Long before Facebook updates and 140-character tweets, a number of cyber activists defined the landscape of non-government led opinion in the Gulf Arab states. In less than a decade, a group of bloggersâ€”many of whom have never metâ€”has paved the way for the emergence of the â€œother opinionâ€ that was and continues to be largely missing from the government controlled Gulf Arab media. The shake-up to traditional media that these blogging pioneers caused was no less significant than what Al Jazeeraâ€™s arrival did to the moribund government-controlled television channels of the Arab world.
Today the number of Twitter and Facebook users in the Gulf is estimated to be in theÂ millions. Many are outspoken and critical of Gulf Arab regime policies, religious establishments, and the stagnation of social and political reform. There is no doubt that this space for online peaceful dissent would be even narrower and less tolerated than it is today had it not been for the courageous activism of the Arab and Gulf blogging pioneers. A majority of these social media pioneers have incorporated new mediums into their activism, but a few chose to stop blogging altogether. Some are no longer with us today, while others have gone into hiding in fear of being jailed. Bloggers such asÂ emoodz,Â Redbelt, andÂ Silly Bahraini GirlÂ scaled back on covering local events out ofÂ fear of intimidationÂ or possible reprisals following arrests of high profile bloggers. Where some bloggers adopted pseudonyms, others used their real names despite the many pressures and threats they faced. Although many of these bloggers never met in the real world, their lives were interconnected nonetheless.
Back in December 2007, Saudi bloggerÂ Fouad al-FarhanÂ wrote a post titled â€œTen Saudis I never want to meet.â€ The controversial list included a senior cleric, a judge, and a Saudi prince, among others. Al-Fahran had also previously written in defense of a group of conservative academics who were arrested for holding meetings and demanding reforms. Shortly thereafter,Â he was detainedÂ and placed in solitary confinement for almost four months. Chillingly, al-Farhan had predicted his own arrest. A source informed him that he would be â€œpicked upâ€ for investigation by the Ministry of Interior â€œanytime in the next two weeks,â€ after which he ended his blog entry with: “I don’t want to be forgotten in jail.”
During al-Farhanâ€™s 137-day detention the most vocal support came from Hadeel al-Hodaif, the twenty-five-year old Saudi female author of the blogÂ Heavenâ€™s Steps. Al-Hodaif was unique for blogging in her real name and launched a â€œFree Fouadâ€Â campaign and Facebook page that attracted the attention of global media such as the BBC Arabic, who hosted her to speak about al-Farhanâ€™s plight. Sadly, a few days before al-Farhanâ€™s release on 26 April 2008,Â al-Hodaif fell into a coma and passed away in a hospital twenty-five days later. Saudi Arabiaâ€™s blogosphere was inspired by al-Hodaif and is enriched today by other brave female bloggers such asÂ Manal,Â Fotat, andÂ GhadaÂ as well asÂ Eman Al NafjanÂ andÂ Manal Al Sharif, both of whom were chosen amongstÂ Foreign Policyâ€™s Top 100 Global ThinkersÂ list in early December 2011.
Although Fouad al-Farhanâ€™s story should have been a textbook example of how to deal with bloggers, all Gulf Arab regimes have ignored it. His story almost parallels the chronology of Mahatma Gandhi’s statement: â€œFirst they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.â€ Al-Farhanâ€™s blog was ignored, then he was detained, and finally in February 2011 he â€œwon,â€ when prince Khalid Al Faisal, the governor of Mecca Province, asked to meet with al-Farhan in order to brief him on official efforts to deal with yet another major flooding disaster in Jeddah. The senior prince asked al-Farhan to send his â€œregards to the young people on Twitterâ€™â€™ and to brief them on the discussion they had. Reading that, I wondered what the late Hadeel al-Hodaif might have made of the situation.
Ahmed al-Omran, now a Washington D.C.-based blogger known for theÂ Saudi JeansÂ blog,Â wrote an emotional postÂ about Hadeel al-Hodaifâ€™s passing, the only Arabic language blog entry I have come across by him. (Hadeel was right; al-Omran should write more in Arabic). Al-Omran, who had previously ratedÂ Heavenâ€™s StepsÂ as theÂ best of top ten Saudi blogs, wrote to al-Hodaif of his regret for never having met although they were due to meet at a conference in Jeddah soon after. â€œDo you remember when my website was blocked and you were the first to defend me despite the criticism?â€ he wrote in May 2008.Â Saudi JeansÂ continues to be among the top cited blogs from the region, tackling issues such as theÂ detention of Saudi Youtube activistsand aÂ proposed Saudi anti-terror law, even though its author is heavilyÂ active on TwitterÂ and keeps a full-time job with NPR.
Another of the regionâ€™s most established cyber-activists isÂ Mahmood al-Yousif, also known as â€œBahrainâ€™s blogfather.â€ In a December 2005 blog entry titled, â€œThematic trends in Gulf blogs,â€ al-Yousif offered a breakdown of blogging in the Gulf. His foresight still holds true six years later. Blogs in the United Arab Emirates, he wrote, do not follow a particular trend and were full of expatriates â€œbitching on how bad life is in the Emirates,â€ while Qatar, he noted, needed more bloggers as he has â€œno idea what is going on in that scene.â€ He praised Kuwaiti bloggersâ€™ legendary sarcasm that rips the government and parliament. Finally, al-Yousif observed how â€œcuddlyâ€ Omani blogs were, saying â€œI read Omani blogs if I want to believe that everything in the world is hunky-dory and relax.â€
As if a right of passage for bloggers in the Gulf, the levelheaded al-YousifÂ was arrested brieflyÂ last spring and released after criticism from the US Department of State. Despite his arrest, al-Yousif continued to blog about his opinion. In an entry following the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry on 23 November 2011,Â he wrote: â€œHeads MUST roll, the first of which is that of the Minister of the Interior.â€ Al-Yousif also blogged about the â€œEntrenched Hateâ€ phenomenon that Bahrain has experienced in the last year, and wondered â€œif we have the courage to press a much required reset button in order for us to move on.â€ Back in December 2006, al-Yousifâ€”who in addition to being a prominent blogger is also a political activistâ€”launched a campaigned titled “Not Shi’i, Not Sunni, Just Bahraini” that would probably do well to be resurrected today. The Bahraini blogfather had previously been summoned by Bahrainâ€™s Criminal Investigative Department for slandering a government official in February 2007 and had his blog blocked for a few days. HeÂ told a Bahrain daily: â€œIt is laughable trying to eradicate criticism in such a heavy-handed fashion.â€
Another prominent Bahraini blogger isÂ Ali Abdulemem, who started his online activism in 1998. Abdulemam launched theÂ Bahrain OnlineÂ discussion forum to provide local news roundups and a platform for pro-democracy debate. Abdulemam chose to remain anonymous until 2002, after which his website was subsequently blocked although it continued to receive 100,000 visitors a dayâ€”a record number for the small population of Bahrain. In September 2010, a month after hisÂ last blog update, Abdulemam was arrested forallegedly spreading false newsÂ on Bahrain Online. During his time in prison, Abdulemam claimed that he wassubjected to torture. He was thenÂ suddenly releasedÂ on 23 February 2011 following King Hamadâ€™s pardon of a group of prisoners at the height of the Bahrainâ€™s popular uprising. Following the regime crackdown on the Lulu Roundabout sit-in, Abdulemam was sentenced in absentia in June 2011, this time to aÂ fifteen-year jail sentence. Abdulemam continues to be in hiding to this day.
Perhaps one of the most controversial Middle Eastern blogs, UAE-basedÂ Lands of SandsÂ belonged to the self confessed Emirati atheist Ahmed Benkerishan. The topics of Benkerishanâ€™s last blog entries in November 2010 were as diverse as masturbation and political Islam. At one point, Benkerishanâ€™sÂ Land of SandsÂ was referred to as “the most famous Arab blog.” Bahrainâ€™s Mahmood al-YousifÂ wrote: Benkerishan should be reason enough for any non-Arabic speaker to start learning the language.â€ Benkerishan, or Ahmed X as I used to refer to him, would email me from time to time to encourage my writing. However, he refused to meet with me or divulge his real name. In October 2008, Benkerishan wrote to me and said: â€œIf you wrote in Arabic, you would have been the greatest writer in the Gulf.â€
Benkerishanâ€™s opinions were alien to the region but refreshing to read nonetheless. InÂ 2005 he wrote:Â â€œItâ€™s not a democracy when a man can talk politics without being threatened. Itâ€™s a democracy when a woman can talk about her lover without being killed.â€ Benkerishanâ€™s blog is (not surprisingly) blocked in the UAE. In August 2009 OpenNetÂ published a reportÂ about the increasing level of Internet censorship in the UAE, noting that the governmentâ€™s electronic surveillance departments were blocking blogs that offered â€œunorthodox perspectives on Islamâ€ and cited three different addresses of Benkerishanâ€™s website that were blocked by the Telecom Regulatory Authority. A fourth secret address that Benkerishan shared with me was not blocked. Although theLand of SandsÂ was not necessarily a political blog, Benkerishan criticized the use of religion in politics, using what I suspect religiously-inclined individuals would deem as highly offensive cartoons. These included many that would mock religion and depict God ordering adherents to obey him.
Other than being shut down, like theÂ Lands of Sand,Â many other popular Gulf blogs were, for unknown reasons, either discontinued voluntarily or rarely updated, such asÂ Reem Site, theÂ Religious Policeman, andWardat Al Khaleej. Every Gulf Arab state has detained and arrested bloggers either prior to or during the 2011 Arab uprisings. Qatar, for example,Â arrested and released Sultan Al-KhulaifiÂ along withÂ three othersÂ in March of this year. The UAEÂ arrested and released Ahmed MansourÂ and four other activists. Oman arrested and then releasedÂ Abdullah al-â€˜AisariÂ as well as several others. Kuwait surpassed other Gulf states, detaining several social media activists in 2011Â beginning with Mohamed Al-JassemÂ and carrying through toÂ Twitter activistsÂ Hamad Al-Olayan,Â Tariq Al-Mutairi, andÂ Nasser AbulÂ among others.
Arresting bloggers is not an exclusively Gulf Arab phenomenon. Today, in post Mubarak Egypt, some of the most high-profile detained and jailed civilians are bloggers such asÂ Alaa Abdel FattahÂ andÂ Maikel Nabil Sanad, whose peaceful activism was deemed to be too risky to tolerate. Egypt has also deported bloggers such as the LebaneseÂ Imad BazziÂ in September 2011Â after interrogating himÂ over his relationship with the above-mentioned Egyptian bloggers. Other Arab bloggers who were detained include the SyrianÂ Razan Gazzawi, whose account continued to be updated by her friends during her two week detention. Previously, the Palestinian AuthorityÂ detained atheist bloggerÂ Waleed Al-Husseini â€œfor his own safetyâ€ after publishingÂ this blog entry. And after arresting twenty-six-year-old bloggerÂ ElBachir Hazzam in 2009, Morocco arrested Mohamed Douas in September 2011Â along with two others.
In dealing with popular online activists, the Gulf Arab states seem to follow the very same textbook. If the purpose of detaining bloggers is to silence them, it is a failed formula as we have seen over and over again: these bloggers leave prison more resilient and motivated to work harder for what they believe in. As the case of Fouad Al Farhan illustrates: â€œFirst they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.â€