Inside the school of the Egyptian blogosphere

Written for Global Voices

inside egypt

Source: original image from Baheyya (photoshopped), text in Arabic from Misr Digital

It is being made clear almost daily that the dynamism of the Egyptian bloggers isn’t just online; the country’s activist bloggers are also highly engaged on the street as well. They’ve been playing an active part in the pro-democracy reform movement which is contesting Mubarak‘s long reign; they’re present at almost every sit-in and demonstration, supporting the Kifaya National Movement for Change and using blogs, text messaging, videos and photos to expose police abuses during rallies, and even inside police stations.

In other words, the Egyptians aren’t merely sitting in front of their computer screens, blogging about the change they’d like to see happen — they are deeply committed to being a part of the process. By acting as watchdogs on the government and on the country’s mainstream media, they have gained credibility beyond their local audience and attracted the attention of regional and international media that is following their every move.

Rarely does a week pass by without news about the arrest of one or more Egyptian bloggers. On March 15 2007, three bloggers were arrested –- then released the same day — for taking part in a protest against the controversial constitutional amendments which were approved by Egypt’s parliament on March 19. On March 20, three more bloggers, MaLeK (aka MaLcoLM X), Mohammad Gamal (aka Gimihood) and Mina (aka Haj Girgis), were arrested en route to a sit-in in front of the People’s Assembly in Cairo. They were also released the same day.

Last month, on February 22, the Egyptian court sentenced the 22-year-old blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman (aka Kareem Amer) to four years in prison for insulting Islam and president Hosni Mubarak on his personal blog. Furthermore, on the March 12, Judge Abdel Fattah Mourad, head of the Alexandria Appeal Court, upheld Kareem’s four-year prison sentence and prepared to launch a lawsuit to block 21 blogs and websites for “defaming Egypt’s image and insulting the president.” Hossam el-Hamalawy republished on his blog the following message from blogger Amr Gharbeia:

The list, 21-websites-long, includes the blogs and sites that took part in the discussion around the book the Judge has written, and the wide plagiarism evident in the book copying HRInfo’s report on Internet Freedoms in the Arab World, and a how-to-blog guide written by blogger Bent Masreya.

Of the 21 blogs and website, I was able so far to confirm Kifaya’s and HRInfo’s websites, in addition to the blogs of Bent Masreya, Yehia Megahed, and my own.

However, and despite the power and the unity that characterize the Egyptian blogshpere, many believe that the Egyptian regime, using the stratagem of sowing discord by condemning Kareem Amer, has succeeded in dividing Egyptian bloggers into two camps: the Islamists, who criticize the way Kareem was writing about Islam and Muslims and, in a way, support his condemnation; and the liberals, who are defending Kareem’s rights and campaigning for his release. According to Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, “many of the people who defended Kareem in the Egyptian blogosphere strenuously objected, publicly or privately, to some of his writings. But they still defended his right to express his views. In any case, as the Egyptian blogosphere grows, it is becoming more reflective of the diversity and pluralism of Egypt itself. Kareem didn’t divide the blogosphere. It wasn’t unified to begin with.”

Ikhwan Bloggers

Snapshot from the Alwatany Alyoum newspaper of the ruling National Democratic Party: “After the communists and Kifaya movement, “the illegal” [in allusion to the Muslim Brotherhood] is infiltrating weblogs to recruit young people“. Source: ana-ikhwan.blogspot.com

Even if the core activist bloggers are linked to the Kifaya movement, we are also witnessing how the Egyptian political blogsphere is changing, as young activists from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and oldest Islamic movement, have started using blogs to raise awareness of their cause and actively campaigning for the release of members of their movement who have been jailed.

But why is nobody in the West talking about this new development, which certainly will affect the entire region, given the central leadership role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sunni Muslim world? The Egyptian organization has been, since its creation in 1928, a major source of inspiration to all Islamic parties across the region. Is the mainstream media, especially the western media, by focusing on “liberal” bloggers while ignoring those with an Islamic slant, applying a double-standard in their coverage of the Egyptian blogosphere? Elijah Zarwan believes, however, that the international media’s lack of focus on the Islamist blogs is a question of ignorance, “both of the blogs’ existence, and of the Arabic language,” and the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood blogs are a relatively new phenomenon.

A few weeks ago, Mohamed Nanabhay blogged about The Changing Face of Arab Blogs, raising an important point:

And now that the Muslim Brothers from Egypt are blogging, it would be interesting to see how much weight Global Voices (and other bloggers) give to these voices.

During a presentation entitled “Blogging Where Speech Isn’t Free” at the recent South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman answered the question:

solidarity and a willingness to agitate for speech for all threatened bloggers, not just the ones we agree with – we’ve got to be prepared to support Muslim Brotherhood bloggers in Egypt as well as dissidents like Karim.

In Part Two of this article, I interview three young Egyptian bloggers. Read it to gain an insight into the highly organized Egyptian blogosphere, and how bloggers’ perceive their role in this new, turbulent phase in the history of the country.

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