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French Version

Bloggers of the Arab world unite in Beirut

The crème de la crème of Arab bloggers gathered in Beirut last weekend for a conference on blogging and Internet activism, organized by the German Heinrich Böll foundation.

MENASSAT had exclusive access to the conference and held its own round-table discussion with some of the participating bloggers. By ALEXANDRA SANDELS and MENASSAT STAFF

Amid the sweltering summer heat and sporadic electricity blackouts of Beirut, they were all there.

Thirty bloggers from Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Palestine, Iraq, Syria showed up for a three-day conference titled, "First Arab Bloggers Meeting."

From Wael Abbas, the Egyptian blogger whose video postings of police torture in Egypt led to the jailing of two police officers, to Ahmed Al-Omran, whose blog Saudijeans serves as an essential information source on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the conference was the first on blogging in the Arab world and was organized by the Beirut office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

"Our colleague in Ramallah was in contact with Egyptian bloggers and out of that grew this regional conference," Dina Faqousa, Program Manager at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, told MENASSAT.

She attributes the success of the event to the fact that the content of the meeting was in large part decided by the bloggers themselves and not by the organizers.

"Prior to the conference, we sent out questionnaires to our core group of bloggers, asking their opinions on discussion topics for the conference. We wanted to know what they needed. We didn't want to impose anything on them that they didn't want to talk about," Faqousa said.

In most cases, the bloggers acted as facilitators and moderators during the discussion, which included circumventing censorship, the legal aspects of blogging, and an exchange of blogging experiences.

"One particularly important subject was learning from one another what to do when bloggers get into trouble," Faqousa said.

Something that the conference participants did not wish to debate, however, was the never-ending topic of whether bloggers should be counted as journalists, and how Internet activism fits into the aspect of mass media.

The conference's informal setting at Zicco House, an arts and cultural center in Beirut, was hailed collectively by the bloggers as a departure from the "big fancy international conferences that lead to nothing."

"It was great because it was more of an open discussion where everyone could voice their opinion whenever they wanted to instead of long speeches," one of the participants told MENASSAT.

The thirty bloggers have agreed to put together a joint manual on Internet usage for activists in the Arab world, said Faqousa.

In the margin of the "First Arab bloggers meeting," MENASSAT organized its own round-table discussion, putting the same questions to a select group of prominent bloggers. Their views differed because they work in different realities depending on where they live. But they all shared one thing: a dream of change in the face of ongoing government repression of free speech.


MENASSAT: To what extent do you think blogging affects social and political change?


"2005 and 2006 were what we in Egypt called the Democratic Spring. Back then I was very optimistic and enthusiastic about blogs. We used to say that we were the ones who would bring change, by saying what we want to say. But experience has matured us; it has led us to more rational and practical conclusions.

"The conclusion I've arrived at during the last 4-5 years is that blogging will never be an alternative to the media and the press, neither in civil society, nor with the political parties. But again, our experience in Egypt has shown that we could be a spark, an ignition.

"We have succeeded in pushing the limits of freedom of expression, and talked about issues that are considered taboos such as torture, women's rights, and sexual assault in the streets.

"Also, farmers and workers' movements are usually brutally and violently oppressed in Egypt, and no one would hear about it. Farmers' land would be destroyed, and they would be pushed off their lands, and no one would hear about it.

"The state used to deny accusations of torture, and claim people used the claims to clear themselves. But the videos of torture and forced confessions published online have proved to be a giant leap forward.

"Even with comics, we've witnessed a huge development. We have seen the first caricatures depicting the president and his children appear. I know many cartoonists whose work about the president ends up in the drawers of the popular newspapers, and then they would ask me to publish their work on my blog. These people have helped increase the margin of freedom of expression.

"The material published on blogs has pushed the civil society to act on issues of torture, women's rights, workers, farmers, street children, elections monitoring and so on. We face some problems when it comes to political parties. We criticize them, so they consider it bad manners or defamation or competition. What I would like to see is political parties stepping up to their role in the society, like the blogs did when they called for democratic change, plurality and honest elections."


"Measuring the effect of blogging is difficult because there are no clear indicators. In Saudi Arabia, it is only recently that have we been able to sense some effect. And I don't expect the effect to be as much as it is in Egypt.

"The two societies are different, and their cultures are different. There is no political culture in Saudi Arabia, no elections, no parliament. We have no politics in the first place, never mind people discussing it. Even if they wanted to, people do not have a political awareness that allows them to do so. The focus in Saudi Arabia is on social issues, women's rights, and human rights among other things.

"The effect of blogs is still limited, but I expect it to grow, as Internet users and bloggers increase. The arrest of Fouad Al-Farhan also attracted people to the blogs."


"Blogs did not appear [in Bahrain] until 2004-2005; as a result, their effect is still minimal. The total number of Bahraini blogs is 200 to 300 blogs only. Forums are more popular here, especially the political forums.

"These forums have been extremely effective in two main ways. First, regarding political vibrancy, since Bahrain witnesses political events on a daily basis, this makes political forums highly influential over politics.

"Second, political forums affect political events through documented news and reports. As for blogs, there are none that are really influential so far in Bahrain. Still, blogging is an unprecedented phenomenon when it comes to expressing oneself, especially for the youth.

"Blogs are being used politically only to feature news such as the arrests of political activists and other stories neglected by the mainstream media. This seems to be the main concern for [Bahraini] bloggers at the moment."


"It's difficult to determine the effect of blogs in Syria, especially with the absence of accurate statistics. The Syrian blogging experience falls behind the Egyptian experience, but precedes the Saudi and Bahraini experiences in terms of the impact it is having on society.

"The Internet only arrived in Syria in 2001, and Internet users made only a small dent in the general population. Statistics suggest that the number of Internet users in Syria will reach 2 million by 2009, an unprecedented increase for people who a short while back did not even own computers.

"The number of bloggers is unknown, but they are definitely harassing the government. If this weren't the case, the authorities wouldn't fear them so much, wouldn't block their pages or arrest the bloggers. They've handed down harsh prison sentences to scare other bloggers.

"As Ali [Abdel Imam] said, Blogs are able to address issues that are not covered by the mainstream media, since a free press does not exists in Syria. Instead, we have what we call state propaganda. Big media, like TV, are often either complicit with the state... or they aren't interested in the first place.

"The blogosphere is developing in Syria, and naturally there's been an increase in the number of bloggers. Also, bloggers who were arrested in 2005 have returned with greater determination, at times using more than one language, and using RSS feeds to circulate news and links to other blogs and sources. Documentation of the news has also increased."


"We do not posses accurate data on the effect of the Internet on Moroccan society. Still, I am very optimistic about the effect of blogging on political life in my country.

"As the Internet began to spread in 1996 and 1997, people did not trust it. But in Morocco several incidents took place that confirmed the importance of the Internet.

"Because of my blogging, one minister was sacked, and policemen have been discharged for accepting bribes [after incriminating videos were posted online.] In several instances, cases of human rights violations were exposed."


"Blogging is very important in Egypt. First, it broke the fear barrier of the Egyptians; second, it installed fear in the hearts of the rulers who started to monitor us. We also encouraged people, particularly the youth, to speak out, express themselves and take to the streets.

"For me, the blogging movement has been a miracle. When we first started, we did not know the response would be big. The outcome was good, and I have hope that we will persevere, and remain a catalyst for the people, unless something terrible happens."


"This question presents us with a paradox. I believe bloggers are well-off, with time to blog and contemplate. I don't mean that they are wealthy, I mean they are different from those who have to work all day. This is why I think it's a bourgeois phenomenon.

"Blogging started as an experiment in Syria, where people started using the English language as a tool of expression, but I don't believe English expresses our reality in the same way as Arabic.

"Adding to that... Syrian blogging at first did not reflect the Syrian reality. Today, it's different and Syrian writers are addressing Syrian issues. I do not feel [this has made much of a] difference, simply because the Syrian people have not yet reached the point where they are ready to rise up and express themselves. Blogging is not representative of the people. Even the opposition in Syrian is elitist. From this point of view, I don't consider blogging is effective in this context."


"Censorship exists in Egypt, but it is selective of course. Websites of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Labor Party, and the opposition outside the country have all been blocked.

"But the state now adopts the idea of a liberal economy and open markets. The Ministry of Communication, for example, is very conscious about Egypt's public image; they don't want to have a bad reputation when it comes to Internet freedom, because they want to attract investment in both the Internet and communications markets.

"But the Interior Ministry is different from the Communications Ministry, and they do monitor the Internet, and have established special departments specializing in Internet, blogging, popular movements, and Islamic movements online.

"Blocking sites in Egypt is easier than in other Arab countries, since most opposition leaders write from inside the country, which makes it easy to find the persons behind a website, or a blog or forum.

"This is exactly what happened to Ahmad Maher, who was kidnapped on the street and tortured to surrender his Facebook group password. There is another side to censorship, imposed on Internet cafes, which demands the name and identification card of Internet users.

"What's new about censorship in Egypt is that it now also targets middle and upper class cafes as well, those cafes in the posh areas where people use WiFi. Internet users now have to use numbered [WiFi] cards and you have to give your name and phone number. Big coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa Café have also adopted this policy. And it doesn't work to fill in a fake phone number. There is no way around using your real info because the activation code is sent to your mobile phone upon logging in.

"Harassing individuals takes a different form. Personally, I have been the target of a vicious character assassination and defamation campaign. I was accused on television of having a criminal record, that I have converted to Christianity and that I am a homosexual. I have also received threats over the phone."


"Saudi Arabia already has a bad reputation when it comes to blocking websites, and this is a problem. The number of blocked sites is huge, but Internet providers have nothing to do with it. The Communications and Technologies Council is the body responsible for blocking websites in Saudi Arabia.

"The council claims that the blocking policy is clear, and only targets pornographic websites. Other than that, they only block what security authorities asks them to block. But it is not this clear in reality; it can be very random. My blog was blocked for no apparent reason in the summer of 2006. When we asked, they said it happened by mistake, and the blog was allowed again.

"If you try to start a website and you find it blocked, you have the right to contact the authorities if you think it should not be blocked. By the same token, you can file a complaint about a website, which they will review, and decide if it deserves blocking or not.

"We did not see much blocking of blogs. Blocking is not effective anymore, since it became so easy to by-pass it."


"We witnessed the first blocking with the Bahrain Forum in 2002 [one of 22 citizen forum sites blocked by the government.] But people were creative in finding ways to enter the site, using a proxy, or virtual IP or other ways.

"What's funny about all this is that pornographic sites are still available.

"As for the blocking process itself, it starts with the Ministry of Information, who is charged with overseeing all publications. They send a letter to the Attorney General, who in turn sends a letter to the Bahrain Internet Exchange, which issues an order to all Internet providers to block the website in question. Many times the orders are just plain stupid, as was the case with the orders to block the Bahrain Platform, when the actual name was the Bahrain Forum."


"At the beginning, Hotmail and Yahoo were banned. We were only allowed to use mail service protocols used by the Internet provider. Later, these services were allowed but in 2006, Hotmail was blocked for three months.

"The list of blocked websites varies, including international sites. The blog Syrian Domaru was the first blog to be blocked, which was then followed by thousands of blogs and sites, including Golan, Facebook, YouTube, and even Wikipedia Arabic, as well as opposition and humans rights websites of course.

"Reporters Without Borders (RSF) considers President Assad one of the main enemies of press freedom. The number of those detained in Syria since the advent of the Internet is significant. A few days ago, Abdullah Ali, owner of Al-Nazaha website was detained and was not released until the site was shut down.

"Syrian Internet users are very creative in bypassing proxies, so the government also blocked more than 600 proxy links.

"A former Minister of Communication said that every person who writes on any website, even leaving a comment, must include his name, phone number and email. Human Rights Watch published this order on their website. The Last Post website did not comply, and once published a comment without the required data. It was blocked for 24 hours, and the violation never happened again."


"We have a somewhat liberal system in Morocco. Google Earth is currently blocked, but maps.google is available! There was a scandal with Facebook as well. We cannot talk about complete blocking, more like harassment.

"The Reporters Without Borders website has a page about historic violations of Internet freedom in Morocco. Some YouTube pages are blocked, but frankly, we are in a liberal system and there is a strong economic lobby defending the Internet. There is massive investment from the private sector, as well as commitments to open the market to foreign companies. Recently, the third generation of Internet was introduced in Morocco, which makes blocking even harder to impose."


"I would like to add another thing about the newly installed bloggers department at the state security agency, and especially Karim Amer's case. He is the most famous detained blogger in Egypt. He was tried for adding a comment on a blog, and sentenced to four years in prison for insulting the president and three more for contempt of religion. Still, this oppression will not keep the bloggers from doing their work."


[In Syria,] "banning [a website] is not a centralized decision, and we never know where it originates. This is dangerous, when you don't know who is issuing a blocking order.

"Added to that, the people sometimes justify blocking certain websites. Popular support with detained bloggers is missing in Syria. It was noticed in the case of Tarek Al-Bayasi for example. What the Syrian government did was not just blocking websites, but also spreading a culture of tolerance toward censorship and blocking of websites. To me, this is more dangerous."


MENASSAT: How has blogging affected each of you? And how long will you continue to blog?


"I worked incognito on various activities for two years before I started my own blog. I did it because I felt my work was not reaching the Syrian people; it was more human rights oriented. Now I feel this work as well is not enough, and that I have to speak about myself more as I will not tell people what to do. My blog now is personal, even with the ideas I propose. I never try and give advice."


"In my case, blogging made me stronger. Whenever I see what I think is wrong, I write about it. But I ran into a lot of trouble with people because I'm honest and do not care much what others think. I will keep blogging because it is the best thing that ever happened to me."


"Blogging is full of contradictions. After I started my own blog I received many threats; it was a shock I got from blogging. A while back, I started a company and now I work as a consultant for electronic media and advise companies on blogging as well as international organizations."


"I started blogging after being detained twice for reasons not related to blogging. I started courageously and boldly, using my full name and all, but from outside the country. It's fair to say my experience in this field is new.

"What probably encouraged me was the massive number of Syrian blogs. Also, I was inspired by my brother who had a blog, and was blogging from the same room I was sleeping in, using the same PC I was using, but I never knew he ran that blog.

"I discovered that blogging in Syria was difficult and dangerous. The bloggers inside the country are unknown, and I hope I succeed in this project knowing that readers' numbers of my blog are increasing every day."


"I started using the Internet in 1996, so it was the Internet that got me. I don't believe blogging affected me personally much. But the Internet opened up new horizons of thought, and I think blogging will and has opened a wider door to express my personal views.

"Still, my blog doesn't contain all my thoughts. I addressed some issues like God and religion and the comments I received made me stop blogging. I consider the power of the society to be savage and more powerful than the state itself. But I suspect I will continue with this experience."


"I just wanted to enjoy myself and never expected to become part of the political scene in Saudi Arabia. But it was a nice surprise. It opened new possibilities. I learned many new things and met many new people. And as long as I enjoy blogging, I will keep doing it.

"Looking forward to the future, I wonder: do we dare to dream? I, for one, do. I dare. And I don't have only one dream. I have many dreams actually: I want to live to see the day when this country becomes a real democracy with a fully elected parliament; when freedom of expression is guaranteed to all, and no one is afraid to speak his mind no more; when women have their full rights and stand on equal foot with men. This was to name a few.

"Call me a dreamer. Maybe I am. I know one thing for sure, however: change is coming. This country is changing, not as quickly as I wish maybe, but it is changing nevertheless. Probably I'm just a young lad who can't wait for this to happen, but who can blame me? If it wasn't for the young to push change then who would?"


"For me, there have been positive and negative aspects to blogging. I'm not sure which weighs heavier than the other. In general, I like what I'm doing and I'm satisfied with it. And I consider it a patriotic act.

"As with Ahmad, blogging has allowed me to learn of new things and meet new people. People started recognizing me and I continue to travel to new places. Most of what I have gained has been moral; on the financial level I can assure you loses are heavy.

"I have been unemployed for a year and a half now in Egypt. I was working for a weekly Egyptian magazine, then I joined a foreign news agency, where I was supposed to be promoted to the head of the bureau, but I was sacked instead because pressure exerted from Egyptian security agencies.

"I applied to work for a famous European radio network on three occasions, and was never accepted. Later I learned that they thought I would affect their neutrality policy. American journals have asked me to stop writing against the regime or abandon my blog if I was to work with them. I try to do freelance work but they won't even allow me to do this, even when it has nothing to do with journalism.

"I don't want to work outside Egypt these days because it is on the verge of erupting and I want to be close to the events."

Beyrouth 18-09-2008

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