Bloggers of the Arab world unite in Beirut (PART II)

The crème de la crème of Arab bloggers gathered in Beirut over the weekend for a conference on blogging and Internet activism, organized by the German Henrich Boell foundation. MENASSAT had exclusive access to the conference and held its own round-table discussion with some of the participating bloggers.

(Cont'd from: Bloggers of the Arab world unite in Beirut)


MENASSAT: Regarding censorship and the Internet, what are the tools used by your respective states, and what role do Internet providers play?


"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 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."