Arab dissent finds voice in cyberspace
|Thursday, July 2,2009 17:26|
|By Heba Saleh, Abeer Allam,Simeon Kerr|
When Wael Abbas, an Egyptian blogger and political activist, was detained by prosecutors in April after an altercation with his neighbour, a police officer, he used Twitter, the social networking website, to keep the world updated on his interrogation.
Mr Abbas sent Tweets describing every stage of his questioning and expressing fears that false witnesses were being brought to testify that he had assaulted the officer.
Reaction was swift. Human rights lawyers, bloggers and other activists arrived at the prosecutor’s office while messages of solidarity came from as far away as China and Argentina.
“I used Twitter because I was afraid I would get arrested and no one would hear from me,” said Mr Abbas, a regime critic who has used his website to post mobile phone footage of police torture. “I wanted activists to raise my case if I were detained and I wanted lawyers to come.”
Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook played an important role in the organisation of the protests in Iran following last month’s disputed presidential election. Like their Iranian peers, young Arab activists have discovered the ease with which such sites allow them to reach others and mount challenges to authority in myriad ways.
In countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where demonstrations are banned and protest often carries a high price, the internet is increasingly providing the tools for political mobilisation, and for applying pressure for change.
“The internet is our battlefield,” said Ahmed Maher, a young engineer who co-ordinates the 6th of April Youth movement which has been using Facebook to rally opposition to the authorities in Egypt. “The regime controls the streets, the parties are ineffectual and there are no places to gather.”
So the movement gathers in cyberspace using its Facebook group which at one point numbered 70,000 members. Active members according to Mr Maher are in the vicinity of 1,500 dotted around the country. Debates and voting take place online.
The group has attracted attention through its attempts to organise general strikes on April 6 this year and the year before. Although their call has largely gone unheeded, this year Islamist students allied to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, regarded as the main grassroots political force in the country, demonstrated at several universities to mark their support.
The 6th of April movement itself, according to Mr Maher, is neither Islamist nor ideological in any way. Its members agree on basic principles, such as democracy and fighting corruption. Periodically, they try to carry out unconventional street actions.
“They let us say what we want online,” said Mr Maher. “But passing into action on the street is a no no.”
He was detained and, he alleges, beaten by police after the strike attempt last year because they wanted his Facebook password. Another of his colleagues was held for several days.
In Saudi Arabia, too, the authorities have been playing a cat and mouse game with their cyber critics.
When the government denied Waleed Abu Alkhair, a lawyer in Jeddah, a licence to set up a group to monitor human rights, he created it online.
When that site was blocked, he moved the group to Facebook in December 2008. But it, too, was shut down last month, so now Mr Alkhair uses his personal Facebook page to publish news and updates about victims of abuse.
One case he has highlighted is that of Sahar Khan, a young journalist who was beaten up by her father upon her return from a human rights training programme in Beirut. She sought refuge in a women’s shelter but was turned away. Mr Alkhair posted her story on Facebook, and the shelter called her back immediately. He said that getting access to a shelter could take months and require reams of paperwork, all intended to discourage women from leaving their families.
“We would love to do grassroots campaigning, but it is impossible here,” said Mr Alkhair. “Websites are the only reasonable way to spread a message locally and internationally without risks.’’
Political expression on the internet has also started to flourish in the United Arab Emirates, in spite of local traditions that allow for little public questioning of the rulers.
Activists have launched sites to oppose government policy, such as a support group for a minister found guilty of embezzling assets from his business partner. He was acquitted on appeal last month. Some had claimed the accusations were politically motivated because of the minister’s previous radicalism and human rights work.
Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr Al Qassimi, the former crown prince of the emirate of Ras El Khaimah who lost power in a 2003 palace coup, is using the full spectrum of new media, from Youtube to blogs, to promote his restoration campaign.
But the Emirati authorities take a dim view of too much expression on the internet, blocking outspoken blogs and other sites deemed contrary to their social mores.