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Arab blogs: Or how I learned to stop worrying and to love Middle East dictators

Issue 1, Spring 2007

By Mona Eltahawy

A Syrian policeman walks past old computer screens, Damascus.  Photograph by Kim Badawi.

A Syrian policeman walks past old computer screens, Damascus. Photograph by Kim Badawi.

The headline is a lie. I never did stop worrying about the Middle East and my hatred for its dictators is just as virulent as ever. But one thing has changed: I no longer feel the despair and indifference borne of years reporting on the region’s leaders. And that’s thanks to blogs.

Blogs have reignited my love for the Middle East in a way nothing has in years. By the time I left Egypt in 2000, I was deadly bored of both the region and the men who run it, after a decade criss-crossing borders, even flirting with State Security trouble by living in Israel for a year. But all that time and all that trouble had done was drag me further into the bog of stagnation that had its stubborn grip on the region.

I could not get further away. How about 10 time zones away to Seattle on the Pacific Northwest coast of the U.S.? That is where I moved resolving to dispassionately watch, just watch.

And then 9/11 happened and maintaining the dispassion required to cover news objectively became impossible for me. It was then that I switched decisively to opinion writing. I moved to New York, closer to the Middle East—you might say I was inching my way back both geographically and career-wise—but the watching continued. Just watching. Elections were still being rigged in Egypt. Israelis and Palestinians were still slaughtering each other.

But just watching became impossible on May 25, 2005. A blog entry by Alaa Abdel Fattah on Manal and Alaa’s Bit Bucket, the blog he ran with his wife, grabbed my cynicism by the throat and threw it out the window of my New York apartment. His stream of consciousness piece, part Arabic and part English, told how he had managed to protect his mother from a beating by police during a demonstration but that he earned plenty of bruises of his own to take home.

Just watching, from that day on, would have been the height of cowardice. That blog entry hurt me almost as much as Alaa’s bruises must have hurt him.

Something was happening in Egypt (for more see Rania Al Malky). The first Kifaya demonstration in December 2004, with its focus on internal issues—precisely the issues absent from the demonstrations I had covered during my news years in Egypt—was breathtaking in its bold opposition to President Hosni Mubarak.

The bloggers were the electronic pamphleteers for the street activists. At times, they were both one and the same—blogger and activist. But not always. Some bloggers were just watching too but just watching in Egypt and lending me their eyes.

And not just in Egypt but across the region, a region long dominated by old men. Here, finally, were young people telling anyone who listened—or not—how they felt.

Al Jazeera and the pan-Arab news channels might have pulled the rug out from under the region’s state-owned media but they rarely broke the mold of one old man challenging another. The bloggers were mostly the young and the excluded and it mattered little to them who stood on that rug and who pulled it. They had never been allowed anywhere near the rug so why would they care?

I asked one young Egyptian why he started a blog. He was going to explode if he didn’t tell the world how he felt was his simple reply.

It was time to go home. I had to get closer to that passion and inhale.

Egyptian blogs were the epicenter of a little earthquake I had first felt a couple of time zones to the East. Bahraini blogs, Kuwaiti blogs and—hallelujah!—Saudi blogs were my first heady introductions into the world of online agitprop. The Saudi blogs were particularly sweet. Six miserable years spent as a teenager in Jeddah had seared to the back of my throat volumes, not just words, of rage. The Saudi bloggers spoke them for me.

Particularly one simply called Saudigirl. At a conference on Arab media at the National Press Club in Washington DC in 2005, I quoted Saudigirl describing herself as a “young. Saudi chick. unveiled, unconservatized” who had never voted but who hoped one day “to walk in on a ballot box in jeans, t-shirt, and flip-flops so that everyone can see my pretty toes while I express my freedom.”

Naim wrote in the comments section to tell Saudigirl, “You sound like a really cool girl. I'd love to see your pretty little toes as you stride up to the ballot box in your jeans and t-shirt and cast your vote, hopefully someday soon!”

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