To hear the bloggers themselves describe it, blogging has taken off in the Arab world because it presents an opportunity to reclaim individuality. In a region where leaders, be they Hassan Nasrallah or Ismail Haniya, claim to speak on behalf of all Arabs, a blog is a chance to contradict, to undermine, and to assert. “Every leader thinks they represent everyone in these countries,” says Abu Kais. “And I think that’s something we challenge every day in our blogs. We challenge what they say, and we always show the politicians as hypocrites, really. We have documented what has happened over the past two years and are able to contrast statements that show the level of the hypocrisy. That’s something you don’t always find in Lebanese media.”
The dynamism of the blog posts, as well as the string of comments that usually follow each of them, can best be appreciated when viewed against a backdrop of the mainstream Arab media. With the exception of a few papers in Lebanon (notably, the English-language Daily Star) and a handful of publications in Egypt and Jordan, most local media in the Arab world are still either directly state-controlled or subject to such intimidation by the government that journalists and editors rarely challenge authority. Each country’s media have their red lines that cannot be crossed. In Jordan, it is the monarchy. In Egypt, it’s the Mubarak regime. Any criticism of fundamentalist Islam’s growing role in Arab society is off limits to everyone. And in much of the Arab local media Israel is portrayed as the ultimate evil. Israel, in fact, can be a tool of state control in Arab media. A high level of anti-Israel rhetoric serves the purpose of directing anger and scrutiny away from the regimes in power.
That was mitigated somewhat by the advent in recent years of satellite channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, which offer at least the potential of a more independent analysis and criticism of Arab governments. But by some accounts, both channels, though Al-Jazeera more so, have taken on a tone and a content that plays, as one Syrian blogger put it, “to the largest common denominator, drawing on the same language of victimhood, the tired Arab nationalist line. It is Fox News. Many people compare it to CNN. I think it has to be compared to Fox.” (The Israeli media, for their part, though certainly free and open to criticizing the government and not averse by any means to plastering the country’s problems on the front page, also resort most often to simple narratives and well-known generalizations when it comes to depicting the Arab enemy, not giving serious attention to the aspiration of the Palestinians, for example).
The bloggers have stood out against this background. Some of them have even used the Web for political action. Bloggers led an Arab movement to support products from Denmark in the aftermath of the Danish cartoon riots and the Arab boycott that followed. They have also organized demonstrations and, much like American bloggers, used their Web sites as forums to expose injustices. Egyptian bloggers recently circulated video of men wilding in the streets of Cairo, sexually assaulting women at random, eventually bringing the incident to the world’s attention. Jordanian bloggers, angry that the government regulators had decided to block access to Skype, a phone service that allows users to communicate freely over the Internet, started a campaign that led to the decision’s reversal. And then there was the war, in which bloggers organized donations for the displaced of Lebanon.
Still, there are good reasons why most of the Arab blogosphere remains anonymous. Just this past year, several bloggers were jailed in Egypt, including Abdel Karim Sulaiman Amer, who was arrested in November and charged with “spreading information disruptive of public order,” “incitement to hate Muslims,” and “defaming the President of the Republic.” Earlier last year, another Egyptian blogger, Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam, was arrested and given three consecutive fifteen-day detentions in prison, largely for his blogging activity. Other countries, like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, don’t arrest bloggers, but they aggressively block blogs they find subversive.