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Blogging for reform: the case of Egypt

Issue 1, Spring 2007

By Rania Al Malky

Kifaya activists protest in Egpyt. Courtesy of Issandr El Amrani

Kifaya activists protest in Egpyt. Courtesy of Issandr El Amrani

Just after midnight on Wednesday October 25 2006, Malek Mostafa published a post on his blog malek-x.net entitled Downtown’s Sexual Rabies.  Little did he know that his post would prove a blogging sensation and send shockwaves through Egypt’s independent media.

Eliciting some 750 comments—a massive jump from the average 30 comments Malek receives—the post broke a story which Egypt’s state-run media were either unwilling or unable to report: the sexual harassment of women in Downtown Cairo during the Islamic post-Ramadan feast holiday Eid in October 2006. 

The post comprised an eye-witness account of what happened backed up by photographs taken by journalist and fellow blogger Wael Abbas. A total of 60,000 people read the post and for a week, Malek’s site was getting some 8,000 visitors a day.

“One of the things I believe bloggers like me have achieved,” says Malek, “is create a new breed of citizen journalists who communicate what they witness like any correspondent.” 

That night Malek, Wael (misrdigital.blogspirit.com), another blogger Mohammed El Sharkawy (speaksfreely.net) and Reuters stringer photographer Abdel Nasser Nouri had the opportunity to put their reporting skills to the test. They were sitting at a Downtown café when a friend came over and told them about the mass harassment of girls near the Metro Cinema where the celebrity belly-dancer Dina was attending the premiere of her Eid film. From what they were told, Dina had started dancing in the street causing a crowd to gather round her. The bloggers rushed to the scene to find hundreds of young men surrounding a handful of women—veiled, unveiled young and old—grabbing them and tearing off their clothes.

An hour later Malek blogged the whole incident, describing how some of the girls sought refuge in shops, while others were rescued by taxi drivers or security guards. He also detailed how there were no police present to stop the violations.

According to blogger Sandmonkey (who did not witness the event), “it was a disgusting pandemonium of sexual assaults” (for more on the blogging response to the assaults see Sharon Otterman). To add insult to injury, when some of the bloggers asked the police to do something, they were told: “What do you want us to do? It’s Eid. Happy Eid to you too!” Officers even refused to file complaints by some of the harassed women at the police station because it would reflect badly on their peers. 

But it was not just the police who refused to acknowledge the events. The incidents were initially met with zero coverage in the press and on satellite channels. Some bloggers alleged that Al Jazeera had footage of the episode but was given strict orders by the authorities not to air it. And so it remained for three days until Nawara Negm, daughter of leftist poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and outspoken Islamist thinker and journalist Safinaz Kazem, appeared on Dream TV’s magazine show Al Aashera Masa’an (The 10 O’clock Show) hosted by Mona El Shazly.

Nawara was originally invited to critique Ramadan TV shows, but suddenly diverted the issue to talk about the Downtown assaults that were being discussed all over the Internet.

El Shazly decided to investigate the allegations on her show. Her team subsequently went to the scene where the assaults were alleged to have taken place and spoke to shopkeepers, security guards and other eyewitnesses, including Malek, 90 percent of whom confirmed the incidents. She also contacted the Interior Ministry, which denied that anything had taken place and said that no one had filed any complaints related to such incidents.

From there, the story migrated to the independent press with columns appearing in the daily Al Masry Al Youm, Al Dustour, El Karama, El Fagr and also on Orbit’s top show Al Qahira Al Youm.

The story shows the extent to which bloggers and independent media may be increasingly challenging the narrative provided by Egypt’s state-run media. But the growing willingness of private media to harness blogs poses difficult questions about the ability of individual bloggers to provide accurate accounts of events.  It also calls into question whether blogs alone can drive the push for political reform in Egypt and the wider Middle East.

Blogging for a Cause: Harnessing Politics or Projecting Self?

The emergence of activist blogging in Egypt is closely tied to the Kifaya National Movement for Change, a loose grassroots, all-encompassing movement that has been agitating for human and civil rights and political reform since December 2004. If Kifaya has provided the political space for voices of opposition to speak out, blogs have provided the means for Kifaya’s mobilization.  Not only have bloggers continued to challenge the official version of events, exposing a wide array of abuses by Egypt’s authorities and monitoring fellow activists’ lives in jail, they have also rallied other activists to the cause by publicizing Kifaya demonstrations often overlooked by mainstream publications.

For Malek, 25, Kifaya’s strength is in its diversity. “Everything in Egypt is centralized,” he says. “That’s why I was attracted to Kifaya. It’s not centralized. It includes all the colors of the political spectrum.”

Malek dabbled with several political affiliations including the Islamist-leaning Wasat Party and some leftist groups, but found little outlet for his political faith in plurality until Kifaya came along. “I have an aversion to dogma,” he says. “In the beginning I thought I needed to belong to an organized group. Then I realized that I didn’t have to be part of any institution to function and be active. This is where blogging comes in.”

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[1] Atia’s views are the fruit of several email conversations we had while I was at London’s Westminster University in June preparing for my MA’s final online project egyptblogreview.com

[2] According to internetworldstats.com, there were five million Internet users in Egypt as of December 2005, which represents 7% of the total population.

[3] Egybloggers.com has listed a total of 1,457 blogs as of August 2006, 21.6 percent of which are political compare to 47.2 percent personal. Assuming that as many have not been listed, this would add up to a maximum of 3,000.

[4] On May 11, 2006, shocking images of plainclothes policemen brutally kicking and beating peaceful demonstrators spread like wildfire on Egyptian blogs. Throngs of riot police were also keeping busy. The protest was in solidarity with two senior Egyptian judges, Hesham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki, who were being prosecuted for criticizing the 2005 presidential and legislative elections as fraudulent. They had refused to enter the court when security services stopped members of their defense team from coming in with them. Their case had become the centre of the popular movement for political reform, which regards the independence of the judiciary as one of the pillars of a democratic society, a cause célèbre for hundreds of other judges and pro-democracy activists.