Blogging away, Arab style
Café Thawra is a blog, as you all know now, trying to give an alternative view of the Middle East and explanations on different events happening in the region. We like to think, Paola and me, that this blog ables us to be closer to the Middle East and always remain in contact with the dynamics and realities of the region. However, we did not imagine at the beginning of the blog that we would become part of a new community constantly rising day after day: bloggers.
What are blogs? It’s a home page where the author regularly produces new texts and links readers to their blogs and sites of interest. This new type of media is characterized by their interactive nature involving massively the public. The blogosphere keeps expanding faster than any other new media sphere, particularly in parts of the world with limited access to the latest technology, although most bloggers are still based in Europe, the US and the Far East . The number of blogs has grown exponentially since 2003 reaching around 30 million blogs and every second a new one is created . In this article we will analyze the political influence and the effects of blogs in the Arab world.
In the Middle East, blogs are still a tool of communication to be further developed and it remains a small phenomenon in the region. The reason is principally because of the low Internet penetration in the Arab world which does not exceed 4% and is concentrated in urban areas . The number of Arab internet users is about 19 millions, which corresponds to around 10% of the population . We should underline however that this data represent an increase of almost 500% compared to six years ago .We estimate, according to different information, that the Arab world counts around 40000 bloggers  today divided into English and Arabic languages. Generally, blogs in most Arab countries are still restricted to the middle and upper class. Access to internet is actually not evenly spread because it tends to be demarcated on basis of wealth, age skills, literacy, cultural background, class, disability and many other factors(7). The blogosphere is usually not the “voice of the street” but rather a privileged space for young, Anglophone, with it students and professionals. In September 2006 for example a survey out of three hundred Lebanese blogs revealed that 232 blogs were written by university students or young professionals based in Lebanon, Europe, America and Canada(8). This is a general bloggers feature in the Arab world, but in the same time the spread of Internet cafés all around the region allows a democratization of the internet among the population .
As we have seen, the blogosphere in the Arab world is still small, but this does not imply that its effects are small too. The researcher Eickerman, in relation to blogs, drew the comparison with printed press, which was also limited to a small elite in the beginning across the region, yet its impact was substantial. Blogs have had indeed a significant impact on different political issues in the Middle East such as their role in the Kefaya Movement in Egypt, political protests in Bahrain or during the rallies in Lebanon after Hariri’s assassination and many others. Through blogs, we have been able to discover men and women showing the inside story of conflicts and conveying about the human challenges that families were facing in conflict-torn countries. Blogs such as Riverbend in Iraq, or in Gaza with Mona El-Farra’s “From Gaza blog”, Al Jazeera journalist Laila El-Haddad’s Raising Yusuf blog, as well as the pictures posted on Flickr accounts by As Safir Editor Hanady Salman of human devastation during the 2006 war in Lebanon which clearly reached a wide international audience (9) are just a few examples of this phenomenon. Blogs dynamics were also followed by Arab Medias, notably Al Jazeera which dubbed “Blogs: the New Opposition voice in Arab Politics” in which veteran journalist Mohammed Hasanayn Haykal declared himself the greatest reader of blogs (10). Blogs have been in the same time a medium for many Arabs living in the West to establish direct links with the Middle East just as Café Thawra for example, where dialogues and interactions on blogs generate a new field for Arab Transnationalism to develop. They allowed young generation of Arabs who are traditionally kept aside from the public sphere to promote their own debates and thoughts introducing a totally new discourse genre which challenges cultural, social and political norms. Blogs have a “multiplier effect” by influencing at the same time the print media, email newsletters, and satellite television, which all reach larger audiences (11).
Arab governments have observed the rise of blogs and especially of political ones with an eye of suspicion and have therefore started these last few years a repression movement against all blogs critical towards them. While governments in the Middle East and North Africa continue to make investments in media and IT projects, they are also investing in censorship technologies to prevent their citizens from accessing a wide spectrum of content considered objectionable by authorities. The region remains one of the world’s most heavily censored regions, according to a recent report from the research group Open Net Initiative (12). Not only is web censorship on the rise but so is the number of bloggers and cyber-dissidents being jailed for their online activism. Numerous bloggers have been subjected to prosecution and imprisonment in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lybia, Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia. The increased surveillance by governments reflects their concern that in the hands of certain users, blog can be very efficient political tools. We can quote a few names and examples such as the blogger Karim Arbiji condemned to three years of prison for writing about human rights issues in Syria which forbids around 226 Websites according to the Syrian Center for Freedom of expression and Medias (13), or the arrest and torture of some Egyptian bloggers such as Abd al Kareem Nabil Sleiman sentenced for four years of prison for denigrating Islam and insulting the president on his blog, while many other bloggers languish in prison or spend several weeks in jail for online remarks of the regime (like in Bahrain for example) (14). As Egypt’s most influential political blogger, Wael Abbas, who writes a blog entitled al-Wa‘i al-Masri (Egyptian Awareness), tells the public: “becoming a blogger can be a life changing decision attracting phone taps, official harassment or even arrest”” (15).
Despite these difficulties and this new kind of “witch hunt”, bloggers have continued to organize, resist and be critical of their governments. There have been campaigns organized in support of detained bloggers in Saudi Arabia and a host of campaigns to free bloggers in Egypt such as the aforementioned Abd al Kareem Nabil Sleiman case where a transnational movement has organized demonstrations in many cities around the world to support his liberation notably in fostering bloggers to show their solidarity with him, organizing care packagers to send to him and in succeeding in attracting international media coverage (16). In Bahrain, bloggers were able to organize and publicize numerous protests over several issues such as the arrest of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (in December 2004) and constitutional reforms (17). The Bahraini authorities reacted by arresting few of the most active bloggers such as Ali Abdulemam and banning other blogs.
In Kuwait, numerous bloggers gained some public attention with the succession crisis following the death of the Emir beginning of 2006 and in providing support to the campaign reducing the number of electoral districts from 25 to 5 in order to limit on very well known corrupt electoral practices. In addition to this, we observed in the last parliamentary elections in the country that the reformist personalities backed by these bloggers did remarkably well (18). Blogs development in Lebanon was directly linked to the political situation in the country and particularly in relation to two main events: the mass mobilizations after Hariri’s assassination in 2005 and the 2006 July war. Between the periods going from February 2005 until June 2005 several hundred blogs appeared on the web from which a majority was a direct consequence of the rise in civil activism that characterized the rallies in the spring of 2005. The Lebanese blogosphere, characterized by more direct and informal speech, became an alternative to the traditional Media coverage. A whole new generation of young bloggers was able to widen the margin for socio-political critiques and comments and might have even threaten the monopoly of middle aged journalists by which they influence the public opinion (19). Blogs have certainly played a role in shaping new relations between the Diaspora and Lebanon, and also between academia and the press. During the 2006 war, the Lebanese blogosphere expanded importantly, more than a hundred blogs were created, becoming again the favorite medium and scene to debate and cover the events in the country. Despite the bombardments some blogs played the role of the old popular radio host Sharif al Akhawi during the civil war who reported to civilians which roads were safe to take and which were dangerous because of shelling. Lebanese Blogs were actually able to establish themselves as an alternative medium with a large international audience and they played a role in securing aid for Lebanon’s civilian population. In the same time new blogs keep appearing and continue offering an increasing diversity of social and political perspectives. I would like to personally quote the very interesting and entertaining blog of Maya Zankoul which mixes personal experiences and tackles Lebanese / Beirut society and social life with comic drawings and comments. Maya uses her drawings as a way to criticize what gets to her in the Lebanese society and to raise awareness among the youth of these problems.
These last few years Egypt has witnessed an important increase in the number of blogs, but and above all the rising role played by blogs in society. Recently, in November 2007, two Egyptian police officers were sentenced to three years in prison for torturing a minibus driver thanks to bloggers who brought firstly the case to public attention and secondly provided much of the evidence, a cell phone video spread over the web, used to obtain the conviction (20). Bloggers are actually playing an important role on the Egyptian scene and this phenomenon can be dated back to 2003- 2004. The first generation of bloggers was highly influenced by the Kefaya political movement which owes partly its success from the blogging dynamic. From the beginning, Kefaya was indeed as much an online movement as an offline one, launching its site “harakamasria.org” in late 2004 while holding around the same time their first major demonstration (21). The movement observed the arrival of young political activists from different backgrounds and these latter brought their blogs with them or in many cases started drafting their own ones. The blogosphere that emerged at this time reflected the diverse cooperative nature of the Kefaya movement itself. Marxist bloggers such as Hossam al-Hamalawy and Alaa Abd El Fattah wrote and protested side by side with Islamists like Abdel Moneim Mahmoud (22). The Mobilization of Egyptian opposition activist was also made easier and safer with the Internet development and the spread of blogging. Political actions were very often communicated through posts on blogs, which each one of them spreading the information to the others. On the 6th April 2008, a worker strike in al- Mahalla was able to gain significant publicity largely thanks to the efforts of bloggers and Internet-savvy activists. Unfortunately a general strike to join the workers on the same day called on the web including diverse political movements such as the Kefaya movement, al-Wasat party, al-Karama party, the 9th March Movement for University Autonomy and other groups failed to materialize when the government learned about the event and therefore threaten few of the movements (23).
In conclusion we have observed the development and the increasing role played by bloggers in the Middle East. This rising community is actually giving the possibility for Diasporas to participate in their homeland or region dynamics and this on a political, cultural or social level. Bloggers were very often able to link domestic political activists with Diasporas networks and foreign journalists as well. They also fulfill an important function in their country as “citizen journalist” describing their societies and condemning the inequalities of daily life. Unfortunately, there is still no concrete “Arab blogosphere” connecting bloggers from different countries of the region but more a series of blogosphere centralized on their own national scene. Despite this, the change might come with more and more people using internet in the region and event such as the recent conference in Cairo and hosted by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information which gathered bloggers from all around Egypt together with some from other countries in the region including Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, UAE, Jordan, Oman, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, and Bahrain (24). Finally we would like to point out that the main and the most significant contribution of Arab bloggers is that they are becoming a leading community in socio-political engagement. They are increasing public awareness of many citizens in different struggles and in many other issues. Blogs have given a voice for young and frustrated citizens of the region to speak out. They are now able to express their own ideas and debate about it with other bloggers. We are at the beginning of a new movement which includes bloggers from different political and social backgrounds but could have important consequences in a near future, especially in widening the field of thoughts and debates. This new medium is actually still limited and many bloggers are writing under a pseudonyms threaten to be jailed, but in Habermas idealized eighteenth century only few people attended literary salons while many important political tracts were published under pseudonyms. What is important in our opinion is the exchange of ideas and the commitment for change by bloggers.
The new watchword would definitely be: Bloggers of all countries unite!!!
 Haugbolle S., From A-lists to webtifadas: Developments in the Lebanese blogosphere 2005-2006 , Issue 1, Spring 2007
Haugbolle S., From A-lists to webtifadas: Developments in the Lebanese blogosphere 2005-2006 , Issue 1, Spring 2007
 Faris D. ; Revolutions Without Revolutionaries? NetworkTheory, Facebook, and the Egyptian Blogosphere
 Faris D. ; Revolutions Without Revolutionaries? NetworkTheory, Facebook, and the Egyptian Blogosphere
 Isherwood T., A new direction or more of the same? Issue 6, Fall 2008
(7) Isherwood T., A new direction or more of the same? Issue 6, Fall 2008
(8) Haugbolle S., From A-lists to webtifadas: Developments in the Lebanese blogosphere 2005-2006 , Issue 1, Spring 2007
(9) Lynch M., Blogging the New Arab Public, Arab Media & Society (February, 2007)
10) Lynch M., Blogging the New Arab Public, Arab Media & Society (February, 2007)
(11) Isherwood T., A new direction or more of the same? Issue 6, Fall 2008
12) Internet filtering on the rise in MENA, , Posted August 13th, 2009
13) Orient le Jour; Les autorités syriennes bloquent le site « SKeyes media »17/09/2009
14) Isherwood T., A new direction or more of the same? Issue 6, Fall 2008
15) Isherwood T., A new direction or more of the same? Issue 6, Fall 2008
16) Isherwood T., A new direction or more of the same? Issue 6, Fall 2008
17) Lynch M., Blogging the New Arab Public, Arab Media & Society (February, 2007)
18) Lynch M., Blogging the New Arab Public, Arab Media & Society (February, 2007)
19) Haugbolle S., From A-lists to webtifadas: Developments in the Lebanese blogosphere 2005-2006 , Issue 1, Spring 2007
20) Isherwood T., A new direction or more of the same? Issue 6, Fall 2008
21) Isherwood T., A new direction or more of the same? Issue 6, Fall 2008
22) Lynch M., Blogging the New Arab Public, Arab Media & Society (February, 2007)
23) Lynch M., Blogging the New Arab Public, Arab Media & Society (February, 2007)
24) Faris D. ; Revolutions Without Revolutionaries? NetworkTheory, Facebook, and the Egyptian Blogosphere