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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.

By Charles LevinsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 2005


With unkempt black locks and a laptop tucked under his arm, Alaa Fattah has a voice that carries further than those of other antigovernment activists.

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Mr. Fattah, just 23, is one of Egypt's leading bloggers, part of an online community that acts as a virtual megaphone for Egypt's burgeoning opposition movement. Other countries in the Middle East have started cracking down on the Internet, arresting bloggers and imposing strict censorship regimes.

As bloggers gain clout in Cairo, observers say it is only a matter of time before Egypt follows suit.

At a recent demonstration in Cairo's Opera Square against the 25-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, activists distributed placards that read "Freedom Now" and "No to Oppression." Fattah, on the other hand, passed out lists of websites to a dozen or so local bloggers who act as an unofficial media outlet for Egypt's disparate opposition.

"You just can't rely on the mainstream media here," he says.

The connection between the Internet and dissent is not new. In the late 1990s, Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico gained international attention for their plight, largely because of a savvy Net campaign. Similarly, the antiglobalization protests that rocked Seattle in 1999, and have hit other cities since, were organized largely online. Today, blogs, or Web journals, have taken up the charge.

The number of blogs worldwide has doubled in the past five months, and a new blog is created every second, according to a recent report by the blog-watchers Technorati. The Middle East is witnessing its share of that growth.

Many Arab bloggers are tackling sensitive political and human rights issues rarely broached by the state-controlled media. They are proving to be a powerful source of information, capable of reaching a few hundred like-minded activists, or of rallying international attention to a cherished cause.

After government supporters attacked and beat protesters in late May, Egypt's blogging community led the effort to publicize what had happened.

"I had never heard the word blogger until May 25," says Rabab al-Mahdi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, and an opposition activist. "But now I know them well because of all the amazing coverage they had of the protests. My friends overseas all followed what happened through the blogs, because they have more credibility than the mainstream media."

Activists in Egypt rely on blogs like Fattah's to find out the time and place of future demonstrations, to learn who has been arrested and where they have been taken, and to debate the effectiveness of opposition strategies. In short order, Egypt's bloggers have become a political force, capable of more than merely commenting from the sidelines.

In early June, Fattah and two other bloggers decided they were tired of protesting in the same tired locations, with the same hackneyed slogans. Acting independently of opposition elders, they used their blogs to organize a protest in a working-class Cairo neighborhood, which attracted a respectable 300 people. The young bloggers' innovative logos, slogans, and choice of location prompted a sweeping debate among the Egyptian opposition.

Similarly, after three suicide bombers pounded the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on July 23, three other Egyptian bloggers organized an antiterrorism candle light vigil. It attracted so much interest that the government banned it at the last minute.

"Egypt's bloggers seem to have been able to make the transition from spouting hot air, to political organization and political work and that's impressive," says Marc Lynch, a political science professor specializing in Arab media at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.