Egypt's growing blogger community pushes limit of dissent
Despite a crackdown on the Net by other Arab countries, Egypt's bloggers are leading antigovernment protests.
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The new threat is only beginning to dawn on Middle Eastern regimes, long accustomed to tightly regulating the flow of information. Bloggers and online journalists have been imprisoned in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Tunisia. Several others closely monitor and restrict access to Web content. Media observers expect the region's bloggers to face growing intolerance from governments.Skip to next paragraph
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"In the Middle East, the mechanisms of oppression are already there, and the number of bloggers is growing," says Curt Hopkins, director of the eight-month-old Committee to Protect Bloggers. "There's going to be a convergence in the not too distant future with a lot of cracking down on bloggers."
In 2001, Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian emigrant to Canada, published directions on how to make a blog in the Farsi language. Seven months later there were 1,200 blogs in Iran.
Today, there are an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 Iranians blogging, including former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi. During the 2003 student uprisings in Iran, Internet blogs and chat rooms allowed students to mobilize, organize, and communicate with one another, free of prying government eyes.
Iran has since adopted "one of the world's most substantial Internet censorship regimes," according to the Open Net Initiative, a partnership of researchers from Harvard, Cambridge University, and the University of Toronto.
But government resistance isn't thwarting this new generation of Middle East activists, who are finding that the pro-democracy sit-ins, and decades-old slogans of their parents, may not be the most effective avenue for change.
"I help people build websites," says Fattah, the Egyptian blogger. "This is the biggest contribution I can make to the movement."
Bahrain is another Middle Eastern country where bloggers have butted heads with the government in recent months. Bahraini bloggers' relentless calls for a new constitution, the separation of powers, and greater political liberties seem to have rattled the government.
"The fact that there are so many bloggers out there speaking freely and expressing themselves with no inhibitions or restraints is unheard of," wrote Amira al-Hussaini in a recent post to her popular blog, "Silly Bahraini Girl."
Earlier this year Bahraini authorities arrested a blogger and two website technicians from the Internet forum Bahrain Online, which had posted a United Nations report critical of the government's discrimination against the Shiite majority.
The country's largest opposition movement had used the website to organize protests and evade police. The arrests were followed by an edict from the Ministry of Information requiring all bloggers to register their websites with the government.
Bahrain's bloggers rallied to the cause. They organized a protest demonstration, and vowed not to register with the ministry. As they wrote about the plight of their electronic brethren, bloggers across the globe - and then media heavyweights like The Wall Street Journal, and international aid groups such as Human Rights Watch - picked up on the story.
The media campaign was largely effective. The three have since been released from prison, though they could still face charges, and few expect the Ministry of Information to follow through with its new policy of requiring all bloggers to register with the government.
"Without the bloggers of Bahrain escalating this, and trying to pressure the government, I don't think anyone would have ever cared or heard about these guys," said Haitham Sabbah, a prolific blogger since 2003.