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.

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.

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.

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.

"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's bloggers make a mark

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.

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