The Activist and The Uprising
Give Me Freedom or Give Me a Blog
Internet bloggers have become the celebrities of the Arab Spring. The names of blogs and bloggers like Arabawy, Sand Monkey and Mona Eltahawy publishing in Arabic, English, French and other languages have become household names virtually overnight. For their rising recognition, scores of them, men and women alike, have been harassed and arrested, often without charge, ostensibly for their dissent expressed online. They are invariably young, technologically savvy and share an affinity with western ideals of Human Rights, often derived from an education abroad. Are they merely a vocal minority or an important voice for a large and disenfranchised demographic? Do their so-called western ideals lend credence to the authoritarian charge of outside interference?
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.Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fatah, his wife Manal, and their newborn son Khaled (named for slain hero of the Egyptian uprising Khaled Said) have been referred to the as the “First Family of Egypt”. Fatah was arrested in November on charges of manslaughter related to clashes in November. Recently, his case was transferred from state security prosecutors to the civilian judiciary, and certain charges against him were dropped. A charismatic and articulate 30 year-old, Fatah is the idealistic face of the Egyptian revolution personified and, to some extent, packaged for a western audience.
Fatah first came to international prominence in 2006, in the wake of his arrest after participating in a peaceful protest calling for a transparent Egyptian judiciary. Already popular among his peers as an active internet blogger, his arrest precipitated the creation of a new blog, Free Alaa, which became a focus point in the online and offline campaign for his release after 45 days.
Fatah’s current incarceration can be viewed as a direct consequence of the exposure he received at the time and subsequently. Consequently, this 9 October when Fatah and some of his colleagues took part in the (largely Coptic) Maspero demonstrations, the army seized the opportunity. Calling him “an unlawful vandal”, they arrested him and blamed him for the bloodshed.
This kind of rhetoric has become ubiquitous in the past twelve months, as dictators and their government representatives insist the root cause of the tidal wave of popular unrest in the Middle East is vandals, troublemakers, foreign conspirators and even terrorists. Witness Muammar Qadhafi’s bizarre descriptions of young people under the influence of hallucinogenic Nescafe in February, or the icy cool of Bashar Al-Assad as he blithely blamed foreign-funded saboteurs for escalating protests in June. It is easy to dismiss these claims as the same hackneyed nonsense that is always trotted out by tottering autocrats grasping for legitimacy: Essentially any progressive or reformist voice must belong to an inherently disloyal fifth column, working as the hidden hand of an unseen foreign enemy. But as with any cliché, there surely must be a grain of truth to such accusations, despite their outrageous tone?
When the first chants of protest were heard in Cairo in January, Fatah was not in Egypt. He and his wife were working as software programmers in California. Very quickly, the couple cancelled their contracts to return home and contribute to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Plainly, here is a connection between Alaa, his wife Manal, and a western-liberal sphere of influence that counter-revolutionary forces have not been slow to point out. Naturally, this is not the only example.
Take the prominent case of the US-born Syrian blogger, Razan Ghazzawi. Similar to Fatah’s experience in Egypt, Ghazzawi was detained by Syrian authorities on 4 December and ten days later charged with attempting to “incite sectarian strife”. Ghazzawi was working with the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression in the Arab World, an independent organization that nonetheless is clearly implicated in westernized notions of Human Rights.
Then there was the bizarre case of Tom MacMaster, a heterosexual American man who managed to fool leading media outlets into believing he was Amina Arraf—a fictitious half-Syrian half-American Damascene Lesbian held prisoner by Syrian security forces. When the hoax was uncovered, authentic Middle Eastern activists were understandably outraged, claiming that MacMaster had trivialized the genuine plight of real people. But the existence of such a deception, however peculiar, highlights a tendency in the West to look on with a certain voyeuristic delight at violations of civil liberties in the Arab World.
Given these and numerous similar examples, are governments in the Middle East justified in their assertions of foreign meddling? In a word, no. It is far too simplistic to conflate an individual’s ties to any country or organization—however strong those ties might be—with a sweeping generalisation. More properly, the bloggers might be considered ‘citizen journalists’. A term which has become increasingly popular among their number, citizen journalists use the internet and online resources to disseminate information.
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.
Still it is only natural that reactionary forces have picked up the most readily available stick with which to beat back the growing tide of digital voices. Fatah is unequivocally not an American instrument. One glance at his family history shows that he comes from a long line of Egyptian dissidents who have spoken offline against corruption and abuse of power. With the dissent now gone digital, the authorities have yet to find a comprehensive way to deal with it beyond old-fashioned persecution. Abdul Ghani succinctly sums up the position new Middle Eastern bloggers find themselves in when he says, “The label of US stooge is almost inevitable, but remember that the Egyptian military gets billions of dollars in aid from the US government.”