Accessibility:

A new direction or more of the same?

Issue 6, Fall 2008

Breaking news on Wael Abbas' YouTube channel

Breaking news on Wael Abbas' YouTube channel

In November 2007, two Egyptian police officers were sentenced to three years in prison for torturing a minibus driver. What makes this case exceptional is not the fact that police were held accountable for their actions, though that is indeed rare in Egypt. Rather, this case is exceptional because bloggers[1] were largely responsible for bringing it to the public’s attention and for providing much of the evidence used to obtain the conviction. 

The original incident for which the two police officers were ultimately convicted occurred in January 2006 when 21-year-old ‘Imad al-Kabir, a Cairo minibus driver, intervened in a fight between his cousin and two plainclothes police officers. ‘Imad was taken back to the police station where he was beaten and sodomized with a stick. The whole ordeal was recorded on one of the officers’ cell phones in order to send the clip to local minibus drivers to further humiliate ‘Imad.

The video did not circulate widely until November 2006 when it was sent to the blogger with the penname Demagh MAK. He posted it on his Arabic-language blog[2] and soon it was picked up by other bloggers, including perhaps Egypt’s most influential political blogger, Wael Abbas, who writes a blog entitled al-Wa‘i al-Masri (Egyptian Awareness).[3] It was then picked up by the newspapers al-Fagr[4] and al-Masry al-Youm[5], after which ‘Imad was identified and persuaded to name his tormentors and pursue the case. This was not all without cost to ‘Imad, who was sentenced to three months in prison for “resisting authorities” in connection with the same incident. During the trial of the police officers, the cell phone video spread by bloggers was a critical piece of evidence and, to the surprise of many observers, the trial found the two police officers guilty. 

This is just one example of the increasing role that political blogging is playing in Egypt. This began in earnest in 2005 with the rise to prominence of the Kefaya (Enough) political movement, a loose coalition of groups united by opposition to President Hosni Mubarak and the prospect of his son, Gamal Mubarak, eventually succeeding him. Kefaya made heavy use of the Internet and most of the political bloggers who are influential today got their start at this time. To borrow Haugbolle’s formulation regarding Lebanese bloggers and the war in 2006, the 2005 presidential elections in Egypt propelled Egyptian bloggers “from obscurity to the heart of the new Arab public sphere of transnational media.”[6]

Much of the reporting and analysis that greeted the emergence of blogging in the West breathlessly proclaimed the inherently democratic and society-changing nature of the technology. Thomas Barnett, an American military scholar who writes about America’s national security strategy, argues, 

Connectivity will drive change in the youth-bulging Middle East. It is the railroad of the American West, and it will change everything in the end. This revolution will be blogged from below and not driven by decapitating regime change.[7]

Der Spiegel International chimed in too, “The power of the blogosphere is growing daily, much to the chagrin of those who view freedom of opinion as a threat to government authority.”[8] If more of these commentators could read Arabic, they might change their tune from excitement to fear when they notice that the biggest recent change in the Egyptian blogosphere is the entrance, en masse, of the Muslim Brotherhood.[9] 

But does Egyptian blogging really mark a new direction for politics in the country or is it merely a new forum for old practices to continue?  An assessment of Egyptian blogging over the past five years suggests that blogging has accelerated the pace of changes triggered a decade ago by the growth of satellite television and an independent press.

IT in Egypt

Before analyzing blogging in Egypt, it is first necessary to outline the scope of Internet usage in the country.  By the time blogging arrived in 2003-2004, computer usage was already firmly in the Egyptian mainstream. At the time, an estimated 10% of families owned a computer at home, Internet cafes were to be found in almost every town, and most of the roughly half million university graduates each year had acquired basic computer skills and familiarity with the Internet.[10] Furthermore, the government has promoted increased computer and Internet literacy through programs such as the “Free Internet Initiative” in 2002 and “A PC for Each House” in 2004.[11]

It is notoriously difficult to get data regarding Internet usage in the Middle East and the data that do exist are unreliable at best. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates Egypt to have a 7.5% Internet penetration rate in 2007. Although the ITU’s statistics are the most commonly used estimates of the state of Internet usage in Egypt, the validity of its assessments is questionable. The ITU collects data by sending surveys to the governments of various countries and asking them to fill them out.[12] At best, this means that the statistic is a gross estimate, as evidenced by the unbelievably round number of 6,000,000 Internet users in the country. At worst, it is a number that could be open to political manipulation. The reported 7.5% penetration rate has also been contradicted by other reports: Tareq Mounir, a correspondent for Reporters without Borders, estimates only a 4% penetration rate once irregular “one night stand” Internet users are excluded; Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arab Human Rights Network, estimates 10% penetration; and Wael Abbas, a prominent blogger, estimated around 13%.[13] It is possible that all of these figures are low because of the difficulty of counting those who access the Internet through semi-public locations such as Internet cafes,[14] universities, and research organizations or through pirated connections.[15]

In most countries, access is not evenly spread because it “tends to remain demarcated on the basis of wealth, age, skills, literacy, cultural background, class, disability, and many other factors.”[16] Indeed, age, gender, education, and wealth are all important factors in determining who has access in Egypt, but none of them are straightforward, linear relationships. The Internet privileges the young because they have been socialized into computer usage in a way their elders were not, therefore reversing the usual age hierarchy in Egypt. It also privileges the wealthy and the literate, but only up to a certain threshold; once the level of wealth necessary to afford access is passed and a basic level of literacy is attained, greater wealth and literacy are unlikely to correspond to significantly greater access. With the spread of Internet cafes, wealth, in particular, is not a huge barrier; Wheeler’s study, based on interviews with hundreds of Internet cafe users in 2004, found that Internet cafes are frequented by “carpenters, sales people in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), tea boys, students, customer service representatives, secretaries” among others.[17] Literacy, which in Egypt was only 71.4% in 2005, is still a barrier.[18] Even more importantly, the quality of literacy varies significantly meaning that the 71.4% above likely includes many functional illiterates. The use of ‘amiyya[19] in blogs becomes very significant in this light, as it provides a way for partially literate people to read blogs. Furthermore, the Internet is potentially leveling for women, but this might be limited by the preponderance of users who access the Internet in cafes, which are still male-dominated spaces.

Compared to other forms of mass media, the Internet has not reached a very high level of penetration in Egypt. However, looking purely at the numbers online misses the point. For instance, there are fewer Internet users than there are TV viewers, but Internet users have truly global access compared to a more local or regional set of programs that one receives on television.[20] The interactive nature of the Internet also distinguishes it from television and radio.

Of course, most of these Internet users are not bloggers. The difficulty in determining the number of blogs means that most scholars have restricted themselves to broad generalizations about numbers of blogs and bloggers. Marc Lynch, for example, guessed in April 2007 that there were “perhaps a few thousand political blogs across the region.”[21] Andrew Exum similarly put the number at around 1,000 bloggers in early 2007.[22] An estimate from within Egypt put the number of blogs in the Arab world as a whole at 40,000.[23] Blogger.com, the largest host for blogs, has approximately 24,400 Egyptian blogs and Maktoobblog.com, one of the other larger hosts almost entirely for Arabic-language blogs, has approximately 10,000. This is only valuable as a rough estimate because most of these blogs are likely to be inactive, but this means that the number of bloggers in Egypt, based on the estimates of two of the larger hosts only, is likely in the tens of thousands. Furthermore, these bloggers are spread throughout Egypt, with many social organizations being started up for bloggers to meet other bloggers offline.[24] The difficulty in estimating the size of the blogosphere is compounded by the fluidity of the medium. Even an incredibly accurate, thorough estimate could leave one asking, as Chadwick does, “Websites come and go, so how reliable is a snapshot?”[25]  

Determining who writes these blogs is also difficult because, in many cases, they do so anonymously. My informants in Cairo contended that the blogging demographic was similar to the Internet user demographic: young, educated, with a higher proportion of social and political activists than in the population at large.[26] Determining who reads blogs is even more difficult.[27] Metrics for blog readership have been shown to mean very little even in the West.[28] The number of readers varies immensely among blogs and over time. Wael Abbas professes to have about 30,000 visits to his blog per month, but in May 2005, after being one of the only sources to cover a protest that was brutally squashed by the government, his site received 500,000 hits in only two days.[29] Few studies try to gather data on readers, but one looked at Iranian blogs and found that readers were primarily between the ages of 20 and 32 years and most had completed some post-secondary education.[30]  

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[1] A weblog, or blog, is a personal online journal where the author can easily post their thoughts on any topic. For a history of blogging see Blood, Rebecca. “weblogs: a history and perspective.” rebecca’s pocket. 7 Sept. 2000. 26 April 2008. www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog_history.html.

[2] “Is there anything more filthy than this????” Demagh MAK, 9 November 2006. 26 April 2008. http://demaghmak.blogspot.com/2006/11/httpwww.html.

[3] Abbas, Wael. “The capture of the torture officers.” al-Wa‘i al-Masri. 25 November 2006. 26 April 2008. http://misrdigital.blogspirit.com/archive/2006/11/25/.

[4] Abdel Fattah, Wael. “The arrest of the officer starring in the torture video in Al-Haram police station.” Al-Fagr, 27 November 2006.

[5]al-Masry al-Youm prints Fahmy Huwaydi’s article whose publishing was forbidden in al-Ahram.Al-Masry Al-Youm, 22 November 2006.

[6] Haugbolle, Sune. “From A-lists to webtifadas: Developments in the Lebanese blogosphere 2005-2006.” Arab Media & Society, February 2007: 1. 

[7] Barnett, Thomas. “The Revolution will be Blogged.” Thomas P.M. Barnett::Weblog. 12 October 2006. 28 April 2008. http://www.thomaspmbarnett.com/weblog/2006/10/the_revolution_will_be_blogged.html

[8] “Blogging Towards Democracy: From China to Iran, Web Diarists Are Challenging Censors.” Spiegel Online International. 29 November 2006. 28 April 2008. http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,450228,00.html.

[9] Lynch, Marc. “Brotherhood of the blog.” The Guardian. 5 March 2007. 28 April 2008. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/marc_lynch/2007/03/brotherhood_of_the_blog.html.

[10] “Egyptian Linux Advocates’ Replies” 2004.

[11] Eid, Gamal, ed. Implacable Adversaries: Arab Governments and the Internet. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, 13 December 2006: 136.

[12] ITU’s methodology is described here: “World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Database.” International Telecommunication Union. 31 January 2008. 28 April 2008. http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/publications/world/world.html.

[13] Tareq Mounir, Personal interview, 12 January 2007; Gamal Eid, Personal interview, 13 January 2007; Wael Abbas, Personal interview, 14 January 2007.

[14] Wheeler, Deborah L. Empowering publics: Information Technology and democratization in the Arab World—lessons from Internet cafes and beyond. Oxford Internet Institute Research Report No. 11, 2006: 7-9, Wheeler points out that the Middle East is actually the world leader in terms of Internet café concentration; Eid 2006 points to the fact that the Egyptian town of Zagazig alone has 460 Internet cafes. 

[15] George Milad, Personal interview, 14 January 2007. George Milad, an Egyptian lawyer, pointed out that pirated connections were widespread and he described his experience purchasing a pirated Internet connection in the Cairo neighborhood of Manial.

[16] Dutton, William. Social transformation in the information society. WSIS Publication Series, Paris: UNESCO, 2004: 20.

[17] Wheeler 2006: 9.

[18] “Egypt.” CIA World Factbook. 20 March 2008. 28 April 2008. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/eg.html.

[19] “‘amiyya” refers to the Egyptian dialect of Arabic as opposed to the standard register of Arabic usually used in writing.

[20] Chadwick, Andrew. Internet Politics: States, Citizens, And New Communication Technologies. Oxford University Press, 2006: 11.

[21] Lynch, Marc. “Blogging the New Arab Public: Arab Blogs’ Political Influence Will Grow.” World Press Review. 10 April 2007. 28 April 2008. http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=694.

[22] Exum, Andrew. “Internet Freedom in the Middle East: Challenges for US Policy.” Policy Watch #1205, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 27 February 2007. 28 April 2008. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=2574.

[23] Eid 2006.

[24] Mahmoud al-Shishtawy, Personal interview, 10 January 2008.

[25] Chadwick 2006: 9.

[26] Tareq Mounir, Personal interview, 12 January 2008.

[27] Ayalon, Ami. The Press in the Arab Middle East: A History. Oxford University Press, 1995: 145; Ayalon argues that this is true of the printed press.

[28] Cohn, David. “Think you know your web traffic?: Think again. The Scramble for online measures.” Colombia Journalism Review. March / April 2008. 28 April 2008. http://www.cjr.org/on_the_job/think_you_know_your_web_traffi.php?page=all.

[29] Abbas, Wael. “Help Our Fight for Real Democracy.” Washington Post. 27 May 2007: B03.

[30] Halevi, Jordan. “The Iranian Weblog Research Project: Survey Results.” Unpublished Master’s Thesis. 2006: 7-10. 28 April 2008. http://www.persianimpediment.org/research/iwrpresults.pdf.

[31] Ayalon 1995: 154.

[32] Eickelman, Dale F. “Communication and Control in the Middle East: Publication and Its Discontents.” In Eickelman, Dale F. and Jon W. Anderson, eds. New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, 2nd ed, Indiana University Press, 2003: 35.

[33] Alterman, Jon B. New Media, New Politics? From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World. Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Papers #48, 1998: 3.

[34] Gamal Eid, Personal interview, 13 January 2008.

[35] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/el_ma7rousa

[36] Lynch “Blogging” Arab Media & Society 2007.

[37] Wael Abbas, Personal interview, 14 January 2008.

[38] Wael Abbas, Personal interview, 14 January 2008.

[39] Ajemian, Pete. “The Islamist opposition online in Egypt and Jordan.” Arab Media & Society. January 2008: 4-5; Lynch “Blogging” Arab Media & Society 2007; Al-Anani, Khalil. “Brotherhood Bloggers: A New Generation Voices Dissent.” Arab Insight. Vol 2., No. 1, Winter 2008: 29-38.

[40] Gharbia, Sami Ben. “Abdel-Monem Mahmoud: the Egyptian totalitarian regime is the problem.” Global Voices Online. 4 May 2007. 28 April 2008. http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2007/05/04/abdel-monem-mahmoud-the-egyptian-totalitarian-regime-is-the-problem/.

[41] Lynch, Marc. “Young Brothers in Cyberspace.” Middle East Report. MER 245, Winter 2007. 28 April 2008. http://www.merip.org/mer/mer245/lynch.html.

[42] Lynch, Marc “Young Brothers” 2007; A list of some of the more prominent Muslim Brotherhood youth bloggers is here: monem-press.blogspot.com/2007/02/mb-blogs.html, but it must be accessed via the internet archive (www.archive.org).

[43] Bloggers with the prophet: the campaign to defend the prophet. 30 April 2008. http://www.tadwen.com/news/index.php. 

[44] “The Arab Blogistan.” Rantings of a Sandmonkey. 6 April 2006. 28 April 2008. www.sandmonkey.org/2006/04/06/the-arab-blogistan.

[45] Wael Abbas, Personal interview, 14 January 2008.

[46] “The Arab Blogistan” 2006

[47] For an example in the Iranian blogosphere see: Doostdar, Alireza. “‘The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging’: On Language, Culture, and Power in Persian Weblogestan.” American Anthropologist. Vol. 106, Issue 4, 2004: 651-662.

[48] “Shallow. Cultureless. Lacking in self-confidence.” And Far Away… 31 March 2006. 28 April 2008. andfaraway.blogspot.com/2006/03/shallow-cultureless-lacking-in-self.html

[49] Wael Abbas, Personal interview, 14 January 2008.

[50] Tareq Mounir, Personal interview, 13 January 2008

[51] Wael Abbas, Personal interview, 14 January 2008.

[52] “Done.” Rantings of a Sandmonkey. 28 April 2007. 28 April 2008. www.sandmonkey.org/2007/04/28/done/

[53] Lynch “Blogging” Arab Media & Society 2007: 10-11.

[54] Abd El Fattah 2005.

[55] El Amrani, Issandr. “Heroes or martyrs?” The Guardian. 3 May 2007. 28 April 2008. commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/issandr_el_amrani_/2007/05/heroes_or_martyrs.html

[56] Abd El Fattah, Alaa. “you only move twice.” Manal and Alaa’s bit bucket. 2 July 2004. 30 April 2008. http://www.manalaa.net/you_only_move_twice.

[57] Chadwick 2006: 136.

[58] “We Want a Living Wage.” Baheyya: Egypt Analysis and Whimsy. 5 April 2008. 30 April 2008. baheyya.blogspot.com/2008/04/we-want-living-wage.html.

[59] Al Malky 2007: 8.

[60] Ahmad Salah, Personal interview, 8 January 2008.

[61] For a perceptive post-mortem of the 6 April strikes, see el-Hamalawy, Hossam. “Some notes on the Mahalla Uprising.” 3arabawy. 27 April 2008. 20 September 2008. http://arabist.net/arabawy/2008/04/27/some-notes-on-the-mahalla-uprising/

[62] Levinson, Charles. “Egypt’s growing blogger community pushes limit of dissent.” Christian Science Monitor. 24 August 2005. 30 April 2008. www.csmonitor.com/2005/0824/p07s01-wome.html.

[63] “Details: Today.” Rantings of a Sandmonkey. 29 July 2005. 30 April 2008. www.sandmonkey.org/2005/07/29/details-today/.

[64] Waves in a Sea of Change. 30 April 2008. 2mwag.blogspot.com. is a blog started by another young Brotherhood reformer to document the internal debates of the Brotherhood.

[65] “The Brotherhood party charter in the eyes of the bloggers of the Internet.” Egyptian Window. 10 October 2007. 30 April 2008. http://www.egyptwindow.net/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=6795.

[66] Lynch “Young Brothers” 2007.

[67] Mahoumd, Abdel Monem “A dangerous accusation… it merits investigation,”I am a Muslim Brother. 29 October 2007. 30 April 2008. http://ana-ikhwan.blogspot.com/2007/10/blog-post_29.html.

[68] Lynch “Young Brothers” 2007.

[69] For a Libyan example of this phenomenon see: Gazzini, Claudia. “Talking Back: How Exiled Libyans Use the web to Push for Change.” Arab Media & Society. February 2007.

[70] Haugbolle 2007: 4.

[71] Anderson 1998: 14.

[72] “Malek is in the Old Cairo police station.” MaLcoLM X: when all the words became crazy. 5 April 2008. 30 April 2008. http://www.malek-x.net/node/467#comments.

[73] “Bloggers, media people and human rights activists from 12 Arab countries discussing mutual support between internet and human rights.” Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. 28 February 2008. 30 April 2008. http://www.hrinfo.net/en/reports/2008/pr0228.shtml.

[74] Alterman 1998: 76.

[75] Free Fouad: Help to free him! 30 April 2008. en.freefouad.com.

[76] Such as Free Kareem! Campaign to free the brave Egyptian blogger Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman. 30 April 2008. www.freekareem.org.

[77] Rolls, Albert, ed. New Media (The Reference Shelf). H. W. Wilson, 2006: xii.

[78] Dutton 2004: 15-16.

[79] Eid 2006: 141-144.

[80] Reporters Sans Frontieres. “Court upholds government’s claim to be able to block opposition websites.” Maghreb Middle-East press releases. 27 June 2006. 30 April 2008. http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=18136.

[81] This is a common technique in other Middle Eastern countries including Tunisia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. For more on the Bahraini example see: Schleusener, Luke. “From Blog to street: The Bahraini public sphere in transition.” Arab Media & Society. February 2007: 1-2.

[82] Exum 2007. 

[83] Al Malky 2007: 22; Shohdy Suroor’s father, Nagib Suroor was a very well respected poet whose work “Kus Ummiyat” has a graphic title. Tareq Mounir, Personal interview, 12 January 2008.

[84] Tareq Mounir, Personal interview, 12 January 2008.

[85] “Following his Weeklong Disappearance; The State Security Arrest a Blogger under the State of Emergency Law.” Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. 23 August 2008. 20 September 2008. http://www.anhri.net/en/reports/2008/pr0823.shtml.

[86] Eid, 2006: 150.

[87] Wael Abbas, Personal interview, 14 January 2008.

[88] Tareq Mounir, Personal interview, 12 January 2008.

[89] Gharbia 2007.

[xc] “Prisoners of Conscience.” Baheyya: Egypt Analysis and Whimsy. 27 May 2006. 30 April 2008. http://baheyya.blogspot.com/2006/05/prisoners-of-conscience.html.

[xci] Abbas “Help our fight” 2007.

[xcii] Sherif, Ahmad. “Egyptian Police Intimidation of Wael Abbas (Video).” Ahmad Sherif Project. 2 July 2007. 30 April 2008. ahmadsherif.wordpress.com/2007/07/02/78; The original Arabic was posted here by Wael Abbas: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjOAfigYq3k.

[xciii] Mahmoud, Abdel Monem. “Ahmed Mousa agitates for my arrest in Al-Ahram newspaper.” I am a Muslim Brother. 2 September 2007. 30 April 2008. http://ana-ikhwan.blogspot.com/2007/09/blog-post_02.html.

[xciv] Wael Abbas, Personal interview, 14 January 2008.

[xcv] Who is Wael Abbas? 30 April 2008. http://who-is-wael-abbas.blogspot.com/.

[xcvi] “Urgent: Lawsuit to be filed to block 21 Egyptian blogs.” The Arabist. 9 March 2007. 30 April 2008. http://arabist.net/archives/2007/03/09/urgent-lawsuit-to-be-filed-to-block-21-egyptian-blogs/.

[xcvii] Eid 2006: 152.

[xcviii] Wael Abbas, Personal interview, 14 January 2008.

[xcix] Elijah Zarwan, Personal communication, 8 September 2008.  See also “Egypt: Increase in Censorship and Internet Users’ Privacy Violation ANHRI Publishes the Abuse Evidences.” Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. 9 August 2008. 20 September 2008. http://www.anhri.net/en/reports/2008/pr0809.shtml.

[c] Whitaker, Brian. “Gratuitious violence.” The Guardian. 22 November 2007. 30 April 2008. commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/brian_whitaker/2007/11/gratuitous_violence.html.

[ci] Abbas. “Help our fight.” 2007.

[cii] This story started on Mohamed Gamal’s blog before spreading throughout the Egyptian blogosphere: http://t5at5a.blogspot.com/2008/01/blog-post_7315.html

[ciii] Elijah Zarwan quoted in Lowenstein, Anthony, “Blogging against Mubarak,” The Guardian, 11 June 2007

[civ] Wheeler, 2006:4

[cv] Wael Abbas, Personal interview, 14 January 2008.

[cvi] Gharbia, Sami Ben. “Part one: Inside the school of the Egyptian blogosphere.” Global Voices Online. 22 March 2007. 1 May 2008. http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2007/03/22/part-one-inside-the-school-of-the-egyptian-blogosphere/.

[cvii] Tareq Mounir, Personal interview, 12 January 2008.

[cviii] Eid 2006: 134.

[cix] El Amrani 2007.

[cx] Wael Abbas, Personal interview, 14 January 2008.

[cxi] Chadwick 2006: 326.