Lessons in Democracy

Blogs serve an important function as platforms for independent reporting, especially in the authoritarian states of Northern Africa, where controversial debates are often excluded from political life. Alfred Hackensberger reports

Blogger Alaa Abd el Fatah and his wife, Manal (photo: DW)
Campaign poster for Alaa Abd el Fatah, an Egyptian blogger, pictured with his wife, Manal. Alaa's arrest spurred a protest by others around the world

​​"Why do we blog?" asked Fouad Al-Farhan in December, 2007 on his website about Saudi Arabia. The answers from the bloggers apparently did not please the authorities. He was arrested and has been behind bars ever since. Fouad Al-Farhan had criticized the corruption in his country and called for political reforms.

But by arresting him, the Saudi authorities actually achieved the opposite of what they intended. Instead of silencing Al-Farhan and his criticism, his ideas are now circulating worldwide throughout the Internet. During a visit to Saudi Arabia in January, even US President George W. Bush reportedly made a point of asking what happened to the blogger.

End of the state monopoly on information

"The days are over when the state wielded absolute control over the media," says Larbi El Halili, who runs one of the most successful blogs in Morocco. "It's no longer possible to control the wealth of information on the Web and filter out unwanted contents.”

Blogs are even capable of mobilizing large numbers of people, he says with pride. Despite recent positive developments, heads of state and the Islamic religion still remain sensitive areas in Arab countries where voicing criticism could be punished with a prison term.

In Tunisia in 2002, Zouhair Yahyaoui was sentenced to two years behind bars for allegedly spreading "false information" about human rights violations. Under the pseudonym Ettounsi, he had written in his blog about freedom of speech in Tunisia. According to Reporters Without Borders, Yahyaoui has been tortured in prison. After three hunger strikes he was released on probation for a year. In 2005, the 36-year-old activist died of a heart attack.

In Egypt, 22-year-old Karim Amer was sentence to four years for criticizing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Islam.

"In Morocco, no bloggers have run into legal difficulties so far," says Larbi El Halili. "We can speak relatively freely about everything, which is a real exception compared to other Arab countries."

He says that Moroccan authorities have blocked the video portal "YouTube" on a number of occasions, but cleared access again shortly thereafter. The activist feels that this is primarily thanks to bloggers who launched international protests. This represents "a minor revolution," says El Halili, whose website is visited by 3,500 people a day.

An arbitrary justice system

Since early 2004, El Halili has received 18,000 answers to his over 450 entries. Visitors discuss topics such as the Moroccan constitution or whether the king has too much or too little power. "Of course you have to be careful during these discussions and watch what you say," explains El Halili. "One wrong word and the arbitrary justice system will come down on you like a ton of bricks."

A prime example is the case of Faouad Mourtada, a 26-year-old IT engineer who faked the identity of a Moroccan prince on facebook.com a few weeks ago and has been punished with a three-year prison sentence.

"It began as a joke and ended as a tragedy," said El Halili. "That was a shot across the bow for the blogger community, although it doesn't concern us directly." But the harsh sentence shows just showed far the justice system is willing to go.

In Morocco there are roughly 30,000 blogs used by a population of four million registered Internet users – relatively few in comparison to Germany where there are believed to be 600,000 to a million blogs. In neighboring Algeria, there are just under 6,000. In Tunisia, there are reportedly not even 1,000, which is not surprising in view of the strict state control and lack of tolerance. What’s more, only 1.6 million Internet users are registered.

The 'word on the streets' concerning public issues

But even in Tunisia, as in other Arab countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, the Internet revolution and freedom of speech cannot be held in check forever. People have a need to exchange news and opinions, especially in countries where the flow of information is officially controlled by the state. Blogs are a way of satisfying this need.

"Of course blogs still have a long way to go before they have the power that they could have – or perhaps even should have," says El Halili. He sees blogs as the 'word on the streets' concerning public issues. In his opinion, blog discussions are more important than conversations in the cafes of Casablanca or Cairo or the forums of daily newspapers.

"They are a kind of lesson in democracy that serves a function that the Arab media or even the national parliaments are not fulfilling." He says that blogs are a collective intelligence service for the people – meeting places where controversial discussions and debates about politics and religion take place and people are encouraged to think critically.

The Moroccan blogger sees the work of his Egyptian colleague Wael Abbas, 33, as a sign of what the future may hold. Abbas posted pictures of Egyptian police brutality on his "Misr Digital" blog site.

At first, the authorities tried to intimidate Abbas, denouncing him as a criminal and a homosexual, but later his video documentation helped to convict the policemen. Two officers were charged with torture and sentenced to three years in prison. In recognition of his work, Wael Abbas was awarded the "Knight International Journalism Award" by the International Center for Journalists in Washington.

Alfred Hackensberger

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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