Over-estimated Agents of Change

What can blogs really achieve? Is too much expected of them? How can they make a difference? Mohammed Sahli, Moroccan blogger and organiser of the Arabic Blog Awards, talks about the development of the Arabic blogosphere, its future and the social role of blogs

Collage of banners from Arabic blogs (image: Alawa Haji's blog)
According to Mohammed Sahli, people's hopes that blogs would become an instrument of socio-political change in the Arab world have not been met

​​The story of Arabic blogging has a rather mundane beginning: the first blogs were all about personal interests and observations. It was only later, after much development, that blogs transformed themselves into media for freedom of expression and symbols of social change.

Some companies saw them as marketing tools and so contributed to their spread. Then some bloggers started earning money with their blogs.

But when we talk about the Arabic blogosphere, it must be said that blogs there have not lived up to people's hopes and expectations that they would become instruments of socio-political change in the Arab world.

Blogs in Arabic gradually began to appear in 2005. At first they were few, and most people didn't even know what the word "blog" meant. Nevertheless, although the quantity was small, the quality was high.

From forums to blogs

The Arabic blogosphere began to grow in the years that followed. Some bloggers increasingly tried to assume the role of the press in so far as they – at least in a limited way – offered more room for freedom of expression.

As a result, many Internet portals started offering free and unlimited services to people wanting to start their own blogs. The content of the blogs that grew out of this so-called "online revolution" didn't differ much from the online forums used by Arab Internet users. Many users simply copied their forum content and posted them on the Internet as a blog.

In 2007, the number of Arabic blogs grew even more. Like a virus, this growth brought the disadvantages and chaos of the Arabic forums into the blogosphere.

This meant that the quality of the content of the blogs became as poor as the forums before them. The content did not in any way answer the expectations of those who had looked to blogs as an instrument of social change.

Arabic blog platforms

In the early years, blogs were often created using the Google service Blogger.com. However, the majority of Arabic-speaking bloggers could not use the platform because it was written in English.

Screenshot of Maktoob.com
Maktoob.com was one of the first to provide Arabic Internet platforms on which people could post their blogs

​​Little by little, Arabic platforms sprang up and with them, more Arabic blogs. From the point of view of quality, however, these blogs were equally disappointing.

There are, however, exceptions. Many bloggers have managed to break away from the crowd and set themselves apart. They have created blogs in order to share their knowledge and their skills with others and, in doing so, have often landed themselves in trouble. Some have even been the victims of state persecution.

Blogs and political meaning

In 2008, there was a campaign in Egypt to try and mobilize people through social media. On April 6, a group of Egyptian Facebook members called for a general strike in protest at the rising cost of food.

Many bloggers picked up on the campaign and in doing so, helped to mobilize people and get them onto the streets. The result was astonishing and the strike was a success.

Graphic image illustrating the Arabic blogosphere (image: Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University)
Decentralised and not united: at present, it would be wrong to speak of the widespread effectiveness of blogs in the Arab world

​​That being said, the jury is still out as to the bloggers' actual contribution to this success. It is hard to say. In any case, Egyptian bloggers are proud to have, as they see it, "shaken the throne."

On the night of the general strike, the Egyptian government issued a statement vehemently criticizing the planned action. In doing so, it indirectly contributed to the strike's success.

The government had wanted to intimidate the public, but in fact did the opposite. The following year, the government simply ignored online calls for a strike; the strike was unsuccessful.

Other examples are, however, more positive. In Kuwait in 2006, bloggers tried, through the "Nabiha Khamsa" campaign, to effect changes in the election system by limiting the number of constituencies.

The campaign was successful, a victory which can be directly attributed to the bloggers. Interestingly, the number of bloggers in Kuwait is much smaller than the number in Egypt.

What can bloggers change really?

I don't want to belittle the influence of blogs. They have played an important role in many events and have left their mark. But the media has over-played their influence to the extent that many bloggers have become convinced that they are capable of changing society and precipitating democratization.

In assessing the importance of the Arabic blogosphere, I would like to float the following questions:

Did Arabic bloggers help save children during the war in Gaza? Have Arabic bloggers contributed to an aid effort like that of US citizens following Hurricane Katrina? Have Arabic bloggers curbed corruption in Arab countries or caused regime change? Have blogs in the Arab world led to real changes?

The answer to these questions is NO. For this reason, it would be wrong to speak of the widespread effectiveness of blogs in the Arab world.

The future of the Arabic blogosphere

Blogging in the Arab world is currently the activity of individuals. However, the particularities of Arab societies demand that this individual activity transform itself into a collective activity with the goal of achieving far-reaching political change together.

Moroccan blogger Mohammed Sahli (photo: Mohammed Sahli)
For blogs in the Arab world to really make a difference, democratic reforms must be put in place and access to independent news sources improved, says Mohammed Sahli

​​The campaign in Kuwait could serve as a model and be applied to other Arab countries. In this way, Arabic bloggers could, in the future, contribute to the transformation of society. Of course, this is no easy task, and it will take both time and money.

Many things have to happen before blogs in the Arab world can really start to make a difference: institutions have to be democratized, access to independent news sources has to be improved, the legal system has to be reformed, freedom of press and freedom of opinion must be protected and Internet access improved.

Without all this, blogs will remain a platform for small talk and will fail to achieve social change.

Mohammed Sahli

© Deutsche Welle 2009

Mohammed Sahli is an author and blogger. In 2009 he launched an Arabic blog competition (arabisk-award.com). He is also director of the Internet agency Kalima Press, which, among other things, provides blog services. Mohammed Sahli lives and works in Morocco.


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