Middle East bloggers click for change

Standing on the steps of a building in central Cairo, surrounded by lines of riot police, Wael Abbas receives a text message on his mobile.

A fellow activist-cum-blogger has been detained and plonked in van, the message says, detailing the location and registration number of the vehicle.

Mr Abbas and his friend - who was later released - were attending protests against amendments to the constitution, due to be voted on in a referendum on Monday.

The police were out in force, easily outnumbering the demonstrators. But the protestors’ meagre showing, as well as reflecting the power of police intimidation, also illustrates the political apathy - some say cynicism with the system - that exists in Egypt, where turnout in the last elections was just 25 per cent.

It is that apathy and a lack of awareness about social and political issues that Mr Abbas, 32, and a small band of others within Egypt’s blogging universe are seeking to tackle.

“We are like ants collecting bits of sugar,” he says, a camera slung over his shoulder in case there are any incidents worthy of capturing for his blog. “But we hope more people will join us. We hope more people will be aware.”

The number of bloggers throughout the Middle East has swelled in recent years. Many use the web simply to gossip, write diary-style journals or air their views to the outside world. A small but vocal minority, however, see the medium as a means to push for change in countries with limited press freedom by tackling issues the traditional media often shirk away from.

Egypt’s activist bloggers can claim some success, posting pictures of police torture on their sites recently that helped focus international attention on the abuses. Two police officers are now facing trial.

Bloggers in Bahrain also caused a storm last year by downloading images from Google Earth to highlight estates belonging to the ruling family and illustrate the inequity of land distribution. They also posted reports by a former government advisor that alleged the government intended to manipulate elections and marginalise the majority Shia population.

Even in Saudi Arabia, the most conservative of Arab states, a handful of bloggers sought to create the ‘Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Bloggers’ as a forum for like-minded people. The initiative stalled after it caught the attention of security agents in the kingdom, who quietly warned some of the bloggers that they were crossing certain lines, the bloggers say. Three or four blogs have since closed.

“I wanted to imitate some blogs in the US - how they post, how they make an impact on political issues,” says one Saudi who stopped blogging after a visit from security agents. “Somehow the tone of my post was not appropriate for some people in the interior ministry.”

The trend emerging in the region seems to be one in which bloggers have been able to put the spotlight on sensitive issues. But this has generated greater scrutiny from the authorities at a time when reformists in a number of Arab states are complaining of a crackdown on dissent.

In Egypt, reform movements that gained momentum in 2004 and 2005 by plugging into regional and domestic frustrations have lost impetus. Even at their height they struggled to draw more than a few hundred people to demonstrations, due to a combination of the fear of crackdowns, lack of faith in both the government and the weak opposition, and doubts about whether genuine political change could occur in a country ruled by the same man for more than two decades.

In Cairo, human rights activists say security agents are now employing old-style tactics of intimidation and harassment against the more vocal bloggers. Mr Abbas’ name pops up while they discuss their concerns - they wonder whether he could soon find himself behind bars.

On March 10, the State Security Investigations bureau of the interior ministry issued a report to public prosecutors that named 17 bloggers, journalists and activists, including Mr Abbas, as being responsible for organising demonstrations and “spreading false news” that could harm Egypt’s image abroad, according to Human Rights Watch.

But Mr Abbas - one of the first to post images of police torture on the web – alleges that since he set up his site in 2004 he’s received phone calls in which his family has been threatened.

Earlier this month, Abdel-Karim Suleiman became the first Egyptian blogger formally sentenced and jailed when he was handed a four-year prison term for insulting Islam, defaming Hosni Mubarak, the president, and “spreading information disruptive of the public order.”

Even the US, a key ally of the government, described that as a setback for human rights.

A government official, however, insists there is no policy of harassing bloggers, saying the government has increased internet access and accepts that the content of blogs cannot be controlled.

The impact of cyber activists is in any case likely to be limited in countries like Egypt due to illiteracy and poverty levels, says Gasser Abdel-Razek, a member of the board of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.

“It’s great what they are doing but I don’t think they will be a major element in whatever will take place in this country,” he says. “There are still villages in Egypt without electricity, let alone computer hardware.”

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