Egyptian bloggers and digital activists report on human rights abuses, the upcoming elections, or life in an Islamic society. They often fill the informational gap weak traditional media leave. Since the 2005 Kifaya ("Enough") movement, their impact on public newsmaking has steadily grown. Without protection and training, however, their future as an influential source of independent opinion may be uncertain, as pre-election developments show.
While Noha Ali Atef has never seen the woman nor met her husband - the man she helped get out of prison and fight his torturers - what she did in 2006 motivates her work to this day. When she was first approached by the woman who feared for her husband‘s life in custody Noha‘s blog "Torture in Egypt“ (http://tortureinegypt.net/), was still in its infancy. Today it is one of the leading independent sources on human rights abuse in Egypt,.
On her website, a Twitter channel (@nohaatef), and as an author for the anti-censorship network of online activists "Global Voices Advocacy“ 26-year-old Noha, who also works as a journalist for an independent Cairo newspaper, comments on what is communicated to her, what she picks up at human-rights events or from official reports. Over time she was able to add videos from YouTube, victim‘s testimonies, and data gathered by NGOs on cases of torture by public officials, a crime still going largely unpunished in Egypt.
Today Noha‘s blog logs almost 8.000 visits a day and is one of the most popular independent news sources on torture in Egypt. Among other resources it features "Torturepedia“ (http://tortureinegypt.net/node/2391), a database of police officers alleged to have committed torture crimes, that allows abuse victims to identify their torturers.
Noha is only one of a growing group of citizen activists who use modern digital tools to make their voices heard and fight against the abuse of power. They are beginning to have substantial impact on the traditional Egyptian media landscape - an important development in a country that prepares for presidential elections.
Not so Independent
2003 saw the independence of the newspaper market and subsequently satellite TV and the Internet into Egyptian homes. State-owned publications like "Al Ahram“ suddenly had to deal with an increasingly diverse journalistic opposition - with more citizens daring to speak out using the new tools. "Papers like Al-Masry Al-Youm, El Dostor or Al Shorouk have since become pillars of an independent media landscape. They encourage the people to speak out.“, says Heba Morayef, Cairo-based researcher for the NGO Human Rights Watch.
However, as was highlighted again by the sacking of "El Dostor’s“ editor in chief last May independent journalism did not develop into a respectable counterweight to the state-owned newsmedia. "Egyptian newspaper journalism is rarely investigative. It also only rarely pays attention to the perspective of the individual citizen.“, Heba adds.
Still some independent newspapers have actively sought to integrate civic voices into their print products in their search for impartial sources close to the citizens.
Bloggers and digital activists have responded to the call. Having earned their laurels during their support of the "Kifaya“ ("Enough!") movement and later that of "April 6th“ (a general strike support movement coordinated through a Facebook group) they continue to provide raw video footage from the streets showing victims and perpetrators of human rights abuses regularly ignored by the authorities. They write reports on clashes giving those a voice who would normally not dare to speak out in fear of social stigma or repression. They take photos of police officers making it easier for victims to identify offenders and claim their rights.
Reporting the News Unfit to Print
The support the bloggers lend to popular causes has brought some of them exceptional visibility. This impact, remarkably, extends to traditional media. Here their comments often make an impact unseen in countries with highly refined systems of news generation and distribution.
For instance, many Egyptian media have begun to regularly reprint entries from well-known blogs of well-known bloggers such as Kareem Amer or Wael Abbas thereby tapping into news sources normally inaccessible to them and increasing their circulation.
While Facebook is mostly used for gathering "human momentum“, blogs are still employed to give individuals a voice and public readership. Egypt‘s newspapers do not only reprint blog articles, some even dedicate entire pages to the virtual medium. Several young Egyptian women running well-known blogs with wide readership and focussing on life issues such as chronicles of marriage and divorce in an Arab country have succeeded in having their work published in print. Some media have even hired bloggers into paid positions.
Social media are again coming to the fore as the country is preparing for parliamentary elections on 28 November. Twitter has become increasingly popular; many Egyptians have learned about its potential to coordinate demonstrations from their Iranian counterparts. Both Mohammed El-Baradei, who has attracted almost 250.000 fans to his Facebook page, and other candidates now have their own accounts.
For the upcoming elections some have begun to adopt other tried technologies like "Ushahidi“ (http://www.ushahidi.com), a platform that shall allow citizens to map incidents of electoral fraud in Google Maps. Its usefulness will largely depend on the credibility of the groups employing it and their methods - true offline activism, that is.
Even conservative religious movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whom in the early days of blogging rallied behind secular bloggers to improve their chances of success in their fight for common freedoms, have also begun to use platforms like YouTube for their own causes.
Still, Egyptian bloggers are by many perceived as the "bravest journalists“. They have succeeded in putting substantial pressure on offline and online media because they are more flexible reporters of controversial news and are not subject to the practical and legal constraints of hired journalists.
Since April 2010 the country even has its own print newspaper fully made up of blogs, tweets and their comments distributed through a small circulation of 1.200 copies to mostly older people who do not know of or do not appreciate the Internet. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information‘s "Wasl“ ("Links“) newspaper mimics the look and feel of the Internet on paper with articles and their associated comments and appropriate design. „We really need to show older people what important developments are taking place on the internet.“, explains Gamal Eid, director of the network that regularly publishes on digital activism in the country.
Profit and Price of Independence
However, with Egypt’s opposition splitting into factions each working their own online communication channels comes the risk of ineffectiveness. Some fear the numerous groups and pundits might be unable to consolidate their messages and translate their prolix online presences into real-world activism for lasting change. Commentators have started to wonder whether the initial digital hype might be waning.
Many think more capacity building is what is needed. "Bloggers have raised the invisible ceiling for freedom of speech.“, thinks Ahmed Samir, founder and co-director of the "Horytna“ ("Our Freedom“) (http://horytna.net) independent Internet radio station made „for youth, by youth“. The station that registers more than 100.000 site visitors each month relies extensively on contributions from the streets supplied by activists for its daily programming that is available globally in Arabic. But Samir agrees with other commentators who have repeatedly noted that many comments of well-known bloggers would also qualify as hate-speech in Western legal systems. "The two main challenges to the positive development of civic journalism in Egypt is legal protection and better training.“, thinks Fawzy Hathoot who trains Egyptian journalists for the NGO IREX (http://www.irex.org/). Samir, however, would like to go even further intending to launch his own "journalism academy“: "It‘s not just about training. What we need is integration and mutual understanding - a true learning process on all sides.“, he asserts.
Until that understanding has been achieved many current debates on censorship and the controversy about codes of conduct for bloggers to prevent the degeneration of citizen journalism into just another form of propaganda reflect the same teething trouble of grassroots online activism elsewhere. Still, attempts are made even by the bloggers themselves to improve things.
Manal Hassan and her husband Alaa, initially well-known Egyptian bloggers, later proceeded to founding "Arab Techies“, a self-help organisation teaching Arab youth how to use blogs and other tools effectively and appropriately to raise their voice.
What the staggering increase since 2003 to about 160.000 blogs (government figures) nevertheless shows is the overwhelmingly positive, pro-active attitude Egyptian youth show towards activist, individual citizenship. A view that in the eyes of many does not collide with their religious practice, a common preconception of Western observers. Noha, too, quickly dismisses any such suggestions. „Do you really think faith is all about you growing a beard or wear a headscarf?“ she responds to the question looking inquisitively. "My dad always told me: 'Go out there and do something good for your fellow humans!‘ For me, too, that‘s where the true meaning of Islam really lies.“