In the Arab world, as elsewhere, the Internet opens up new freedoms and opportunities for democracy. However, as in China and Iran, it also gives rise to opposition from the authorities. Anyone active on the Internet lives dangerously; blogging involves playing with fire.
“Power is founded on Justice” proclaim large golden letters in the foyer of the court building at Hadayeq al-Qobba in the north of Cairo. For the group of young people assembled here this morning, this sounds like pure mockery. Some laugh bitterly when they catch sight of the inscription.
However, on this early Thursday morning, they still hope that perhaps this promise might be fulfilled – that justice, rather than arbitrariness and tyranny, is the foundation of power.
One member of the group in particular is hoping for justice: Wael Abbas. The 35-year-old is charged with having cut off his neighbour’s Internet connection, which would entail six months in prison.
In November, a twenty-man squad of security police in six vehicles turned up in front of Abbas’ house to arrest him. They threatened his mother and forced their way into the flat without a warrant for his arrest or authorisation to search the place. “This was extremely tough action,” says attorney Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).
The only reason Abbas wasn’t arrested was because he was sitting in Beirut Airport at the time. “I still don’t know whether the charge was an act of personal revenge or whether it has a political dimension,” he says. Gamal Eid, however, is sure that the government is behind it. “They want to arrest him, but they’re waiting for the right moment.”
Since 2005, Wael Abbas has been one of Egypt’s most active bloggers. His name and his blog are known throughout the Arab world. It was he who published on his website photos of sexual assaults on women in Cairo and videos showing torture in Egyptian police stations, which led to a scandal and made him famous.
Abbas reports regularly on abuses in his country. He is one of the most vocal activists in Egypt, denouncing, accusing and demanding change, and in doing so he has made himself a thorn in the side of the government.
Over the past ten years, the Egyptian government and Arab states in general have invested a great deal in Internet infrastructure. However, it was probably not clear to most regimes that this would open a door to democratic development.
“One Social Network – With a Rebellious Message”, the most recent publication by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, quotes from a study by the American RAND Institute: “The basis for an information revolution is free expression of opinion with exchange of and general access to information.”
ANHRI then writes: “Not even the greatest hypocrite would maintain that Arab governments respect, let alone support, free expression of opinion, or that they uphold the right to access to and circulation of information.” It is thus self-evident that the rift between governments and Internet activists grows daily with the latter struggling for democracy by way of the Internet.
According to ANHRI, there are around 58 million Internet users in the Arab world, 15 million of them in Egypt alone. The total number of blogs is estimated at 600,000, but only around 150,000 are actively used.
Most Arab blogs (around one-third) come from Egypt, followed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco. The bloggers are usually aged between 25 and 35 and write about political and religious topics as well as personal matters.
“Egyptian bloggers try to use their blogs to break through political constraints and are known for their bitter criticism of the government despite its attempts to suppress them.” (ANHRI)
Enemies of the Internet
Internet activists in all Arab countries must expect repression. There is scarcely any other part of the world where the Internet is subject to such tight surveillance as here, where bloggers are so intimidated and persecuted, or anywhere where they are so frequently arrested and even tortured. Every year, Reporters without Frontiers publishes a list of “Enemies of the Internet”; in 2009, there were four Arab countries on the list of twelve: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Syria.
ANHRI lawyers also represent, among others, Kareem Amer, probably the best-known imprisoned blogger in the Arab world. Amer was arrested in November 2006 and condemned the following February to four years in prison: three years because he supposedly defamed Islam in his online articles and one year for allegedly insulting President Mubarak in what he wrote.
His lawyers have not managed to get his sentence reduced and now they are not even allowed to visit him any more. “The authorities have been refusing us access to him,” says Gamad Eid.
Nevertheless, constant government threats, controls and intimidation have not stopped most bloggers from continuing to struggle against corruption, tyranny and autocracy and for free expression of opinion. “I have a voice and I want this voice to be heard,” is how Wael Abbas explains his commitment.
Autocratic regimes can only win their battle against people like Abbas if they ban the Internet completely, but that has become virtually impossible.
Ethan Zuckermann, a leading online activist, promotes a “Cute Cats Theory”. In a Princeton lecture entitled “Internet Censorship: How Cute Cats Can Help”, he explains how Web 2.0, which allows everyone to publish on the net and to communicate with others, helps political activism.
To simplify somewhat, the millions of “naïve” Internet users who publish photos of their cats and babies on Facebook, YouTube and Flickr constitute a virtual protective shield for politically-active users. Zuckermann argues that very few governments can afford to block Facebook or YouTube just because they want to prevent political activism, as they would then arouse the hostility of millions of citizens who utilise these social networks for personal activities.
In the Arab world, Facebook is used by at least twelve million people, with more joining every day. The Web 2.0 social networks have become among the most important means of communication for young Arabs – and not just the politically active. However, they also, of course, serve as a significant means of mobilisation for activists.
Many bloggers, particularly the pioneers, increasingly employ micro-blogging for communication. Instead of spending a great deal of time in front of their computer writing blog entries, they now send Twitter news from mobile phones, reaching their entire network within seconds as a text message or on their computers.
The best example of the utilisation of social networks for political activism is the “6 April” Facebook group. The movement originally came into existence when a young Egyptian woman, Israa Abdel-Fattah, expressed solidarity with the workers’ strike on 6 April 2008 by calling for others to take similar strike action on that day. Within a very short time the group had over 70,000 members.
Through Facebook and Twitter, the call for a general strike, which adopted the slogan “Stay at Home”, spread like wildfire and was a huge success in the eyes of many observers. On 6 April 2008, Cairo’s streets were absolutely empty, and the initiator of the campaign was arrested for a while – a sure sign that the Egyptian government would prefer to put a stop to such actions in the future.
The Internet and Web 2.0’s social networks have irreversibly broken open the old structures of Arab society. The Internet is an open space, giving a voice to people who previously had none, a place for communication and the exchange of knowledge that empowers all its users: the power to know, to find out and to change. The Internet does away with hierarchies and breaches taboos, particularly in autocratic societal structures.
Opportunity for women
It is primarily women who benefit from the Internet, having opened a hitherto closed door in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most autocratic regimes. Excluded from all political life, women have conquered a place on the Internet that allows them the possibility to express freely their views on all topics.
It is therefore scarcely surprising that almost 50% of Saudi bloggers are female. Very few use their real name. Najla Barasain is a great exception. This 24-year-old mostly writes about women’s themes and is one of the most prominent female bloggers in the country. Her family supports her in this hobby, which is rare in the conservative kingdom.
“To begin with, I had problems with a male cousin because I use my real name, but now they’ve all got used to it,” says Najla Barasain, grinning. “I’m simply the intellectual in the family and a bit controversial.”
Up to now, online activism in Saudi Arabia has mainly limited itself to Internet campaigns intended to draw attention to existing abuses. In Egypt, however, activists have already taken campaigns out of the virtual world onto the streets.
That is the real challenge for online activists. Their striving for more democracy and a pluralistic society will only have a chance if they succeed in turning a digital democratic campaign, initiated by just a few people, into a broad-based democratic movement that also takes in the many millions without Internet access.
But that is the greatest of all dangers for the existing regimes in the Arab world, which will obviously do everything possible to block such a development. Particularly in Egypt, where presidential elections are scheduled for 2011, advocates of human rights anticipate that the Mubarak regime will take even tougher action against activists than they have to date.
“The months ahead will be hard,” fears Gamal Eid. In the republic of the Nile, which has been governed under a state of emergency for almost thirty years now, it is very easy to resort to arbitrary means to get rid of unwelcome opponents.
That is why the young lawyers, journalists and activists who have gathered in the Abbaseyya court building this hot February morning in support of their friend and colleague Wael Abbas, do not believe that justice is the foundation of all action in Egypt.
When Wael Abbas appears before the judge with his three lawyers just before midday, the possibility of six months in prison floats over him like the sword of Damocles. However, the exonerating evidence his lawyer presents to the judge is absolutely irrefutable. After a short time the judge waves away the defence team and writes a single word on the file: “Innocent”.
“The charge was fabricated in order to intimidate me and get me out of the way,” says Wael Abbas. Nonetheless, his experience did have one positive note: “The judgement has restored my faith in the Egyptian legal system.”
Amira al-Ahl is a German journalist in Cairo.
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