Written by : The Majalla: The Leading Arab Magazine
on : Thursday, 22 Dec, 2011
Internet bloggers have become the celebrities of the Arab Spring but are they leading the calls for changes, or just the most vocal members of large and disenfranchised communities?
المدونين اصبحوا مشاهير الربيع العربي, لكن هل يقودون حملات التغيير أو انهم مجرد اصخب افراد المجمتمعات الكبيرة والمحرومة؟
A prominent presence on social networking sites is often enough to be considered a blogger in the Middle East
حضور بارز على مواقع الشبكات الاجتماعية يكفي في كثير من الاحيان لاعتبارك مدون
Back in 2002, a blogger under the pseudonym Salam Pax began to describe life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule and the subsequent 2003 invasion. Initially the blog was a way to keep in touch with his friend Raed (hence the name, Where is Raed?). Quickly it became an arena to write about daily life, disappearances of people, and the effects of the war. Salam (real name, Salam Abdulmunem ) chose to write predominantly in English, not to make an overtly political statement, but to rise above the din of internet chatter and because, by virtue of a foreign education, it came naturally to him.
Despite the extreme risks involved in documenting the situation from within Iraq, Salam’s blog continued and soon was gazumping international news agencies by contributing a unique voice to the coverage. UK newspaper The Guardian ultimately put to rest suspicions that Where is Raed? was not authentic and Salem eventually became a regular contributor for the paper. Where is Raed? illustrates that internet is one among many tools of expression, and it just so happens that in the past decade it has become the most accessible, quickest and easiest medium to use. When Salem could not access the internet he simply maintained his diary and would share his posts later.
Moustafa Abdul Ghani trains citizen journalists in Iraq and Egypt. He focuses on using the internet to create online communities in political arenas where face-to-face meetings are difficult or dangerous. He makes the point that the notion of what a blogger is to a Middle Eastern audience is not so rigidly defined as someone who simply writes a blog. The growth of Facebook and Twitter has opened up avenues for men and women with an unrecognized stake in their societies to share their views.
Abdul Ghani and the citizen journalists he trains compare the movement to the secret Samizdat reproduction of forbidden material in the Soviet Union. In this sense a blogger can be someone who is active on Facebook, sharing their thoughts and other people’s ideas in a forum where it is difficult to be tracked by authorities. Before the ubiquity of social networking sites, Weblogs were the preferred form of disseminating material. Before blogs, it was closed e-mail groups. The men and women who have been using these online communities are different to the political activists of history only in that their technology is more advanced.
This returns us to the problematic notion that online activism is a characteristically elitist field, privileging those with an advanced (often western) education and a fluency in English, the lingua franca of the internet. Men like Alaa Abd El-Fatah have become international celebrities and his critics suggest he is advancing a personal agenda. But Abdul Ghani is skeptical of this criticism. He explains that it is not simply the case that any charismatic, over-educated technophile can start a blog and bring about a revolution. There is a vast amount of online noise to cut through before a blogger will make a name for themselves, and actual physical grassroots networks in real communities remain important, not least because they facilitate the online message . Fatah is an excellent example of someone working on the ground, particularly in Tahrir Square, but also getting the best out of his online presence.
Regarding the accusations of elitism, Abdul Ghani’s work testifies to the widespread attempt at advancing online skills. In terms of exclusive language, writing in English is much more of a considered choice today—now that the internet has finally caught up with Arabic—and is very often dependent on the complexities of a local environment. It was beneficial, for example, that Salam Pax wrote in English and could attract the attention of a foreign audience. But that was Iraq nearly ten years ago. Today it can be even more detrimental for bloggers to attract unwanted foreign attention, especially in Iraq—the young blogger Hayder Hamzoz, who writes with Iraqi Streets 4 Change, was attacked in Baghdad this summer by plain-clothes security forces. Activists from North Africa to the Gulf have become less concerned with international support and more with local mobilization.
[The men and women who have been using these online communities are different to the political activists of history only in that their technology is more advanced.]