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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Arab Blogging by ATASHA TYNES

ATASHA TYNES is a Jordanian journalist based in Washington, DC, USA. She has worked for publications across the Middle East, including Al Jazeera, the Jordan Times and Amman's Star newspaper. Her beat is covering issues in and about the Middle East for The World's Magazine.

G21 MIDEAST: ARAB BLOGGING - NATASHA TYNES cruises the Blogosphere and reports about the growing phenomenon of young Arabs making their presence felt.

Natasha Tynes
Washington, DC, USA - From commenting on the latest political events to challenging taboos and crossing red lines, citizen journalists, or bloggers, across the Arab world are busy trying to make themselves heard. Analysts agree that Arab bloggers have made sure to get a big share of the blogging pie in a time when citizen journalists across the globe are scrutinizing the mainstream media with their subjective take on the political and social arenas.

"Today there is an active Arab blogosphere, raising its voice loudly. It has benefited from the freedom of expression made available electronically, and made known its opinion on the most important political issues," wrote Lebanese columnist Jihad Al-Khazen in his January column in the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat.

Media analyst and associate professor of Political Science at Williams College, Marc Lynch concurs. "[It is] definitely an explosion though an uneven one," said Lynch, proprietor of the popular blog Abu Ardvark.

"I've been amazed at how quickly both Arabic and English language blogging has developed. I've been particularly intrigued by the various portals and aggregators that have been developed," pointed out Lynch, adding that he currently reads more Arab blogs than American ones. "[This] wouldn't have been possible not too long ago."

The words "web" and "log" were first mated in 1999. Since then, blogs have mushroomed into million of sites around the world dissecting life as we know it. The Arab blogosphere arrived to the scene some years after the early establishment of this revolutionary medium. It started small a couple of years ago with few blogs here and there. Nowadays it is a large-scale, effective scene, with new blogs popping up all over the place.

Many give blogger Salam Pax credit for initiating the blogging concept in the Middle East. His accounts during the Iraq war gained him a world-wide popularity. He later turned his cyber scribbles into a book and then into a movie. Salam Pax's writings prompted other Iraqi bloggers to write down their accounts, thus creating an extremely vibrant Iraqi blogging scene with contributors across the political spectrum.

"Blogging is taking off this year in the Arab world," said Isam Bayazidi, an Arab IT expert and founder of popular blogging portal Jordan Planet.

Bayazidi, who runs a blog at http://isam.bayazidi.net/, foresees remarkable growth in the Arab blogging scene. "According to statistics from Arab service providers and large blog service providers world-wide, the number of blogs from the Arab world is currently estimated at seven thousands blogs," Bayazidi told G21.

"This number is expected to grow 10-12 fold considering the expansion rate of the Arab blogging scene and the number of people exposed daily to the concept of blogging," he added. Bayazidi gives reasons for this remarkable explosion.

"What made a mark in 2005 is having three blog service providers from the Arab world, providing blogging templates that enable posting in Arabic with great ease," he explained.

"This, along with the increasing interest in blogs by the traditional media in the Middle East will cause a great exponential growth this year," he added.

Veteran Egyptian columnist Mona ElTahawy believes the main reason for the continuous growth of the Arab blogging scene is young peoples' desire to be heard. "While Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have smashed through old taboos such as criticising governments and providing forums for dissidents, they are still out of bounds for young people," she told G21.

"So I think more young people in the Arab world set up their own blogs so that they can have their say in the issues of the day," said El Tahawy, who has a regular column in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq Al-Awsat.

The Impact of Arab Blogging

When it comes to the actual impact of the Arab blogoshere, Al-Khazen agrees in his January editorial that the Arab bloggers' impact is still minimal.

"I don't think that Arab blogs have been able to affect the course of events, or launch successful campaigns for certain causes or against certain individuals."

However, Lynch believes some blogging communities are making a difference. "Some English-language bloggers have become important interlocutors for Western journalists - for better or for worse," said Lynch. "In some countries, there has been some direct political impact - especially in Bahrain and Egypt, he added. "But it's still relatively limited, and the more that the blogs start to matter the more that states will try to clamp down on them."

The Effect of Egyptian Bloggers

Egyptian bloggers have been seen as a crystal clear example of the impact of blogging. A number of Egyptian bloggers have supported rallies of opposition groups and some others organized anti-terrorism demonstrations.

ElTahawy clearly sees the impact that the Egyptian bloggers have made so far in their community. "I would cite the example from Manal And Alaa's Bit Bucket blog. I read an entry Alaa posted after he and his mother were beaten by riot police during a demonstration in Egypt last year. I was so moved by his post that I decided to go back to Egypt to see the demonstrations for myself and to take part," she pointed out.

ElTahawy gave another example. "In Egypt, bloggers rallied behind a fellow blogger who was detained by State Security after he wrote an entry on discrimination against Christians in Egypt. Soon after, the leading independent weekly newspaper in Egypt - Al-Dostour - devoted a whole page to entries by various Egyptian bloggers."

Agreeing with El Tahawy, celebrity blogger Sandmonkey also sees the impact of the scribbles of the Egyptian bloggers. "The anti-terror demonstration that me, Karim el Sahy and Big Pharaoh started garnered headlines everywhere and it showed that there are Egyptians that oppose terrorism," Sandmonkey told G21.

"The campaign we also started to free Abdel Karim - the Egyptian blogger who got arrested in 2004 - actually led to his release, as someone working in the US embassy informed me," he pointed out. "It's having an impact as long as the bloggers keep up the pressure."

Egyptian blogger, Freedom for Egyptians concurs. "I think Egyptian bloggers made a real impact during peak events in Egypt as at the times of the presidential and legislative elections," said the blogger who runs a site at http://freedomforegyptians.blogspot.com/

"And I saw the impact as many of us, including me, were being quoted in the international press. This is a sign of credibility," she added.


Hiding behind an alias is a strong motivator for many Arab writers to speak up without having to worry about spending time behind bars due to the restricted freedom of speech in the region. A significant number of bloggers write anonymously, which allows them to challenge taboos.

Asked about her view of anonymous blogging in the Arab world, ElTahawy said: "It's understandable. There's a lot of fear in the Arab world. It's difficult to know who to trust when there's no name but Egyptian blogger Bahiya has become one of the most trusted voices out there on Egypt and she's anonymous."

Harassing bloggers does occur. Egyptian blogger Abdel Karim Sleiman was arrested for his anti-Islamic and anti-government writings. Another Bahraini blogger, Ali Abdulemam was also arrested for his anti-government opinions published on the Bahrain online forum.

ElTahawy shares a personal experience. "I was summoned into State Security during my last visit to Egypt because of an OpEd I had published in the International Herald Tribune. If my government feels confident enough to summon me for an interrogation - despite my profile and clips in international publications - then there's plenty to fear for bloggers who don't have my kind of exposure or ability to rally support from fellow journalists."

Country-specific Blogs

Country-centric communities are the latest rage in the budding Arab blogosphere as writers from the same country aggregate their scribbles - mostly in the form of RSS feeds - into one portal. Examples of this are: Jordanplanet.com, Saudiblogs.blogspot.com, and kuwaitblogs.com. The Kuwaiti blogging portal alone has around 300 blogs while the Jordanian community has over 60 blogs and the Saudi sites amount to around 50.

The Jordanian portal http://www.jordanplanet.com stepped into the limelight following the terrorist attacks that rocked the kingdom on 9 November, 2005. In addition to encouraging readers to take part in anti-terror rallies, members of Jordan Planet launched an online campaign in which they condemned the attacks and provided hourly news updates.

"In Jordan, after the terror that struck hotels on 9 November 2005, Jordanian bloggers gave us an accurate and quick picture of the horrible situation, with pictures. One can reach a number of Jordanian blogs through the Jordan Planet website; the famous site has been used by US television networks," wrote Al-Khazen in his column.

Founder of Jordan Planet, Isam Bayazidi agrees. "There is no doubt that the tragic events of 9 November were a turning point for Jordan Planet and the Jordanian blogosphere."

"The exposure that some Jordanian bloggers got through TV stations and radios was exceptional. During the first hours of the event, and in the days that followed, Jordanian bloggers were able to be part of news creation through closely documenting the event and its aftermath with text, pictures and video," he explained.

Bayazidi went on to explain how the concept "citizen journalists" took form during these tragic events. "Some of the Jordanian bloggers felt a sense of duty, to report and capture, very similar to one that a journalist would have."

Media pundit and CEO of SYNTAX Design, Ahmad Humeid is another analyst who was impressed by the role that the Jordanian bloggers played right after the attacks.

"It was a defining moment for Jordanian bloggers. The bloggers were quick to react and got quite a bit of global media attention," Humeid told G21.

However, Humeid did not see a continuing development. "I am quite disappointed that the Jordanian blogosphere has not played a bigger role after the bombings as far as debate and analysis. As Jordanians got over the bombings, so has the debate about extremism subsided."

Another Arab blogging community is the newly launched itoot, which is a pan-Arab portal that selects the scribbles from Arab bloggers on a daily basis. The portal also allows readers to vote on what they see as the best Arab blogs.

"[Itoot ] is about showcasing the best of Arabia blogs and giving readers a good starting point to explore the Arab- related blogoshpere," said Humeid who is also the founder of itoot.

"It is the first human driven aggregator in the Arab world. There is a real daily effort in selecting the blogs featured on toot and sifting through the multitude of posts everyday to feature a bouquet of interesting opinions, rants and raves," he explained.


The Arab bloggers's activity is not merely online-bound as some Arab blogging communities make sure to meet face-to-face every once in a while to discuss various issues that relate to their online communities. One remarkably active group is the Tunisian blogopshere as bloggers meet at least once a month to discuss various issues that relate to their common interest.

"The main goal behind the monthly blogger meet-ups is to create a sense of community between Tunisian bloggers that will provide support and encourage them to keep on blogging," Mohamed Marwen Meddah, who runs the popular blog http://www.subzeroblue.com, told G21.

"The meetups also enable live discussion and exchange of ideas on how to promote the Tunisian blogosphere internationally and spread blogging in Tunisia," pointed out Meddah who is the organizer of the meetups.

English seems to be the dominant language of the Arab blogosphere. The second language of choice is Arabic followed by French which is mostly favored by writers from North Africa and Lebanon. Bayazidi lists reasons for the English domination of the Arabic blogosphere.

"Until three months ago, there was no blog service provider that embraced Arabic as an optional language. Another reason is that many bloggers are hoping to gain international audience by writing in English." Bayazidi explained further: "One more reason is that governmental online monitoring in the Arab world is more concerned with content in Arabic than English. Thus some are hoping to avoid local attention through blogging in English or French."


Audio and video blogging, which is commonly known as podcasting, is the recent phenomenon in the budding Arab blogging scene. Jordanian blogger Iyas Masannat who goes by the name "Jameed" has recently launched his first podcast on his highly popular blog http://www.jameed.net. Masannat has a number of reasons for creating such a sophisticated first podcast.

"I created it because I enjoy recording and mixing. It is a hobby. And as a Jordanian in Utah, podcasts may be a means for me to communicate with people from my own background, something that is significantly lacking in my life here," he told G21.

Asked about the message he was trying to convey, Masannat said: "I do not think I am trying to send a message per se. But I believe that every phrase we hear in our daily life affects us and shapes our system of thinking in its own capacity. Therefore, when I speak of serious issues I do not expect people to agree or disagree with me; I just want to say 'Hey, there is this opinion out there that says ... '"

Although podcasting is gaining a huge momentum worldwide, it has not yet been widely embraced by Arab bloggers. "Podcast is the next big thing on the Internet as a whole. But podcasting requires equipment, web space and bandwidth that is not as easily, or cheaply, available for most users of the Internet in the Arab World," explained Masannat.

Humeid concurs. "Doing a podcast is more demanding than doing a blog entry. And audio, and also video, content need bandwidth. So I don't expect a big rush toward podcasting just yet."

However Humeid remains optimistic about Arab podcasting. "From an amateur's perspective I think there is growing interest in podcasting. When I started my podcast back in may 2005, almost no one, not even bloggers have heard of podcasting. Today there are a handful of Arab podcasts."

Media analyst Lynch is not yet convinced of the effect of podcasting. "I'm kind of skeptical of podcasting in general, but I think that I may be a few generations behind the technology curve. Now that I finally have an iPod, maybe I'll change my mind."

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