17th Feb 2020


The EU should be bolstering the blogosphere

Al Sharkawi and Al Shaer, two democracy activists in Egypt who used the internet to coordinate activities, were detained for several weeks last year following their participation in a peaceful pro-reform protest. They were finally freed last July, but their plight highlights the dangers faced by bloggers across the Middle East.

Such events also underscore the growing importance of the blogosphere, the threat regimes sense emanating from online activism and the blogosphere's need for European support.

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Bloggers have proved themselves vital in the political arena. In Egypt the Kifaya movement, an opposition group championing democratic governance, used blogs to provide publicity, mobilize and organize protests. Equally crucial is the role of online activism in pursuing those scandals which the state-owned media chooses to sideline. Bahraini bloggers exposed the arrest of human rights activists such as Abdulhadi al Khawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

"Bandar Gate", again in Bahrain, had the blogosphere disseminating the report of Dr Salah al Bandar, who alleged that there was a government level conspiracy to rig elections against the Shia. During the Islamic holiday of Eid, Egyptian blogger Malek Mostapha posted an eye-witness report on how women were sexually harassed in Cairo whilst police officers stood by and watched. The item gathered steam, was featured on a prominent television program and became the topic of a national debate. As one Egyptian blogger phrased it, the protests which followed united a wide swathe of Egyptian society including ‘American University of Cairo students (a private university), regular University students, Hijabis and Liberals, alongside your run-of-the-mill activist'.

The blogosphere, as media expert Dr. Mark Lynch points out, is able to ‘escape the state driven red lines which even the most independent of Arab media is forced to acknowledge'. As such, they fit in with the EU's agenda, enshrined in the Barcelona Process and European Neighbourhood Policy, of promoting a freer media in the Middle East. Not only does the internet allow Middle Eastern citizens to hold their (often unelected) leaders to account, it also provides a medium through which citizens can engage with politics and with each other. Empowering pluralism and strengthening civil society have also been among the much heralded side-effects of the blogosphere, both of which are central tenets in the EU's relationship with the Middle East.

Detractors argue that the blogosphere remains a limited phenomenon in Arab lands. True, internet usage in the Middle East currently stands at 10 percent, but is has been rapidly growing. Even in the previously hermetically sealed Libya, initiatives such as the ‘One Laptop per Child' project foreshadow an era of rapid change. Of course, bloggers by themselves will not create wholesale change at the top. As Lynch and others argue, in order to become politically meaningful, ‘bloggers need political openings'. However, these do arise, and when they do, the blogosphere should be sufficiently strong to profit from them.

There are a variety of ways in which the EU can provide support to the blogosphere. Various Action-Plans state that support for technology is one of their goals. We must not assume that the technical know-how of how to create a blog and link up to the blogosphere is readily available. The EU should, under an educational framework, become a gateway for providing students and academics with a wide range of I.T. skills, including instruction on how to set up blogs. Such initiatives could probably be created under the specific country's Action Plan, as although projects launched under its umbrella require the consent of the home government, the neutral tone of such projects is likely to let them pass uncensored.

Other projects could be launched under the aegis of the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights, part of whose mandate includes encouraging a freer media. At present, none of the projects it funds serve to empower the blogsphere. In fact, at least two out of its seventeen projects have clear ties to those in power. For example, the Centre Africain de Perfectionnement des Journalistes et Communicateurs (CAPJC), which receives a very large portion of the roughly 5 million euros budget, was created by the Tunisian government and placed under the Prime Minister's Office. The EIDHR should switch its focus from projects such as these to more independent ones aimed at the blogosphere.

Options here include turning current Middle East based internet forums into discussion groups by pairing them up with European based NGO's. These partnerships could then end up providing third party anonymous websurfing sites to allow activists the choice of creating new internet addresses and thereby escape censorship. Of course, such internet forums must conform to ideas of pluralism and non-violence, so as to exclude those extremists who also use the web to disseminate their ideas. Projects which had been discontinued, such as one funding the International Federation of Journalists, should be reconsidered. Not only are these organizations wholly independent, but they can also be used as a channel to provide established and new journalists with the skills to transpose their writings onto cyberspace.

Malek Mostapha , the blogger who publicized the harassment of women, argues that ‘blogging is the first step towards reform'. This may be an exaggeration, but the blogosphere is here to stay and the EU should do what it can to support it. Recently, prolific Cairo-based blogger Sandmonkey stopped posting and put away his keyboard for good. He cited as one of his reasons the vulnerability of bloggers ‘we have no defenders…no one to champion our cases'. Such a state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.

The writer is Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Transatlantic Institute


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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