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
 
bloggers lebanon
From left to right: Ahmad Al-Omran ("Saudijeans"), Ali Abdel Imam (Bahrain), Mohammad Abdullah (Syria), Rachid Jankari (Morocco), Shahnaz Abdellsalam ("An Egyptian Woman"). © Alexandra Sandels

BEIRUT, August 26, 2008 (MENASSAT) – 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?


WAEL ABBAS ("MISR DIGITAL"/"DIGITAL EGYPT," EGYPT):


"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."

 
AHMAD AL-OMRAN ("SAUDIJEANS," SAUDI ARABIA):

"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."


ALI ABDEL IMAM ("BAHRAIN ONLINE," BAHRAIN):

"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."


MOHAMMAD ABDULLAH ("RAYE7WMISHRAJ3"/"I'M LEAVING AND I'M NOT COMING BACK," SYRIA):

"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."





RACHID JANKARI ("JE PARTAGE DONC J'EXISTE"/"I SHARE THEREFORE I AM," MOROCCO):

"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."


SHAHNAZ ABDELLSALAM ("WA7DAMASRYA"/"AN EGYPTIAN WOMAN," EGYPT): 


"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."


RAZAN AL-GHAZZAWI ("RAZANISMS"/"RAZANIAT," SYRIA):

"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."