New Clicks in the Arab World

Fouad al-Farhan, center, with Ahmed al-Omran, left, and Bandar Raffa during last month's meeting of Saudi bloggers.
Fouad al-Farhan, center, with Ahmed al-Omran, left, and Bandar Raffa during last month's meeting of Saudi bloggers. (By Faiza Saleh Ambah -- The Washington Post)
By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 12, 2006

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- When he was a college student in Washington state, Saudi Arabia's most popular blogger, Fouad al-Farhan, donned a T-shirt emblazoned with "Animal Rights Equals Human Rights" and slept on the campus lawn during a hunger strike protesting the slaughter of foxes.

That type of freedom during six years in the United States gave Farhan a taste for expressing himself that he was unable to satisfy when he returned to Saudi Arabia in 2001.

"You can't write whatever you want in the newspaper here; you can't even lift up a poster in protest," said Farhan, 31, a computer programmer who attended Eastern Washington University in Spokane. "On the blog, it's a different world. It was the only way to express myself the way I wanted."

Farhan is part of a growing wave of young Arabs who have turned to blogging to bypass the restrictions on free expression in a predominantly authoritarian, conservative and Muslim region. Blogging is so novel here that the equivalent term in Arabic, tadween, to chronicle, was coined only this year. But it has spread rapidly among the increasingly urban youth and in the process has loosened the limits of what's open for discussion.

Activists have used their blogs to organize demonstrations and boycotts, and to criticize corruption and government policies. The less politically inclined have turned them into forums for heated debates on religion and a place to share personal stories and sexual fantasies.

"Several years ago, Arabic blogs in the Middle East could be counted on one hand," said Haitham Sabbah, Middle East editor of Global Voices Online, a media project sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. "Today, they are in the thousands and are becoming a new source for news and information."

Though only about 10 percent of people in the Arab world have Internet access, the rate continues to rise dramatically, having multiplied fivefold since 2000, according to Internet World Stats, a Web site that tracks Internet usage and related information.

The number of bloggers in Saudi Arabia has tripled since the beginning of the year, reaching an estimated 2,000.

Young women make up half the bloggers in the kingdom, one of the most traditional countries in the world, where women are forced to dress modestly and are not allowed to drive cars or travel without permission from a male guardian. Lured by the possible anonymity of the medium, Saudi women have produced a string of blogs filled with feminist poetry, steamy romantic episodes and rants against their restricted lives and patriarchal society.

But with the medium's growing clout and appeal in the Arab world, the inevitable crackdown has followed. At least six Egyptian bloggers were jailed for a time earlier this year, and several blogs in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been blocked by the state-owned bodies that control Internet access.

Last month, Abdullah al-Jasir, an official at Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Culture and Information, described electronic media as "dangerous" and said Arab countries would meet in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in December to find ways to monitor the Internet, according to the Saudi-owned pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper.

As a counterbalance, bloggers have sought strength in numbers, and in their community. When the blog of prominent Bahraini activist Mahmood al-Yousif was blocked last month for publicizing a government corruption scandal, bloggers in Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia spread the word on their blogs and urged people to sign a petition addressed to the Bahraini government.

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