Blogging for freedom in Mubarak's Egypt

June 26, 2007|By Justin Martin

CAIRO -- As I sat in a dingy Internet cafe in downtown Cairo, waiting for a free computer terminal, I saw an Egyptian youth no older than 18 updating a blog.

The title of his post was Al-Intikhabaat - Arabic for "The Elections" - and while a small font size kept me from reading the body of his entry, he was probably commenting on Egypt's legislative elections that took place here this month. His missive complete within five or 10 minutes, he logged off of the computer, freeing up the terminal for me to take his place. He paid the attendant and left.

For a moment or two after he had gone, I sat thinking about what this young man had just done. In a country in which expressive freedoms rank among the worst 50 nations in the world, this teenager with most likely no Egyptian press license, few financial resources and little or none of what Arabs call wasta (social influence) had just sent his commentary on the Egyptian political climate around the world.

Westerners may be suffering from blog overload; many soccer moms, small business owners, politicians and teenagers maintain one or more blogs. But it would be hard to overvalue the significance of blogs to the world's browbeaten populations. We may be tired of hearing about the "revolutionary" blogosphere and all the ways it is indelibly changing the American political landscape. The ubiquity of blogs has in some ways blanched the medium of much of its importance.

But in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak personally picks the editors of major newspapers and quickly replaces them for disloyalty, the importance of blogs is hard to miss. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported this month that "blogs have become one of the most effective means of expression for the Egyptian opposition recently."

This outlet is long overdue. Mr. Mubarak has held office in Cairo for 26 years and has kept the press in a steady vise grip. Every three years since 1981, Mr. Mubarak's administration has renewed Egypt's emergency laws, letting the executive push favored legislation through parliament with little or no debate and to rule over the country's journalists.

In July 2006, these emergency laws allowed Mr. Mubarak's information ministers to ratify legislation expanding the number of prison-worthy offenses for Egyptian reporters and raising fines for journalists who impugn Mr. Mubarak and his cronies. These laws helped the government in February, when a 22-year-old Egyptian blogger was convicted on several counts of offending Mr. Mubarak as well as some of the country's powerful clerics, and was sentenced to four years in jail.

Nevertheless, incarceration, one of the government's trusted tools of reprisal, is nearly worthless when it comes to the Egyptian blogosphere. Ha'aretz noted that "while [Egyptian] newspapers, including those that do not serve as state organs, are subjected to severe restrictions, the censorship of the Internet is more lax - perhaps because the authorities are less aware of what goes on in the virtual world, or perhaps because they do not have sufficient means to shut down all the Web sites involved." Egypt simply cannot rein in its thousands of recalcitrant bloggers.

To Americans, perhaps, blogs may not seem exceedingly groundbreaking because our country has taken pains since its inception to protect "the lonely pamphleteer" - that thinker on the local corner disseminating his ideas on leaflets, however bizarre or incendiary. It is for this reason that we do not license journalists. Virtually anyone can report what they've observed to the masses by any means available to them.

Not so in Egypt and most other Middle Eastern countries, where the lonely pamphleteer has historically been quite lonely indeed, often alone in a cold cell. Fifteen years ago, it would have been highly unlikely for the young man I saw in the Internet cafe to share with more than a few people his take on Egyptian politics, especially if his take was not Mr. Mubarak's. Today, though, he maintains an online journal accessible to anyone literate in Arabic.

Whether this kind of personal publishing will ultimately help expand the boundaries of permissible speech in the Middle East or whether it will only invoke greater ire from the region's censors remains to be seen. But the sight of an Arab teenager sharing his thoughts on his country's politics with the rest of the world has to be a good sign.

Justin Martin is a U.S. Department of Education foreign language and area studies scholar studying in Cairo and a doctoral student in mass communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His e-mail is martinjd@email.unc.edu.

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