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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)

Though Persian Gulf countries routinely block access to sites that are pornographic, are run by dissidents or discuss terrorism or drugs, the blogosphere is difficult to police. Within hours, Yousif's blog was up again, at another location.

The new technology has also made it possible to do virtually what one cannot do physically in a country such as Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that bans public gatherings, political parties and civil rights groups, and restricted last year's limited municipal elections to men.

A Carefully Worded Charter

This month, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Bloggers, founded by Farhan and a group of his friends, will post their charter online and open membership to male and female bloggers. Members will then vote for a president, male or female, and make amendments to the charter by majority vote. Meetings will be held online.

To hammer out kinks in the charter, Farhan and six of his friends several weeks ago rented a conference room by the hour. Ahmed al-Omran, one of the first Saudi bloggers, had flown in from Riyadh, where he is a pharmacy student. It was the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when many people stay up late and sleep away the fasting hours, and Farhan called the meeting to order a little before midnight.

The first snag came early, when Farhan read out the clause banning criticism of the world's three major religions.

Yousuf Omar, nicknamed the King of Mac for his love of Macintosh computers, wanted all references to religion deleted from the charter. Wearing the long traditional white robe, his hair in a ponytail, Omar said the group should not draw attention to religion. With a show of hands, the majority agreed.

A stickier topic quickly followed.

"What about erotica, like Mystique writes?" Farhan asked, referring to the best-known Saudi female blogger. "If she gets blocked, do we get involved?"

"What's the erotica like?" asked Bandar Raffa, a 29-year-old graphic designer.

"I don't approve -- it's quite racy," Farhan said, then smiled. "But it's good reading."

The group decided that whoever was elected president and the executive committee would look into these issues, case by case.

It was close to 2:30 a.m. when the group filed out of the conference room, exhausted and a little elated.


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