Arabs Find – and Lose – Their Voice Online

Posted February 4th, 2011 at 3:34 pm (UTC-4)
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Digital Connections Sprout in a Difficult Environment

The images collected over the last two months have been nothing if not compelling.

Masses of Tunisians surrounding government office buildings as President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flees the nation.  Thousands of Yemenis filling the streets of Sanaa to protest the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.  Cairo’s massive Tahrir Square occupied by Egyptian men, women and children in defiance of government curfew.

Online, it’s no different.  Even with Egypt’s temporary Internet & mobile blackout, the web has been flooded with talk about protests – much of it not in English.  Arabic script is showing up on Twitter and Facebook with increasing frequency, and blogs are becoming tools for organizing mass protests.

Much like Tahrir Square, pro and anti-government Arabic activists are staking out territory to occupy online.  And as Tahrir has become a battleground, so too has the Internet.

“One has to wonder at some point the futulity [sic] of being a keyboard warrior in a country where nothing seems to matter to its people anymore,” wrote the popular Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey – not in 2011, but in 2007.

For years, “Sandmonkey” – who keeps his true identity anonymous for security reasons – covered Egyptian politics and repression, often with biting comment.  2007 brought another periodic crackdown by the Mubarak government to silence online dissent, and Sandmonkey was pulled from the web, in part for writings such as this:

“Our security situation is dire, and not only in Egypt, but rather all across the middle-east. Bloggers have been intimidated by the authorities in Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Bahrain, just to name a few. It seems like the period of hope and reform that the bloggers of those countries have pushed for and represented in the past 2 years is now coming to an end, with the authorities more and more focused and intent on shutting us up, using everything from intimidation to imprisonment. And we have no defenders, no one to protect us, or champion our causes or lobby for our rights and safety.”

Eventually Sandmonkey came back, and continued his provocative commentary.  Now in 2011, to no one’s surprise, his blog has been shuttered again by Egyptian authorities – but not before fellow bloggers reprinted his last post.

His story is not unique, or new.  Egyptian authorities are currently rounding up activists thought to be using the web to organize protests.  Elsewhere, bloggers have long been targeted across the Middle East, often with intimidation, prison, or worse.

For those interested in merely surfing the web, things aren’t much better.    VOA’s Aida Akl recently surveyed the many obstacles put in the way of those online in Arabic nations:

“Libyan authorities don’t bother to block internal websites. Instead, they block Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that link citizens to external servers like Google’s, effectively isolating them from the world.

“Morocco does very little blocking and maintains a more open online environment than most in the region.  Lebanon does not filter, according to Jillian York, OpenNet Initiative Project Coordinator at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, while Saudi Arabia does less filtering than Syria.”

And governments – or at least their supporters – are fighting back as well.

Mobile service provider Vodafone announced that Egyptian officials have shut down text services, except at times to send scripted pro-government messages.  Since Egypt came back online,  social networks have seen a surge of pro-Mubarak sentiment – some of dubious origins.

For example, this Twitter user – Manal – shares no personal information and has only 3 followers.  The account has only been active in the last 24 hours – just about the same time Egypt has been back online – but Manal has already managed 58 tweets, all of them pro-Mubarak.

Listen to a montage of “Speak2Tweet” messages from Egypt:

However, the Internet is notoriously difficult to control, and those who felt threatened or isolated before may be finding a new home on the web.   On-scene videos are being posted to YouTube, as are still images sent via Twitter.   Those without Internet access can share their stories online with the new “Speak to Tweet” service, and thanks to “I Am In Tahrir,” people from around the world can now share their thoughts and support in a virtual Tahrir Square.

One thing seems certain: these online battles will likely continue long after protesters have left Tahrir Square.

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February 2011
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