Wael Abbas: the Arab Internet’s unlikely superhero

Wael Abbas: the Arab Internet’s unlikely superhero

Wael Abbas: the Arab Internet”s unlikely superhero

Posted November 9th, 2007  He is the first blogger ever to be given the Knight International Journalism Award, next Thursday in Washington. Menassat.com tracked down Egypt”s Wael Abbas in Beirut and sat him down for an exclusive interview.  By Rita Barotta, Menassat.com Staff Writer

BEIRUT – He sat there, trying his best to go “undercover” once again.

Was it really him?

I had visited his blog several times before, but there are no clear pictures of him there. Just one cartoonized picture, showing some of his features but hiding them at the same time.
I had always imagined activists to be outspoken, boisterous, and loud.

Wael Abbas isn’t any of those things.

He just sat there, quietly taking notes during the conference we were both attending but not for the same reasons. Mine was to meet him.

Wael Abbas?

We need to talk!

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Wael Abbas, the very famous Egyptian blogger? Let’s pretend there is.

Wael, who are you?
“I am a 32-year old blogger, so I have been very active on the web since the early nineties.”

He blushes when I tell him that he is being modest.

Too modest.
His vivid first-hand reports have attracted thousands of readers and the attention of mainstream news outlets, in Egypt and all over the world.

He is the first blogger ever to win the prestigious Knight International Journalism Award. (The ceremony will be held in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 13.)

His blog, Egyptian Awareness, disturbs officials back in his home country, who would prefer to avoid seeing popular protests, corruption, police brutality and the like broadcast for the whole world to see.

Wael, when did it all start?
“My blog was officially online in 2004.”

What was its purpose?
“As the name says: Egyptian awareness! People used to think that Egypt”s youth is careless, sitting around doing nothing but having tea and smoking the “shisha”! Actually, the intelligentsia is the cause of the disinterest among young people in politics. I wanted to offer them something that resembles them, something that speaks directly to them, in their own language, and that touches on their real problems.”

While trying to read news on Wael’s blog, I have to admit that I faced some problems. There are many similarities between the Lebanese and the Egyptian language. Yet it is not always possible for a non-Egyptian to understand the message.

Isn’t it an inconvenience, the fact that you write in the Egyptian dialect?
“No. In fact, this was my main goal. If I want to address the Egyptian youth, should I sound like a politician or a philosopher? No, I wanted my blog to address the Egyptians in their own language.”

Wael was arrested several times, and interrogated dozens of times. But unlike other Egyptian bloggers he was never sentenced to jail.

Is it luck that helps you remain free as a bird, or do you have a secret to stay “out of reach”?
“I live in the dark! I go undercover all the time. I hide in the weirdest places. Sometimes, I disappear for a week or more. I try not to reveal when I am traveling outside the country. And the most important thing is that I really try to avoid custody. Some of my fellow bloggers believe that being detained gives more value to their cause. I disagree: What the hell would I do in prison? It will only stop my camera from revealing the truth. I need my device more than anything and I try my best to protect it.”
One of Wael”s accomplishments was his coverage of the disturbances during last year”s Eid el Fitr (the end of Ramadan feast), when a mob of Egyptian men went on a rampage, attacking and sexually harassing women on the streets of Cairo.

The incident didn”t receive a single mention in the Egyptian media until it was exposed during a TV talk show as a direct result of the videos Wael had been posting on YouTube. (You can watch the video here.)

Wael, how do you manage to cover and go undercover without getting caught?
“Fellow bloggers are always being arrested during street protests. I avoid these protests myself and instead ask fellow journalists and bloggers to film the event and send the videos for me to post. Especially when I know that the police are searching for me among the crowd.”

How exactly do the officials try to intimidate you?
“Well, they use many tricks. They spread rumors about me. Wael Abbas is gay. Wael Abbas converted to Catholicism. Wael Abbas has a past full of misconduct. They try to ruin my reputation. This and the fact that they are always coming up with new lawsuits that invariably turn out to be a pack of lies.”

I was curious to know more about the personal life of Wael Abbas. I know: I”m indiscreet, but hey, it’s one of the most effective ways to get your information.

What about your family, Wael? What do they think of all the hype that you create?
“I tried to keep them out of it. When I first started blogging, I did it without them knowing. But then Al Doustour newspaper published an article mentioning my name, and they knew. At first, they were like: “Are you trying to ruin us all?” But with time, they understood the purpose of all this. And they realized that this has a meaning. It’s a cause. Someone should believe in it.”

In a country like Egypt, where the independent press is under constant attack, blogs seems to have become a necessity for anyone interested in finding out what is going on. Blogs, Wael says, “are the last independent voice.”

But is blogging the future of journalism then? Is “citizen journalism” taking the place of traditional journalism?
“No. We are not inverting the roles. Bloggers are not journalists. We are about promoting freedom of speech. We are the ones who will defend free journalism. But, you”re right, we are also becoming more and more a “reliable source” for traditional journalists. I think we offer journalists good topics, controversial ones, dangerous ones.”

After all the detentions, the lawsuits and the threats, do you still believe in blogging in the Arab world, Wael?
“To be honest, I was always a fervent believer in social reform. But today, I”m starting to feel that we still have a very long way to go. Still, I won’t admit defeat. Others have the same beliefs. We bloggers will continue to fight for this country.”
I left him in the lobby of the Monroe hotel in Beirut, preparing his keynote speech for the next day”s conference. (He had been invited by Lebanon”s Al Akhbar newspaper to speak at this week”s conference on “Media in Times of Conflict: Did Someone Say Objectivity?”)

Later that night, after returning to his room, Wael thought that someone had been through his possessions during his absence.

The Monroe hotel is across the street from the Phoenicia hotel, where Lebanon”s pro-government MPs have been holed up for more than a month to escape assassination attempts.

And Wael had been taking pictures from his hotel room window.

Is he becoming paranoid?

I think yes.

But who could blame him?