Blogging in the Arab World
Mona Eltahawy

VELEN, Germany — “If it’s longer than three days, I want this message to reach everyone. I don’t want to be forgotten in jail,” wrote Fouad al-Farhan, a 32 year-old Saudi, to a friend in anticipation of his detention.

Now it’s been almost a month since security forces picked him up at work, took him home to get his laptop, and then put him behind bars on December 10.

Farhan’s “crime”: Blogging.

How very telling that the Saudi authorities consider a blogger dangerous enough to be jailed. It is appalling that he is still detained without charge, but Fahran’s ordeal is the latest example of a growing phenomenon in the Arab world:
one person + one blog = one very angry dictator.

Egypt imprisoned a blogger last year after convicting him of insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak. Other countries in the region have detained bloggers — or threatened them and their families, or shut down their blogs.

Why are bloggers so feared by authoritarian regimes in the Arab world? Because they are young and blogging is, at last, a way to express themselves in a world where they are ignored. The majority of the Arab world is under the age of 30 and this majority has few venues to express their views — political or otherwise.

In a story about the growing popularity of blogging in Saudi Arabia at the end of 2006, the journalist Faiza al-Ambah said there were at least 2,000 blogs in the Kingdom, and half were by women — as far as we can tell.

One of my earliest introductions to blogs was one simply called Saudigirl. At a conference on Arab media at the National Press Club in Washington DC in 2005, I quoted Saudigirl, who described 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 last year to see how Saudigirl was doing. To my shock, it turned out Saudigirl had been Saudiboy all along. It was a case of “rhetorical transvestism,” confessed Ali K, the man who maintained the blog.

What a bittersweet twist on the gender play of writers like George Sand or George Eliot and others who adopted male names, personae and wardrobes to splinter taboos. Here was a Saudi man pretending to be a woman so that he could impress upon his countrymen how difficult it was to be female.

Fouad al-Farhan is a Saudi blogger who uses his name rather than a pseudonym, which made it easier for the authorities to get him. In the letter to his friend, he said they were after him because he “wrote about political prisoners in Saudi Arabia,” and had refused to sign an apology.

“An apology for what? Apologize because I said the government lied when it accused those people of supporting terrorism,” he said in the letter, posted in Arabic and English on his blog — which continues to be updated by Farhan’s friends.

Much has been said about how al-Jazeera and other satellite channels in the Arab world have triumphed overstate-owned media — but it is one old man’s voice challenging another. This so-called “new media” in the Arab world is still the old making little room for the voices of the young. And bloggers are mostly the young. And blogging is becoming powerful.

Last November, a most powerful triumph of blogging took place in Egypt, when two police officers were sentenced to three years in prison for sodomizing a bus driver with a stick. Egyptian authorities were cornered into prosecuting the officers after public outcry and international media coverage. What caused both? Two bloggers posted a video clip of the assault that one of the officers had filmed using a mobile phone. The clip then made it to YouTube and was used as evidence against the officers during the trial.

One of the bloggers who posted the clip was Wael Abbas, who last year became the first blogger to win the prestigious Knight Award for Journalism in recognition of how influential his blog has become in setting the news agenda in Egypt.

Abbas has been threatened by security forces, and his YouTube account was shutdown for a few days. He believes it was by the Egyptian regime — it reappeared after international media reported on YouTube’s action.

I was in Cairo when the two police officers were sent to jail. Later that day, I led a discussion at the American University in Cairo about how girls and women use cyberspace to express themselves. Almost every student at the discussion had a Facebook account and many also had their own blogs.

“Blogs give a voice to the voiceless,” one young woman said to explain why she started one.

The Saudi regime’s detention of Farhan only shows that growing power.
Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

Copyright ©2008 Mona Eltahawy / Agence Global