his interest for “Bahiyya”, stressing that in his opinion, the content published in this blog had nothing inferior to the texts of other journalists.

These extravagant ideas coming from an influential member of the Egyptian intelligentsia had been interpreted as a true recognition of blogging. This was then still in its climbing-up phase. It is difficult to say today that it is still the incredible movement that it could have been.

What attracted youths to the universe of blogs was the fact that on emerging, this represented a worldwide mini society. This mini society was made up of about 1500 bloggers, according to Marc Lynch, assistant professor of political science at the Williams College (United States, TN).

The political activists’ productions and their quasi instantaneous coverage of street protests in Egypt and of the confrontations which caused disputes with the police were more perceptible than the personal or literary writings. When a blogger was taken in for questioning, the whole community showed its solidarity to him; e-posters and banners condemning his arrest increased in number and, immediately, support groups were formed for his cause.

At the time everyone thought that youngsters now had their own existence, in a closed arena, where their elders would not dare step in. The talk about change became heated. Many people started preferring blogs to e-forums which were subjected to the control of access providers.

In those years, the political agitation was at its peak. The birth of the “Egyptian Movement for Change”, Kefaya (meaning “enough”, TN); the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood (an Islamic movement which was prohibited but tolerated, TN) as a parliamentary power and the organisation of presidential elections during which the head of State in power could be challenged by other candidates: all these new happenings surprised the Egyptian society.

Bloggers accompanied this change. They reproduced the political activists’ lifestyle on websites in which they added their own writings. The names of some of them stood out, such as that of Wael Abbas, who became an example of an e-reporter. The images of the protests which he placed online were reproduced by the media. Together with other bloggers he sometimes anticipated press agencies and daily newspapers. Moreover, he was the only one to constitute important film documentation about the abuse of power by the police in the police stations.

A quick look at Wael Abbas’ website shows an obvious decrease in strength. He was taken in for questioning several times during political protests and many times threatened on his own blog. He now risks being arrested for a different reason, a much simpler one: a dispute with his neighbour policeman! However he still remains relatively faithful to blogging, compared to some of his comrades, whose websites, after having been in the limelight of satellite television and newspapers, have now nearly been abandoned.

The blogger and the “blogger cliché”

Haytham Yahia is one of these bloggers. In 2006, his website contained precious information and images about the interfaith confrontations which had started in the surroundings of a church in Alexandria. By writing chronicles about these events, he revealed aspects which the traditional press could not perceive. Today, one can only read texts about music or personal thoughts on his website which are published at very distant intervals. He also challenges the term “blogger”, which according to him is too simplistic; whilst giving that which he is supposed to represent the characteristics of a political activist.

Haytham, who works with Google/Egypt, says: “During the interfaith confrontations in Alexandria, I was in the heart of the event because it was happening close to where I lived. I knew the background, the details… Those were different times! I was more interested in politics, the fight for citizens’ rights and voluntary work in election monitoring. Today, similarly to other young Egyptians, I am taken up by work.”

A quick glance at other Egyptian blogs, so energetic a few years ago, is enough to reveal their new reality. Some bloggers have been overcome by professional life’s troubles; others preferred putting their abilities at the disposal of independent newspapers. Others still have joined citizen organisations…

Paradoxically, the integration of influential bloggers in the milieu of NGOs for the defence of citizens’ rights, in the media and traditional press did not have repercussions on the content of their blogs. Whilst promoting a book on his website published by “Darwin”, a publishing house which targets mainly bloggers, the young Ibrahim Adel wrote: “Nobody was interested in this book. The blog fever has irreversibly ended.” In fact, this book was a collection of writings which were initially published on a blog.

The reason for the “act-blog” reflux

The 3rd report of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information dedicated to the liberty of internet in the Arab world (2009) shows that the number of blogs in this region reached about 600 thousand, of which 150 thousand are still active. In 2008, a governmental study had already revealed that Egyptian blogs represented a third of Arab blogs and that Egyptians were the greatest Arab users of the Web.

The progression of the number of internet users in Egypt (5 million in 2006, currently 15 million), and mostly, the launching of Facebook, a closed network in which as many serious campaigns as futile ones are led, have transformed the relationship of the Egyptians to Internet.

Haytham Yahia believes that internet activism has changed form and that the different campaigns launched on Facebook have something of the ex-bloggers “heritage”. He declares: “Some political activists are today occupied with their work, in the press or elsewhere. For others, by time, it is becoming difficult to bear the idea of being arrested again, to dedicate themselves to their blogs or to a political activity, from which they obtain nothing.” This is how he describes the bloggers’ situation who, together with him, have played a decisive role in the “Egyptian initiation” to the Web.

This initiation was accompanied by big difficulties for bloggers. According to the 3rd report of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, Egypt is one of the Arab States which mostly suppress “internet activists”. The NGO Reporters without Borders (RWB) ranked it, a few years ago, amongst the States which are most hostile to freedom of expression on the Web.

The repression prevents the echo of e-campaigns from reverberating in the street. The law establishing the state of emergency (decreed in 1981, TN) authorises the government to impose hindrances to the freedom of movement, of holding meetings and of residence. It facilitates the arresting of any activist who decides to transfer activities which are not well looked upon by the authorities to the public space.

The latest arrests done in the name of the state of emergency targeted a group of bloggers and internet activists who had moved to Nagaa Hamadi, 600km south of Cairo, to offer their condolences to the victims of a criminal attack against a church, on Coptic Christmas eve (celebrated on 7th January, editor’s note). On learning about the news of the initiative from Facebook, Mohamed Atef, a blogger from Sohag (100 km north of Nagaa Hamadi), had wanted to join the group. He was taken in for questioning even before being able to leave his town.

Above all, Facebook

Mohamed Atef has no difficulty in describing himself as a child of the “second époque” of Egyptian blogging, the one during which Facebook took the lead on other e-spaces for expression. He also started by blogging. When he was a student at the faculty of law, he followed attentively the information given out by bloggers about the “judicial crisis” (2006), during which they had offered their support to the magistrates’ sit-in whilst asserting their independence vis-à-vis the Executive.

Later on, Mohammed joined the “April 6th Youth” group, who in 2008, on Facebook, called for a general strike, and by doing so attracted the satellite television’s attention on it and obliged government media to muster their troops to thwart it. He declares: “Facebook gave blogs a fatal blow. It was supposed to complete their activity thanks to the means of mobilisation and information which it offers, but instead, it ruined everything! The call for a strike on the 6th April brought about a big interest but it was also an illusion since, on website, there was no real response.”

Despite the disillusion, and even though he is busy preparing his Masters dissertation, Mohamed did not give up following the news about political protests and the repression they provoke. His view on the world of bloggers is nevertheless different today: “Some activists had precise interests, this is the problem. Once they got what they wanted, they lost interest in blogging. For me, conviction is my only motivation, and I do not try to benefit from what I do.”

Intermittently, the domain of mini-blogging, like that of traditional blogs, has experienced resounding controversies between famous bloggers. Some denounced others who, in their opinion, were pretending to be “political activists or bloggers” with the aim of making themselves known or obtaining financial help from foreign parties. The others were indignant at these accusations and denied any of their truth.

Despite these squabbles, and according to a study made public in 2009 by the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society (affiliated to Harvard University), harmony reigns between the different Egyptian “electronic trends”, classified as “radical secularists”, “youths with general interests” (the issue about women, literature, human rights…), Islamists, “Young Muslim Brothers” (1), and finally, English-speaking bloggers.

A number of reports and studies have examined the phenomenon of the “Young Muslim Brotherhood”, and the written media focused on them, in the hope that they would be the voice of change in this trend. Although Mohamed Atef has Islamist inclinations, he still thinks that the positive welcome reserved for their blogs is excessive. “Their writings seem extraordinary; they call for change within the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. but concrete situations, such as the strike of the 6th April 2008, showed their subordination to their leaders. We thought that they would have supported this action. We were taken by surprise!”

The “Young Brotherhood” blogs are also declining. One of them is that of Abdel Monêem Mahmoud, who was largely supported by bloggers during his arrest and who, after having worked for the information website Ikhwan Online (Islamist website, TN), is currently responsible for the “Blogs” page in the daily newspaper “Al Doustour” and is the specialist of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Gamaat Islamiyya (“Islamic Groups”, a more radical Islamist organisation, TN). This former blogger’s website is rather an archive of his work than the platform from which he expressed his opinions and commented about the progress of the situation within the “Brotherhood”.

Facebook, an open ghetto

The disinterest of the websites of the most influential bloggers’ disinterest for and the emergence of Facebook which, in its new format, has 350 million subscribers, redefined the characteristics of “internet activists”, especially those who act in the political domain. Facebook, which directed Internet activity towards a set of confined ghettos, is an immense space but a closed one, contrary to blogs, which are much more visible to the media.

At the end of 2006, the firm Gartner for research in information technology published a study about the reflux of blogging to the benefit of new international trends so to say. The study predicted that 2007 would mark the beginning of this phenomenon’s death. In 2008, in an unequivocal way, the magazine “Wired” which specialises in technological issues declared: “Twitter, Flicker and Facebook took back blogs to 2004!” The grounds of such opinions are based on the increase in number of blogs which have been abandoned; they also emphasize the “nature of blogging”, a “subjective” activity par excellence, and that which one may call bloggers’ “scriptural saturation” due to the continuous production of content for their websites.

Surely statistics show an increase in the number of visitors of big blogs, but this does not indicate an increase in activity. For Dr Mahmoud Khalil, who is responsible for the section “Electronic Press” in the faculty of Information Science at the University of Cairo, the reflux of blogging is caused by its own nature: “Blogs depend very much on the offer and demand. The number of visitors is an important motivation to continue but also a good enough reason to disappear! Having said this, this decline can also be due to security pressures.”

Dr Mahmoud Khalil is not far from establishing a link between internet activity and the general situation of the country. For him, the creation of movements such as Kefaya, which have re-conquered the streets, was a determining factor for the evolution of blogging. However, he ensures, the official media continue to dominate popular opinion and always end up taking over; they have even managed to find their way on the Web.

Contrary to blogs, which are often identified to one person, the strength of a group on Facebook is measured by the number of its members, who all have the same rights regarding its organisations. This advantage was exploited by the youths of the Democratic National Party (in power, TN). They founded several groups which have in common their admiration for Gamal Moubarak, the president’s son, whom some see as the most favoured candidate to succeed his father. As a reminder, such campaigns in favour of this important leader of the DNP were some of the causes for the explosion of political activity on Internet and for the birth of hostile movements to the “hereditary transmission of power”.

Recently, the Web was feverishly animated due to football matches between Algeria and Egypt in the framework of the football World Cup qualifications. On this occasion we were able to observe exchanges of content between the traditional and the electronic media, and this, for the needs of the mobilisation campaigns of supporters. This was a new happening because, in the past, the rule was rather the pillage of blog contents by the traditional means of information.

Haytham Yahia remembers well this period of electronic conflicts between Algeria and Egypt which he could observe closely whilst working with Google. He believes that the future will be different: “We are nearing the General Elections. They will be followed by presidential elections. People have been active on the Net during these sensational football matches. Political current affairs could bring them back to political activity in this space.”

Some foresaw that blogging would be a factor of political change in Egypt. What is certain is that it enabled bloggers to decisively reintegrate social space. Wael Abbas, known for having published eloquent videos about the practice of torture in police stations, enjoys a real exposure on the media; on satellite television sets, he is seen side by side with political analysts and the “traditional” journalists so to say. Other bloggers joined press companies or became authors thanks to the interest shown in their writings, which were initially published on their websites. Therefore, even though they completely broke their ties with protests and their generation, these adventurers today incontestably belong to the elite.