The Other Arab Bloggers
The Other Arab Bloggers
Wednesday, May 28,2008 13:45
By Nicholas Noe & Maha Taki

Since 2005, both the Western and Arab press have written hundreds of articles about the democratizing effect that weblogs, Facebook, Youtube and other social networking sites can have in the Arab world.

This enthusiasm is a direct consequence of Arab world’s general disgruntlement towards the state of the mainstream media since it continues to be state-controlled, censored and/or heavily divided amongst political ideologies.

The Internet, of course, is deemed to be democratizing (in sharp contrast to the Arab media) because it is a bottom-up form of communication where everyone"s voice is heard, free from the gate- keeping process. Moreover, it can often escape the boundaries and ideologies of the dominant social, cultural and political milieus such that voices not often reported are brought to the fore - religious minorities, homosexuals, the "opposition" etc.

However, while the Internet has certainly made a noticeable contribution to the organization of political campaigns in Egypt (recruiting youth through Facebook during the recent April 6th protests in Egypt, highlighting the case of assaults on young women in 2006 by bloggers who took pictures with their cell phone of the assaults, etc.), some core groups seem more "connected" than others at the moment - a crucial aspect to keep in mind.

Moreover, most Western (and to some degree Arab) media coverage of the Internet focuses on English language blogs that have a secular, liberal outlook, especially in Egypt. Some notable examples are:

• The blog of Alaa Abdel-Fattah and the
Free Alaa campaign that followed after his imprisonment during a protest in Egypt. The Free Alaa banners that were circulated allegedly received 150,000 daily hits on U.S. sites per day.

• The blog of Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman Amer who was sentenced to 4 years in
prison for anti-religious rhetoric and insulting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was widely reported on BBC, the International Herlad Tribune, AP and elswhere in the English language media.

• Wael Abbas of the Egyptian Awareness blog has been interviewed by CNN, Reuters, Mail and Guardian, The State, the Washington Post and many more.

These bloggers are the type to which the Western media generally reaches out. Young, active, secular and opposing the authoritarian states of the Arab world, they fit well with the general rhetoric surrounding the use of the Internet for democratization.

While the very first Egyptian bloggers may have been from this spectrum of society - especially given that Internet activism began to be used by expats - these voices do not represent the range of political spectra available online today...and definitely not those in "opposition" to the government.

The most substantial opposition movement today in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood. Its members are, of course, not secular, liberal, or strictly nationalist, and most of them write in Arabic. They are also, overwhelmingly, not Jihadists calling for violence either. They are young Egyptians and they are using the web to voice their concerns.
And they are being imprisoned and arrested for expressing their opinions online. (For example, Abdel Moneim Mahmoud of the blog anaikhwan.net was arrested but not charged, and Ikwanweb.com has numerous articles on the arrests of Egyptian Brotherhood bloggers).
Critically, they are also using blogs to contest issues within their organization, to be noticed by senior members of the Brotherhood and to improve their position within the Muslim Brotherhood (see Khalil al-Anani, Editor of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya article which can be found on Ikhwanweb.com).

In short, blogs, especially, are not just a tool to voice Western- media friendly or pro-liberal democracy positions. In Egypt, they are being used with increasing force and impact in the domestic political struggle, which is gaining steam as the possible end of Mubarak"s reign approaches.

Of course, Jihadists also widely use the internet as a political tool
- and do so in Egypt. They entice hatred, are violent and often are the first to publish al-Qaeda videos, generally calling for the killing of non-Muslims. However, this should not obscure the fact that there is a notable increase in the number of blogs with an Islamist outlook that are non-violent.

A final point: The Internet is not a "public sphere" in Egypt. In fact, despite the rise of "opposition" bloggers among the Muslim Brotherhood, the community using the Internet still reflects precisely the "digital divide" that exists between users and non-users. Indeed, Internet users in the Arab world are still overwhelmingly young urban elites. This is because, in part, in the majority of the Arab world, Internet use is hindered by high costs, slow connections and weak infrastructure. There is also a general lack of investment in the development of the technology coupled with a number of initiatives to hamper Internet penetration - the department for Confronting Computer and Internet Crime, a special unit within the Ministry of Interior, is but one recent example).

So one should remember when considering recent reports of "Facebook detentions" that there is both more and less to this than meets the eye. There"s a long way to go, in other words, before politics and the Internet are able to synergize to tip the scales of power in Egypt.

And when that point comes, it will likely not be in the form of a "ready for CNN" color revolution.

Nicholas Noe is the editor in chief of the Beirut-based news translation service mideastwire.com. Maha Taki is a PhD candidate at London"s Westminster University.

http://www.ikhwanweb.com