Blogging the new Arab public
Issue 1, Spring 2007
A young man blogs in a Syrian cyber cafe. Picture by Kim Badawi.
Blog enthusiasts pinning great hopes upon the transformative impact of online personal Web logs have often seemed to run ahead of political reality. A few years ago, in fact, Arab blogs could easily be written off as a fad, fueled by the novelty of some outspoken female Saudi bloggers and the prominence of some English-language Iraqi blogs in the American political blogosphere. There are still plenty of reasons to believe that blogs will never live up to their hype. Blogging remains the activity of a tiny elite, as only a small minority of the already microscopic fraction of Arabs who regularly use the Internet actually write or read blogs. Blogs reach only a fraction of the audience of Al Jazeera or even of tedious state-dominated newspapers. Where bloggers have been politically influential, such as Egypt and Bahrain, repressive regimes have been able to crack down on them. From this perspective, it is highly unlikely that blogging will induce wide political change in the Middle East.
While a healthy skepticism is wise, it would be wrong to conclude that blogging has no role in Arab politics. Arab political blogging is changing and becoming more politically relevant. Bloggers have had a discernible impact in a wide range of Arab countries, including their role in the Kefaya movement in Egypt (see Rania Al Malky in this issue), political protests in Bahrain (see Luke Schleusener), the turbulent post-Al Hariri period in Lebanon (see Sune Haugbolle), anti-corruption campaigns in Libya (see Claudia Gazzini) and the 2006 Kuwaiti elections. While political opportunities usually come first—around elections, national scandals, or contentious elite debates, for instance—blogs can be catalysts for previously unlikely political mobilization. A raft of recent articles have begun to explore the new politics of Arab blogs, especially their role in facilitating new forms of political activism. Mainstream Arab media have taken note as well, as in a breathless segment on Al Jazeera last year dubbed Blogs: the New Opposition Voice in Arab Politics in which veteran journalist Mohammed Hasanayn Haykal declared himself the greatest reader of blogs. Do blogs represent a revolutionary new tool for Arab political mobilization? Can they break the filter of state-controlled media and give both non-Arabs and Arabs themselves direct access to real Arab voices? Can they provide the foundations for a new Arab public sphere?
Ultimately, blogs are a technology which requires political actors and opportunities to become relevant. Rather than focus on whether blogs alone can deliver democracy or a political revolution, analysts should explore the variety of ways in which blogs might transform the dynamics of Arab public opinion and political activism. Even if expectations that a few courageous blogs could shatter the wall of fear sustaining brittle Arab states have been overblown, blogs could nevertheless allow ordinary Arabs to re-engage with politics, hone their analytical and argumentative skills, and escape the state-driven red lines which even the most independent of Arab media are forced to acknowledge. Blogs allow for “a widely dispersed set of interlinked arguments about politics that responds with extraordinary rapidity to new events.” National blogospheres can create a space in which citizens are able to engage in sustained, focused political argument, and perhaps even hold national leaders to account in ways not managed by existing media. The ability of blogs to expose a Kuwaiti parliamentary candidate's vote buying, or to publicize the mistreatment of ordinary Egyptians in local police stations, could be only the cutting edge of new ways of enhancing political accountability and transparency. The dialogues and interactions on blogs, finally, may contribute to the rebuilding of transnational Arab identity by creating “warm” relationships among otherwise distant Arab youth. These blogs are chipping away at the encrusted structures of the Arab punditocracy, bringing in new voices which previously had no outlet, and challenging the norms and expectations governing Arab public political discourse. In short, even if Arab political blogs are unlikely to lead a revolution, they hold out the prospect of a new kind of Arab public sphere which could reshape the texture of politics in the decades to come. 
How Many Bloggers, and What do They Do?
Blogs remain a very small phenomenon in the Arab world, although one which has grown steadily. Internet penetration in the Arab world remains comparatively low (4 per cent by some measures presented on www.internetworldstats.com/) and concentrated in urban areas. 2006 Nielsen data suggests there are about 19 million Arab Internet users, making up about 10 per cent of the population. This represents almost a 500 per cent increase over six years ago, however, and Internet access seems nearly universal among politically mobilized youth in some Arab countries. Arabic does not even rate as a top-ten blogging language in the latest Technorati rankings, where it makes up less than 1 per cent of the blogosphere; this does not capture English-language Arab blogs, however. The most reasonable estimate of the number of Arab political blogs circa 2006 would be a few thousand, out of the commonly cited figure of 25,000 total blogs.. Issam Bayazidi, founder of the Jordan Planet aggregator, estimates the number of blogs last year at about 7,000, while the popular host Jeeran claims to host 20,000 blogs, but does not distinguish between political and non-political blogs. Another popular host Maktoob estimates there are 4360 "political and news" blogs across the region. National aggregators in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia each include about 300 active blogs, while Egypt may now boast over a thousand. Whatever the exact numbers, the relatively small number of readers and participants might suggest a built-in ceiling for the political impact of Arab blogs.
However, volume might not be necessary for political influence. Since much of the new energy in Arab politics comes from relatively small groups of activists, a technology which empowers their efforts could have a disproportionate impact even if it does not reach a mass base. A large portion of the readers of Arab blogs are political activists, journalists, and other politically influential elites (as well as foreign scholars and governments trying to gauge Arab public opinion), a high quality audience even if a relatively small one. Newspapers such as Al Masry Al Youm and Al Dustour in Egypt now routinely cite blogs as sources for their stories, offering another indirect route for political impact. In such a political environment, even a handful of creative, engaged, and effective political bloggers can make a dramatic difference. If blogs cannot constitute a genuine public sphere without reaching a mass audience, they still might form a counter-public, an incubator of new ideas and new identities which evolves alongside and slowly reshapes the mainstream public from below.
The political outlook of Arab bloggers is shaped by the demographics of Internet users in the Arab world. Many in the first wave of Arab bloggers have tended to be young, technologically-oriented, and politically unengaged. As Haitham Sabbah points out, “whereas in the USA… many bloggers are long established journalists, commentators, and political troublemakers, such personalities in the Arab world do not yet generally have blogs.” The Arab blogosphere still lacks a critical mass of policy bloggers—an elite corps of highly educated, informed bloggers who devote their time to advocacy on a single policy issue within their realm of expertise. This has begun to change, however. In Jordan, for instance, the first wave of young, tech-focused youth has already been supplemented by blogs maintained by Batir Wardum (a liberal columnist for the newspaper Al Dustour), Yasir Abu Hilala (Al Jazeera’s Amman correspondent and columnist for Al Ghad), Ziyad Abu Ghuneima (an Islamist former MP), and Hilmi Asmar (a columnist and former editor of the Muslim Brotherhood weekly newspaper Al Sabil). As blogs come to be seen as politically relevant and respectable, more established figures are likely to embrace the form. At another end of the spectrum, Libya’s eccentric President Moammar Qaddafi supposedly began his own blog.
Observers clearly need to be very wary of drawing inferences about public opinion from blogs. Some of the most prominent English-language bloggers are, for all their other virtues, highly unrepresentative of public opinion in their countries. Their divergence from mainstream opinion often makes them interesting to read, but as dissidents rather than as barometers of local opinion. Indeed, their novelty may be precisely the reason why they receive greater media attention. Someone who relied on the main Egyptian English-language blogs for information about Egyptian politics would likely have been shocked at the outcome of its parliamentary elections, while someone who relied on some of the more prominent English-language Iraqi blogs would have a very unbalanced sense of Iraqi politics. The Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey points to an anti-terror demonstration organized by a few bloggers as an example of the potential for blog influence because it “garnered headlines everywhere and it showed that there are Egyptians that oppose terrorism.” But in fact the rally was quite small and said less about Egyptian public opinion than about the ability of these English-language bloggers to gain favorable coverage in like-minded blogs and media in the West (a form of power, to be sure). While blogs clearly do not represent wider public opinion, they still do offer the interpretations of potentially insightful individuals and, collectively, can at least offer insights into the views of young, educated, well-off Arabs.
Blogs are only one small part of the emerging Arab internet. Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and most Arab newspapers have well-established presences on the web. Jihadi forums, in addition to discussion boards about topics ranging from sports, music and reality TV to sexuality, attract a lot of users, and allow for similar kinds of community building, interaction, and building of "warm" relationships across vast divides. Helmi Noman studied 338 online Arabic-language forums between July and September 2005. He found Islamic-themed forums to be the most common (27 per cent), with jihadi forums representing a small but highly active sub-set. Only 5 per cent were devoted to politics and current affairs, less than the proportion devoted to a range of other non-political categories including sports, entertainment, the stock market, and computers (Noman found that 42 per cent of all the Yahoo Groups he surveyed focused on sex.) Perhaps these non-political uses of the internet will serve as a bridge to more political engagements. The Syrian dissident/blogger Ammar Abdulhamid argues that young Arabs who use social networking sites as a “means for self-expression” are “more likely... to develop a greater affinity and respect for the more socially and politically relevant blogs.” Not only do online forums and networks involve kinds of participation which articulate well with the process of accountable politics—criticism, negotiation, argument—they can also lead users to strictly political blogs.
The question of anonymity has been divisive in discussions of the Arab blogosphere. In January 2006, Jihad Al Khazen sparked a minor blogging tempest by attacking the Saudi “Religious Policeman” blogger for writing controversial opinions under a pseudonym. Many of the more politically engaged bloggers have chosen not to use pseudonyms, on the assumption that they would be unlikely to remain unknown to state security services anyway. But political blogging can be deeply risky in the Middle East. As Wael Abbas puts it, “becoming a blogger can be a life-changing decision attracting phone taps, official harassment or even arrest.” The arrest and torture of some Egyptian bloggers sent a chilling message throughout the Arab blogosphere, particularly the recent sentencing of anti-Islamist blogger Abd al-Kareem Nabil Suleiman to four years in prison for views expressed on his blog. And while Alaa Abd El Fattah received considerable international attention and support after his arrest during the Egyptian judge’s crisis of 2005 (including a statement of support from the United States government and Human Rights Watch), this did not keep him out of jail, and other less well-known bloggers languished in prison without a spotlight. Bahraini bloggers have also faced interrogations and intimidation from security services, with several spending weeks in jail for online remarks critical of the regime. The risks of blogging have been felt across the Arab world: Tunisian, Libyan, and Syrian bloggers in particular have faced serious consequences for online speech, which has had a predictably chilling effect.
Some blog enthusiasts seem to explicitly or implicitly expect that blogs will primarily empower pro-American voices. Spirit of America, a conservative American NGO, developed an Arabic-language blog platform which "gives voices to those working for freedom and democracy in the Arab world... and enables them to easily connect and share ideas with their peers." But there is no reason to assume that blogs will favor any particular political agenda. In the United States, both conservative and liberal activists have found innovative ways to harness blogs for their political ends. In the Arab world, Islamist movements have long been early and effective adopters of new media technologies, from satellite television to online forums.  In February 2007, for instance, a number of Egyptian Muslim Brothers began blogging, with an online campaign for the liberty of arrested Brotherhood leaders and students directly imitating the “Free Alaa” and “Free Kareem” campaigns—including custom-made banners, link-exchanges, online petitions, personal testimonies, high resolution photos of protests, and embedded videos. While relatively Westernized youth adopted blogging first, the political characteristics of the blogosphere will likely shift as the technology spreads more widely. Blogs may be "opposition in a new voice," as they were termed in a recent Al Jazeera documentary,  but a variety of political movements can access the same tools.
Modes of Blogging: Activists, Bridges, and Public Spheres
Arab political bloggers engage in three principle types of activity: activism, bridge-blogging, and public sphere engagement. Activists are directly involved in political movements, using blogs to coordinate political action, spread information, and magnify the impact of contentious politics. Bridgebloggers primarily address Western audiences, usually writing in English with the intention of explaining their societies. Finally, public-sphere bloggers tend to not be directly involved in a political movement, but are deeply engaged with public arguments about domestic (and often Arab or Islamic) politics. These categories are not mutually exclusive, of course, and many individuals move fluidly across boundaries: the Egyptian Baheyya is primarily a public sphere blogger, engaging in sophisticated and trenchant analysis rather than direct political organization, but her writings helped the Kefaya movement and the Egyptian judges protest reach wide audiences abroad (bridge-blogging) and were translated into Arabic and used by activists. But distinguishing these three modes of action can help to make sense of the different ways in which Arab bloggers might influence politics in the region.
Activist bloggers are directly involved in politics, using their blogs toward political organization and campaigns. While this could have a transnational focus (organizing a boycott of Danish products, for instance), more often these activist blogs focus on domestic politics within their own country. In Egypt, Bahrain, and Kuwait, for example, bloggers have played a key role in mobilizing contentious politics. Other Arab blogospheres, such as in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, remain more on the political sidelines, although they have increasingly taken note of the exploits of their activist peers. The core distinction is not whether bloggers talk about politics, it is whether they are actively engaged in politics. It is unclear whether the emergence of activist blogging is best explained by something unique about particular bloggers or about the political context more widely. Given the very small numbers of people involved, the inventiveness or courage of only a few individuals could make the difference. Still, if there were no political openings to exploit, it is unlikely that these individuals would have had the opportunity for their innovative political blogging.
Take Egypt, the most well-documented case of a close, organic relationship between blogging and a contentious political movement (see also Rania Al Malky’s article in this issue). Kefaya began as a petition of some 300 intellectuals in the summer of 2004, and developed an Internet presence with a popular Web site in the fall of 2004. Their first big protest in December 2004 attracted considerable media attention. Blogs began to play a key role over the course of 2005. By 2005 there were about 1500 Egyptian bloggers, more than half in Arabic, almost all of which are in the aggregator maintained by Alaa Abd El Fattah and his wife Manal. Those blogs provided coverage and attention at times when the mass media paid little attention, and contributed both to publicity and to organization. The May 2005 protest was a crucial moment for blogger coverage of Egyptian activism. As events unfolded, bloggers claimed to be the only source reporting on a protest in which fewer than 100 activists were met by several thousand hired thugs and riot police who roughed up peaceful protesters including women. According to Ethan Zuckerman, “Bloggers broke the story four days before the Egyptian press took it on. Reuters had some photos of the incident, but not a full story, and Al Jazeera wasn’t present, so blogger accounts were critical to spreading information.” As the Kefaya movement developed, bloggers worked with protest organizers to ensure that photographs and narratives of the protests were quickly disseminated online—offering a valuable resource to journalists, international NGOs and to Egyptian citizens alike. For all the innovative activism of Kefaya and associated bloggers, however, the movement would have achieved little political impact without the temporary opening created by a constitutional referendum, presidential elections, and parliamentary elections—along with the appearance of several new like-minded independent newspapers and the increased Western scrutiny of Egyptian democracy due to the Bush administration’s reform rhetoric. The recent Muslim Brotherhood blogging campaign noted above, where blogs such as “Ana Ikhwan” and “Ensaa” resemble more the efforts of Wael Abbas’s Al-Wa’i Al-Masry and Manalaa.net than it does typical Brotherhood activism, suggests how easily the tools of Internet campaigning can be adapted by different kinds of political movements. 
In Bahrain, bloggers and online forums played a direct role in a human-rights campaign which infuriated the regime and generated great public controversy (see Luke Schleusener’s article in this issue). In contrast to Egypt, where bloggers entered into a crowded if sclerotic political scene, Bahraini bloggers operated on a smaller scale. But this relative political vacuum also presented an opportunity for the young bloggers. By 2005, some 60 Bahraini blogs were energetically focusing on local politics in both English and Arabic, many under pseudonyms. Those bloggers helped to organize and publicize a number of protests over issues such as the arrest of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (in December 2004) and constitutional reforms. In response, the Bahraini authorities arrested some of the most active bloggers, such as Ali Abdulemam, and demanded that Internet sites register with the authorities in an attempt to break down the anonymity protecting some of the most outspoken voices. More recently, Bahraini bloggers have been intensely following “Bandar Gate”, a scandal driven by revelations of regime plans to fix the 2006 parliamentary elections, and produced a map of the country using Google Earth revealing vast appropriations for the royal family- instances of online activism which led the Bahraini government to briefly ban the Mahmood's Den blog within the country.
Kuwaiti bloggers took advantage of several windows of opportunity over the course of 2006. Kuwaiti blogs, which had gained an audience with their coverage of the succession crisis following the death of the Emir in January 2006, picked up a campaign to reduce the number of electoral districts from 25 to 5 in order to cut back on notoriously corrupt electoral practices. When the Emir called early Parliamentary elections, blogs jumped into the fray with a vengeance. As Mary Ann Tetrault describes it,
“Voters could read some of the more sensational blog postings in daily newspapers. The Orange Movement leadership maintains a blog originating in the United States, managed jointly by overseas Kuwaiti students and one of the Orange organizers…. During the campaign, it brought electoral corruption into the public eye thanks to a posting by a woman who recounted how two men in Rula Dashti’s district had attempted to buy her vote with the promise of a Chanel handbag. Although she did not mention the candidate’s name, it soon became public knowledge that she was speaking of Jamal Al ‘Umar.”
 For helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay, I would like to thank Henry Farrell, Mona el-Ghobhashy, Issandr El Amrani, Ethan Zuckerman, and George Weyman, though of course all errors are mine.
 Jon Alterman, “The Information Revolution and the Middle East,” in Daniel Byman and Nora Bensahel, eds., The Future Security Environment in the Middle East (Washington DC: RAND), pp.224-251; Albrecht Hofheinz, “The Internet in the Arab World: Playground for Political Liberalization.” Zeitschrift: Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft 3, no.3 (2006) http://www.fes.de/IPG/arc_05_set/set_03_05d.htm
 Negar Azimi, “Blogging Against Torture,” The Nation, February 19, 2007 (available at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070219/azimi/2); Gal Beckerman, “The New Arab Conversation,” Columbia Journalism Review (January/February 2007) (available at http://www.cjr.org/issues/2007/1/Beckerman.asp); “The Arab blogosphere,” Bitter Lemons International roundtable with Ammar Abdulhamid, Mona Eltahawy, Esra’a al-Shafei, and Ahmed al-Omran; February 15, 2007 (available at http://www.bitterlemons-international.org/previous.php?opt=1&id=168)
 Haykal on Kawalis, Al Jazeera, October 6, 2005. Other prominent discussions of blogs in the Arab mainstream media include the multi-part series written by Jihad Al Khazen in Al Hayat, June 15-22, 2005; Amina Khayri, "Egypt's bloggers," Al Hayat, October 18, 2004; and Asharq Alawsat, "The experience of Arab bloggers," January 25, 2006.
 Henry Farrell, “Bloggers and Parties: Can the netroots reshape American democracy?” Boston Review 31, no.5 (2006); Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press 2006).
 For an overview of the evolution of the Arab public sphere, see Marc Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); Jon Anderson and Dale Eickelman, eds., New Media in a Changing Middle East (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
 Farrell, “Bloggers and parties.”
 As quoted by Tynes, “Arab blogging”
 http://www.helmionline.com/internet/2005/10/web_content.htm Also see Ethan Zuckerman’s blog, April 5, 2006, http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=470
 On the Amarji blog, July 27, 2006, http://amarji.blogspot.com/2006/07/blogging-and-future-of-democracy-in.html
 Al Hayat, January 5, 2006; available at http://www.daralhayat.com/opinion/editorials/01-2006/Item-20060104-96ceaf15-c0a8-10ed-0025-b64d4bbd291e/story.html
 Interview, Alaa Abd El Fattah, January 14, 2007, Cairo
 Wael Abbas, DPA, “Blogging in the Middle East is a tough choice” http://rawstory.com/news/2006/Blogging_in_the_Middle_East_is_a_to_09142006.html
 See “Free Kareem” blog at http://www.freekareem.org
 See Marc Lynch, “Al Qaeda’s Media Strategies,” The National Interest 81 (Spring 2006).
 Marc Lynch, “Brotherhood of the Blog,” The Guardian (Comment is Free), March 5, 2007, at http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/marc_lynch/2007/03/brotherhood_of_the_blog.html
 Documentary hosted by Ahmed Zayn, Al Jazeera May 26, 2006.
 “Bloggers arousing a clamor,” post on Living in KSA blog, May 8, 2006, http://abu-yousef.blogspot.com/2006/05/blog-post_08.html; “The rise of political blogs,” post on Saudi Jeans, July 22, 2006, http://saudijeans.blogspot.com/2006/07/rise-of-political-blogs.html
 Charles Levison, “Egypt’s growing blogger community pushes the limits of dissent,” Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2005; interviews with Kefaya coordinator George Ishaq and several Kefaya members, January 2007.
 Toby Jones, “Bahrain: It must be election season,” Qahwa Sada, October 12, 2006 (http://abuaardvark.typepad.com/qahwa_sada/2006/10/bahrain_must_be.html) http://chanad.weblogs.us/?cat=11
 Ethan Zuckerman, “Meet the Bridgebloggers”, draft presented to “The Power and Political Science of Blogs” conference, University of Chicago, September 16-17, 2005.
 Lauren Frayer, “Even from prison, Egyptian democracy activist works the blogosphere,” Associated Press, May 28, 2006
 Jodi Dean, “Why the Net is not a Public Sphere,” Constellations 10, no.1 (2003); James Bohman, “Expanding Dialogue: the internet, the public sphere, and prospects for transnational democracy,” Sociological Review 2004
 John Guidry and Mark Sawyer, “Contentious pluralism: The public sphere and democracy,” Perspectives on Politics 1, no.2 (June 2003), pp.273-289.
 Personal interview with Ahmed Humeid, Doha, February 19, 2007.
 This includes intriguing questions about what makes a blog “Arab”: itoot, for instance, includes my Abu Aardvark blog because I write about Arab issues, even though I am not Arab and don’t live in an Arab country
 Diana Mukalled, “Arab bloggers … groups and not individuals,” Asharq Alawsat, February 5, 2006
 http://www.ocsab.com/ and www.saudiblogs.org . For details of this controversy, see Saudi Jeans blog, http://saudijeans.blogspot.com/2006/04/ocsab-not-my-thing.html
 See the lengthy exchange over an article in the newspaper Al Dustour about mukhabarat penetration of blogs, August 11, 2006, at http://manalaa.net/al_destour_asks_about_security_infiltrating_
 Amina Khayri, “Egyptian Bloggers in the line of confrontation,” Al Hayat, May 18, 2006; Lindsay Wise, “Why Egypt is cracking down on bloggers,” Time, June 1, 2006