Technology is just a tool. But in the right hands, technology can help people organize events, capture the moment and help spread the news like never before. And in Egypt, where political change is in the air, never has technology made a difference as much as in recent times.
As President Hosni Mubarak slowly lifts his iron grip on power — having been the leader of Egypt for the past 24 years — the opposition parties are using the Internet and e-mail to rally against him. And bloggers and activists have organized protests throughout the year, taking photos of uniformed and plainclothes police as they beat protesters and posting images online for the world to see.
One of the most outspoken online opponents of Mubarak is also one of the most technologically savvy. Alaa Abd El Fattah works for the Italian human rights group Cooperation for Development of Emerging Countries, and also runs a multi-faceted Web hub with his wife called Manal and Alaa’s Bit Bucket. Both Manal and Alaa, who are in their early 20s, do open source Web development, but their technical work is interwoven tightly with a fight for political reform in Egypt.
“We also offer Drupal-based free hosting space and free aid developing a Web site for any cause we find worthy or interesting and for any speech that is censored or prosecuted in Egypt,” says a passage at the top of the main blog. The blog has posts in both Arabic and English, and the site includes an Egyptian blog aggregator also in both languages, photo galleries, a database of torture victims and videos documenting police brutality.
But Abd El Fattah doesn’t just sit behind his computer. He goes out into the streets to protest and photograph events, and he doesn’t shy away from trouble. Abd El Fattah told me via e-mail of the harrowing events of May 25, when hundreds of people protested the referendum to hold multi-party elections. The problem with the referendum is that any potential presidential candidate has to get approval from half of parliament, a body that is stacked with Mubarak supporters.
“On the day of the referendum, May 25th, after being attacked by tens of hired thugs I noticed a uniformed police general (they use ranks similar to the military) was supervising the whole thing,” Abd El Fattah said. “I stood up and took photos of him. He ordered the thugs to grab my camera, but I fought back and managed to save it.”
Abd El Fattah said they used those photos as evidence in court against the policeman, though the case is currently on hold. But he didn’t let it go at that, making large banners of his photo and taking them to political events — making the photo an icon of police brutality.
“Annoyed by the coverage and pressure, he tried to intimidate me once after a protest,” Abd El Fattah said. “I nearly lost control and attacked him. It turned out it was a trap. There were cameras there waiting to take photos of me attacking a uniformed cop (a major offense).”
Abd El Fattah’s site has been a veritable hub of activism in Egypt. Plus, he has used all the tools at his disposal to organize protests: the blog, mass e-mails, SMS messages, newspaper ads. While he can’t gauge how well each medium reaches people, Abd El Fattah said that if one channel isn’t used then less people show up for protests.
While not every Egyptian blogger is politically active, the Internet and blogs represent a hope for the people of Egypt to express themselves and provide a check on security forces and government.
“The Internet, and the rise of blogs in particular, have afforded Egyptians an unprecedented opportunity to make their voices heard, to exchange ideas, and to communicate across borders,” said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based consultant for Human Rights Watch. “Where the press is tightly controlled, human rights activists, journalists, and opinionated citizens can now set up their own blogs free of charge in a matter of minutes. Pro-democracy and human-rights activists, shut out from the mainstream media, have taken to the Web to disseminate information. A few regularly call for Mubarak to resign.”
Politics infuses blogs
The Egyptian government has long controlled the content of newspapers, TV and radio, while the Internet has been more of a safe haven for freewheeling forums and opposition sites. All that changed when opposition newspapers broke with tradition and took on Mubarak.
“There has been an amazing new freedom of press in Egypt,” said Big Pharaoh, an Egyptian blogger in Cairo who prefers anonymity. “For example, six months ago, the opposition paper for the first time directly attacked and criticized President Mubarak. This has never happened before. Last year, this was unthinkable. Today I’m seeing all these opposition papers all over Egypt say amazing things that they couldn’t say last year.”
That change came when Mubarak started contemplating multi-party elections — brought on by a combination of internal and external pressures, most of all from the U.S. government and its push for Middle East democracies.
But not all Egyptian bloggers are political, and not all of them are advocating the opposition. Big Pharaoh, for example, has come out in support of Mubarak, saying that the time isn’t yet right for fully open elections — because an Islamist extremist might come to power. The main Islamist opposition to Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, does not have a candidate in the election, set for September 7. But the group advocates voting for anyone but Mubarak.
As the media opens up in Egypt, the online forums and blogs have gone even further. A blogger who goes by the pseudonym Egyptian Person reported that candidate Noaman Gomaa got so fed up with people shouting slogans — and not allowing him to speak — that he said, “Is there no one who is capable of shutting up that boy, that son of a faggot?” The comment was caught on microphone, unbeknownst to Gomaa and spread through the blogosphere.
But blog readership remains limited in Egypt. Abd El Fattah says the most popular blogs get 1,000 to 2,000 visits per day, while the smaller ones get in the low hundreds of visitors daily. Limiting factors within the country are the language barrier with English-language blogs, the expense of owning a computer, and just basic literacy — only 57.7 percent of the population is literate, according to CIA’s World Factbook. But Net access is subsidized by the government and cheap Net cafes are widespread, leading to 4.2 million Internet users in a country of 77 million people (CIA numbers).
Blogs in English tend to have a higher readership outside Egypt and especially in the U.S. And diplomats eat up the information they get from Egyptian blogs, which have street knowledge that’s hard to gain when you’re confined to an embassy for security reasons. Joshua Stacher helps write the group blog Arabist.net and is a doctoral student at Univesity of St. Andrews who lives in Cairo.
“Blogs are being read by the elite here who have access to computers and high-speed Internet and have the luxury of time to sit around and talk about these things,” Stacher said. “People in the States really like us, and the people in the embassy love us because they never leave the embassy. For a U.S. diplomat who doesn’t go to protests, this provides another window in what’s going on. Our blog is supposed to be about the Arab world, but it’s really about Egypt, because that’s what we know best.”
Most bloggers I spoke with said English-language Egyptian blogs have a more pro-Western or pro-American stance, while Arabic blogs better reflect how average Egyptians feel. Mohamed M. writes a popular Arabic blog called Digressing, and says that most bloggers have been infused by politics rather than having driven the political movement.
“Maybe in a few years when we see thousands of blogs we can claim that blogs affected politics,” Mohamed M. said via e-mail. “Right now I think it’s the other way around: The political climate has affected bloggers. More and more bloggers who were not so politicized have started to talk about politics. Some bloggers who would be shivering and censoring themselves when they wanted to talk about political taboos, have started to be less restrained as they saw newspapers addressing those taboos bluntly. I was one of them. My tone right now is very different from the self-censored tip-toeing tone of the times before.”
Despite the lack of self-censorship, almost all Egyptian bloggers use pseudonyms, even though they show their faces to authorities at protests. Some anonymous bloggers feel it gives them more freedom to write about politics. Others don’t want work colleagues or family members to associate them with their writing. One colorful Cairo blogger who goes by the pseudonym Sandmonkey ticked off the various reasons he’d rather not use his own name.
“I am anonymous for many reasons,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “1) Because it’s not safe to say the things I say on my blog, and if my identity is known I may get arrested; 2) I don’t want my views to be used against my family members by their political enemies, especially since those family members are Mubarak supporters; 3) I like the freedom that being anonymous grants you. It helps separate your real life from your ‘blog life,’ which is good because it allows me to relax. I vent on the blog as the Sandmonkey — it’s my inner Tyler Durden [from the movie Fight Club].”
Fears, hopes for the future
So far, the government hasn’t shown an interest in shutting down blogs or arresting bloggers. Most bloggers believe the government knows about their blogs, but because their readership and protests have remained relatively small, the police haven’t taken action yet. My repeated attempts to contact government officials for this story were fruitless.
Stacher says that Westerners like himself feel they have some protection from government. Plus, if an online activist like Abd El Fattah were thrown in jail, the outcry from bloggers and foreign media would cause more trouble than it was worth. Stacher explained that because most Egyptian security is focused on the street level, the Internet hasn’t really come into play.
“Anywhere in Cairo where you go, you can spot the police on the street and you see them all the time and they are watching your comings and goings,” Stacher said. “They’re part of the scenery. They’re always there. Because information and security is still gathered in that way, the blogs can organize [protests]. … Maybe they’re being watched but it’s not enough of a movement to scare anyone. [Security is] much more worried about political groupings and meetings in houses. Stuff that’s in the open. [Bloggers are] not attracting that many people to the protests. It’s the same 300 people every time.”
But there is still a lot of optimism that the online reform movement can sprout wings. Karim Elsahy is an Egyptian architect who lives in Boston, and has become an active blogger in the past few months. Elsahy started a non-profit called Pray4Peace and raised money for the victims of the Sharm El-Sheikh terrorist bombing. Elsahy is currently in Egypt to deliver the $3,500 he raised to victims’ families and told me he hopes his One Arab World blog will morph into a political party over time.
“We’re going to be forming a political party, not less than 10 years from now,” Elsahy said. “The idea is economic independence among Arab states. The problem with the phrase ‘pan-Arabism’ is that it is associated with previous [failed] attempts. My idea isn’t a version of the European Union, but a kind of economic cooperation with a single language and the same culture.”
Bloggers wonder what will happen once the election is over and Mubarak has won in a landslide — which almost everyone expects to happen. Will bloggers continue to have the freedom to organize protests and attack Mubarak and his policies?
“I’m not sure if this freedom will go on forever or whether it will stop after the elections,” said Big Pharaoh. “But I don’t think it will stop because the genie is out of her bottle, so it will go on. The Internet is a powerful medium that’s getting bigger and bigger every day, but it’s not like the radio or television or the papers yet.”
In the short term, Egyptian bloggers and Netizens might play another important role in politics. Mohamed M. says they might become “citizen monitors” for the September 7 elections, reporting on what they see at polling places and taking photos of any harassment or election-rigging. That’s the kind of first-hand reporting that can help bloggers serve in a watchdog role while other media are held back.
* * *
In Their Own Words
More thoughts on blogging and the elections from Egyptians and others in Egypt:
“Usually mainstream media would report a protest by a short clip on TV or a photo in a newspaper and stating who organized it and protesting what, and a line or two about ‘President Mubarak has promised to start political reforms.’ Bloggers on the other hand give a very detailed description of the protests, many photos, and with a personal side of telling the story compared to the stiff reporting of mainstream media.” — Mohamed M., Digressing blog
“I started [my blog] with people outside of Egypt as my primary audience. I wanted to inform the world that Egyptians are against terrorism and that not all of them hate the U.S. or the West and want it dead like they are always portrayed to be. However, my secondary audience was my fellow Egyptians as well. I wanted to challenge them and their ideas and make them re-think some of the positions that they have as truisms: Egypt won the ’73 war, the Jews are behind 9/11, Bush went to Iraq because of oil, etc. You know, stuff that the average Egyptian knows to be true because they make him/her feel good about their lives and the state that they are in.” — Sandmonkey, blogger
“Then Beheyyah came on the scene and she really transformed things, because her blog is really good. There are several theories about who she is, but no one knows for sure. It’s kind of a mystery. She has a lot of cultural and historical references that none of the foreigners would know. I might not be able to reference obscure songs or poems and she is able to do it.” — Joshua Stacher, blogger at the Arabist.net
“As I keep saying to all those who ask me about my blog, it is not a political nor an activist one. The stuff in that blog is more cultural and human than anything…I think the importance of blogs are negligent in shifting politics. They have been a good means in providing accounts of those protests that have been happening lately, and yes, they are much better than mainstream media. They are not regulated by size, or censor or any political affliations. Each blogger just captures his or her experience, and it’s pretty good.” — Mohamed, blogger at From Cairo With Love
“If you look at the impact on people outside the movement, mailing lists, forums, e-mails and SMS messages are effective ways of delivering information and mobilizing people who already belong to your network but fail at attracting new faces. I think we gained more than an extra 100 youth activists through blogs and other forms of citizen journalism.” — Alaa Abd El Fattah, who blogs at Manal and Alaa’s Bit Bucket