A Look at the Arab Blogosphere

Birth pangs of a new Middle East?

Many of the estimated 35,000 bloggers in the Arab world have carved out reputations as online watchdogs on governments, in countries where there have been few public avenues for state accountability. Many were also credited with playing an important role in triggering the Arab spring of 2011—including the downfall of some governments and strong pressure for reform within others.

But as the Arab spring unfolds, bloggers who were once united in their opposition to the status quo now find themselves increasingly divided on how to deal with the new era of political transition, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt.

Take the case of Slim Amamou, a Tunisian blogger who was offered the post of youth minister in the new government, only a few days after his release from jail for his role in the uprising against the country’s long serving dictator, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

“As a dear friend, I ask you @slim404 don’t accept to collaborate with those who killed Tunisians, stay clean stay citizen,” one Tunisian blogger urged Amamou in a Twitter message.

“Some of us feel that our role is to act as watchdogs and hold the government accountable,” said Ahmed Al Omran, Saudi Arabia’s most prominent English-language blogger, who knows Amamou.

But in the end, Amamou joined Tunisia’s transitional government, explaining on Twitter: “It’s a temporary govt to set up elections. I’m here to watch and report and be part of the decisions. Not here to rule.”

Pressure to join the political transition, or at least to offer solutions for the future, rather than simply engaging in a critique of the government, is a new phenomenon for the Arab bloggers. In the conformist cultures of the Arab world, their writings were hailed as courageous individual acts of free speech. Yet each blog was often just one of many voices joined in common cause to urge the overthrow of a dictator.

Once the dictator is gone, unanimity may go with it. Amamou’s decision certainly sparked sustained online debate, like the tweeter who said his decision caused “great controversy,” adding: “This must be what we call freedom of expression and democracy.”

Arab cultures don’t have a strong tradition of engaging in the democratic exchange of ideas; in fact, Arab societies for decades were among the world’s most restrictive when it came to allowing free expression. Technology began to change that in the 1990s, with the advent of Arabic language satellite TV stations such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

“The blogging phenomenon mirrors in some respects the earlier emergence of satellite television, another medium that reaches across borders and defies easy government repression,” wrote Mohamed Abdel Dayem in a 2009 report from the Committee to Protect Journalists. As with satellite TV, wrote Dayem, “blogging is undermining the state’s monopoly over mass communication.”

According to a June 2009 study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, the Arabic-language blogosphere consists of 35,000 blogs. But until the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, bloggers were largely considered to be operating on the fringes of political discussion.

“Bloggers used to be dismissed as young, naïve, and political novices,” said Al Omran, author of the blog Saudi Jeans. “People used to say that we have energy, but no vision.”

But now bloggers are credited with playing an important role in creating the political space for the Arab spring, said Dayem, program coordinator for CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program.

“Bloggers created the political cover for traditional media to cross certain red lines,” said Dayem. “Once the news had already been put out there by the blogs, traditional media could use that as a cover to report on things they couldn’t have covered otherwise.”

The big question now is this: What role will these bloggers play in helping their fellow countrymen navigate the fractured political landscape that is emerging in the aftermath of these revolutions?

Issandr El Amrani, a freelance journalist and contributing blogger at the Arabist, argues that blogs have become a “forum for discussion for people of all ages” and are playing a key role “in influencing opinions.”

And there are clear signs that Arab bloggers realize they are now operating in this new political reality.

“We will disagree with each other,” wrote prominent Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey, on the night of President Hosni Mubarak’s dramatic departure. “And that will be sweet because no more dictatorship. Tomorrow we squabble… and tonight we celebrate.”

In the absence of a common enemy, Arab bloggers may find a new thread to bind them together: a divisive but fiercely free debate over the political future of their countries.

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Bilal Lakhani is a Fulbright scholar from Pakistan. He recently completed his M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Tags: , , , , ,