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Egypt: The Cultural Side of a Blogosphere

According to a Berkman Center for Internet and Society study, Mapping the Arabic blogsphere, the Egyptian blogsphere is by far the largest cluster in the Arabic blogsphere that includes several distinct and active sub-clusters. The study notes that almost half of the bloggers are women, and also half of bloggers are in the 18-24 year-old range. These bloggers are often engaged in supporting various campaigns, such as for freeing jailed bloggers, calling for reform, or promoting social issues such as combating HIV/AIDS stigmas or street sexual harassment. At other times they are keen to discuss poetry, literature, and art, as well as human rights (civil and political rights) or Women’s issues (rights, status, hijab, feminism, etc.).

As early as in 2005, Mohamed, a prominent Egyptian blogger, commented on the rapid increase of blogs at that time and the makeup of the blogosphere:

The great thing about the Egyptian blogosphere is that its being able to present our culture as a diverse and multi-dimensional one, which is usually considered a monolithic one. […] That is the most interesting thing I find about that blogosphere, its diversity and individuality, and that is a main benefit I see that is not as easy to have on the ground. […] In real life its healthy to interact with different people in the society. The blogopshere makes that much easier to do, you can sit infront of your computer and interact with the world. Interaction comes in various forms, and fighting is sure one of them.

Online Campaigns

It always puzzles me when researchers or journalists focus only on the political aspect of the Egyptian blogosphere, despite the rich social and cultural side of it that has been active and evolving over the years – providing new channels for citizens or giving voices to minority viewpoints.

One of the earliest campaigns I remember was called “This is Not Egypt“. It was triggered when a group of bloggers felt offended from a governmental tourism advertisement that was portraying Egypt in a way they did not feel comfortable with, for example, stereotyping the country as a place for belly dancers and without stressing the historical sites for tourists. The bloggers thought the ads did not represent their country in the right way. These bloggers then decided to create a collective blog, where everyone could write about Egypt as they know it.

The same was repeated against another advertising campaign for a non-alcoholic beer that was encouraging men to drink to “be a man”. The advertisement has triggered outrageous waves within the blogosphere. Bloggers started writing condemning posts on their blogs, and created a group on Facebook criticizing the ad campaign.

Another religious campaign appeared when some Baha'is resorted to blogging to claim their rights to create their ID and register as Baha'i, which is according to Egyptian laws is only restricted to the three religions Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. And as the number of Baha'is blogs have been increasing in number, and non-Baha'i bloggers -both secular and others of Islamic inclination- expressed their solidarity with their rights. In 2009. after many years of being denied the right to legal documentation, Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court removed any grounds for preventing Baha'is from receiving proper official identity documents.

Another interesting campaign was called “Have a Voice Campaign” started when a group of bloggers worked on a Facebook group and a short film to promote the idea of asking people to obtain their election cards, in preparation for the coming presidential elections in 2011. Egyptians must obtain an election card in order to cast one's vote. Until the beginning of 2010, people could only apply for their election card for 2-3 months of the year, which discouraged many from obtaining the card. However, at the beginning of 2010, Egyptian courts ruled that people could register for their election cards all year long. The initiative was a huge success, and many people published a photo of their election cards on the group or on their blogs.

One of the most controversial campaigns that took place was when bloggers advocated the right of return of a 27 year-old Egyptian woman, Heba Najeeb, whose father held her in custody in Saudi Arabia, and denied her the right to travel back to Egypt for three years. Many bloggers geared up to give her a louder voice, which in return attracted traditional media attention and hence represented a form of pressure on her father who at the end had to let her return to Egypt on her own.

Culture, Books and Writing

The relationship between blogs and culture started long before the practice of bloggers who review books they read, or those who recommend cultural events taking place. As time went by, blogs started to become an indirect form of advertising books.

A new book published by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) titled “Blogs from post to tweet“, Ahmed Nagi, the writer argues:

دافعٌ أساسيٌّ من دوافع إنشاءِ مدوَّنة والكتابة فيها، هو حب الكتابة نفسه ، لهذا كان من الطبيعي أن تظهر لدى العديد من المدوِّنين ملامحُ مشروعٍ أدبيٍّ ما ، كما أثارت بعضُ ال

One of the fundamental motives behind starting a blog and writing it, is loving writing itself, and therefore it was natural to find some blogs are leaning more towards becoming a literature project. The was especially after the controversy caused due to trying to find out the categorization of the artistic forms of writing published on blogs between diaries, Short stories, texts or a new genre still in formation.

Cairo Bookfair

Photo under creative commons by Mohd Tarmizi.

One of the important stops in the Egyptian cultural blogging scene happened at the start of 2008 when Dar El Shorouk (A famous Egyptian press house) adopted the trend of transforming blogs into books. They started by 3 books “Rice with Milk” by Rehab Bassam [Ar], “This is my dance” by Ghada Muhammad [Ar] and “I want to get married” by Ghada AbdelAal [Ar]. These books were huge success that motivated other bloggers to open their own small press houses – some of them dedicated only to transforming and publishing blogs into books. The coming year, in 2009 more than 15 new titles, Egyptian bloggers took the 2009 Cairo International Book Fair by storm.

On the other hand, two important campaigns were initiated on the blogsphere, one against to blogs plagiarism, due to newspapers using bloggers posts without their permission and editing experts they quote, and the other was a campaign against abusive publishers, where bloggers decided to make their work available online for free download in reply to the abuse they have faced from some press houses.

Such vibrancy in the cultural scene of the blogsphere was one reason behind ANHRI to publish one of the first independent magazines for blogs named “Wasla“:

The name ,Wasla, (link) was chosen for this weekly newspaper, now issuing monthly as a soft run, to state its role in attempting to bridge the gap between the young bloggers and the older generation of politicians, media and national figures through quoting blogs on paper. Thereby the older generation will have a window on the bloggers’ realm so that they would communicate , support and even challenge bloggers objectively.

The non periodic magazine, Wasla, which is under creative commons, can be read and downloaded for free from their website.

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