Arab blogs give youth venting space

Mona Eltahawy

Posted Feb 20, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

Arab blogs give youth venting space

Mona Eltahawy

To appreciate the power of blogs in the Arab world, ponder for a moment a recent triple whammy—or hat trick, to use soccer parlance—scored by Egyptian blogs:

One: the exposure by blogs of sexual assaults on women in downtown Cairo by gangs of men during a religious holiday in Cairo in October 2006. Bloggers forced the issue onto the national agenda, turning it into headlines from satellite television channels to the Associated Press.

Two: the detention in December 2006 of a police officer accused of sexually assaulting a prisoner. A month earlier, Egyptian blogs had circulated a video showing the prisoner, Imad el-Kabir, with hands bound behind his back and his legs held in the air, being sodomized with a stick as those around him taunted him.

Three: the ongoing trial of 22-year-old blogger Abdul-Kareem Nabil, also known as Kareem Amer, after posting articles critical of Islam on his blog. He is charged, among other things, with insulting the president.

When the security services of President Hosni Mubarak, in power for a quarter of a century, arrest and put on trial a blogger, then surely the phrase “David and Goliath” cannot even begin to explain it. So what is it about the bloggers that can so threaten a regime?

It is the power of youth and their new-found ability to communicate after years of being ignored. Al-Jazeera and its ilk might have pulled the rug out from under state-owned media, but it was one old man challenging another. The bloggers are mostly the young and the excluded and it matters little to them who stands on that rug and who pulls it. One young Egyptian told me he started a blog because he felt he was going to explode if he didn’t tell the world how he felt.

In June 2005, there were around 280 blogs in Egypt. By the end of 2006, that number had more than tripled to 1,000. Egyptian blogs were the epicenter of a little earthquake I first felt a couple of time zones to the east at the start of 2005. Bahraini and Saudi blogs were my first heady introductions into the world of online agitprop. The Saudi blogs were particularly sweet for me personally because of six miserable years spent as a teenager in Jeddah. One, simply called Saudigirl, felt like the grown-up version of my latent teen-angst from those years.

At a conference on Arab media at the National Press Club in Washington DC in 2005, I quoted Saudigirl describing herself as “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.” I lost track of her blog for a while until, on a whim, I googled her earlier this year to see how Saudigirl was doing. And to my shock it turned out “she” had been a “he” all along. It was a case of “rhetorical transvestism” confessed Ali K, the man who invented and maintained Alia K.

What a bittersweet twist on the gender play of those writers of yore, those George Sands, George Eliots and others who adopted male names, persona and wardrobes to splinter taboos. Here was a Saudi man pretending to be a woman.

According to a recent Washington Post story on Saudi blogs, young women make up half the bloggers in that kingdom today. There are around 2,000 blogs in Saudi Arabia. Saudigirl has left the blogosphere in good hands.

Bahraini bloggers didn’t coopt gender politics so much as the politics of fear that had given birth to the color-coded alert system in place in the US that uses color to describe the “national threat level”. When the Bahraini authorities arrested three internet forum moderators in 2005, bloggers launched an appeal on their behalf, posted the times and locations of demonstrations calling for their release and maintained an alert system that used color to describe how close to freedom the men were.

To appreciate such subversity is to appreciate the wonder of blogs.

No words on blogs and no discussion of how effective they are must ever take place without remembering the proto-blogger and cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui who died at the young age of 36 in March 2005. Back in July 2001, Zouhair founded the website TUNeZINE using the pseudonym “Ettounsi,” which means Tunisian in Arabic. He used the online newspaper not just to write about Tunisia’s dismal human rights record but also posted opposition statements on the site.

After his arrest in an internet cafe in 2002, he was sentenced to two years in prison, and actually served 16 months, for “disseminating inaccurate news”—a police state’s euphemism for the truth. It is not difficult to imagine that his early demise was precipitated by the torture he was subjected to during interrogation.

Again, one man plus one website equals one very angry dictator.

No matter how many eyes and ears the blogs have, who can doubt the power of the internet?-

Published 15/2/2007 ©

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based commentator and international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.