Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 January 2006
Issue No. 776
Special
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Look who's blogging

The winding year saw the rise of figures and phenomena that promise to be of crucial importance this year. Al-Ahram Weekly keeps track of a changing vista

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Egyptian blogs may not be beautiful, but they are gaining popularity and influence

Virtually non-existent a year ago, blogs seemed to accompany all other new developments in 2005: multi-candidate presidential elections, an overall loosening of media taboos... For someone who has been blogging at cairolive.com since 1996, the Egyptian blog scene has, since then, radically transformed itself. With its ever- increasing population of self-made media entities (over 500 at last count), it is also changing the news world itself.

The dictionary definition of a blog is an "online diary or chronology of thoughts, links to interesting news items, and/or commentary". Using one of the many free services, like Google's Blogger, that host and provide instructions on how to do so, anyone can instantly start a blog.

Over the past year, Egyptian bloggers covered the 25 May referendum on amending Article 76 of the constitution; their vivid accounts, and the graphic images of violence that they posted online, attracted readers and garnered acclaim. Bloggers also captured, scene-by-scene, the strange ambulance driver siege that took place downtown in August, as well as countless other events snubbed by the press. They released a strong statement condemning the tragic cultural palace fire in Beni Sweif and organised demonstrations calling for various ministers to resign. They worked, en masse, to demand the release of a fellow blogger who was detained by the police.

They also described their first kiss. One of the newest bloggers to hit the scene, someone calling themselves the Egyptian Mozza (or hottie), has delighted and shocked readers with sometimes innocent, other times raunchy, revelations of her personal life. Just reading the comments section -- where various people have encouraged, propositioned, gently lectured and vehemently cursed the mozza -- reveals the strength of blogs as a potential vehicle for social, and not just political, change. Just like the popular weekly newspaper Al-Destour (which has itself included blog excerpts on its pages), blogs are providing an ongoing forum where the audience is the participant, seeing and hearing itself as it really is, loose at last from decades of state-orchestrated media din. (In fact, bloggers have already taken on the state and won: an official Egyptian tourism ad was withdrawn after bloggers launched a campaign against it, arguing that its scenes of bikini-clad beauties gave out the wrong image).

It's this sort of social blog that might actually get more people interested in blogging in general, and hence seriously tip the balance between new and traditional media, as has happened elsewhere in the world. For now, other than the interesting political activism sub-scene, much of the Egyptian blog world centres on technical, computer-related discussions, and overly-generic, randomly-updated musings on life.

Frequent updates, and having something continually relevant to say, are the keys to making a blog popular. But since maintaining that momentum can also become a burden of sorts, even some bloggers who were hot for a while, ended up fizzling out. Mohamed, of From Cairo with Love, had gained a healthy fan base for his philosophical ramblings on political events, when he decided to call it quits anyway. As did Ritzy Mabrouk, a strange creature who seemed to really be getting into it for a while, before completely falling off the map. Mohamed warned his readers before quitting; Ritzy just left.

Whatever the case, they were both -- along with the Egyptian Sandmonkey, Big Pharaoh, Wa7da Masreya and others -- caught in one of the specific anomalies of the Egyptian blogging experience: the anonymity factor. Since many of the bloggers are outspoken about their political views, the common excuse is fear of arrest (as has happened in other Arab countries). While some are sympathetic to that reasoning, it still calls into question the efficacy of activism when the activists refuse to even show their faces. Why are they so courageous about posting their views, yet not willing to reveal who they really are?

The most widely cited example is the infamous Baheyya, the Egyptian political blogger par excellence; her weekly sermons filled with insight and wit even attracted the attention of the esteemed political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, it is often said. Baheyya is critical of the regime, but with an insider's knowledge and a professorial air. She is sometimes hardheaded and obstinate, but always readable, and everybody wants to know who she is. If, in 2006, she decides to reveal her identity, the blogging scene will never be the same.

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