Ethar El-Katatney

Wael Abbas

Posted in Egypt Today by Ethar El-Katatney on July 5, 2008

Wael Abbas
Faces
Egypt Today
July 2008

Available at: http://egypttoday.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=8089
Photo Credit: Mohamed Allouba

One of Egypt’s most vocal bloggers is candid about his past, his present and his hopes for the future

By: Ethar El-Katatney

Protestors in Mahalla tearing down and stepping on a poster of President Hosni Mubarak. Photos of a black and blue Ahmed Maher, the alleged creator of the Facebook group calling for the April 6 strike. A voting official checking the ‘yes’ box on election ballots. A woman forced to strip naked for a police officer. Another woman hung upside down for hours until she confessed to murder. Women sexually harassed on the streets during Eid festivities. All captured on video, all uploaded for public viewing by pioneer blogger Wael Abbas.

Lauded as a champion for human rights by the international media, in 2007 Abbas became the first blogger to win the Knight International Journalism Award, given out every year by the US-based International Center for Journalists. He was also named CNN’s Middle East Person of the Year, and received the Hellman-Hammet Award from Human Rights Watch in May. The Egyptian government, however, has been less impressed with his activities, and the 34-year-old blogger says he has been detained and interrogated multiple times, as well as beaten while in custody.

Despite the attention, however, Abbas insists that he is neither a hero nor a role model. Unemployed and still living with his parents, he says his primary job is “peeling onions next to my mother.” But pictures speak louder than words and actions speak even louder. After Abbas posted a video — both on his own website and then on YouTube — of 22-year-old microbus driver Emad El-Kebir being sodomized with a stick by police, Captain Islam Nabih and non-commissioned officer Reda Fathi were convicted of torture and sexual abuse in November 2007 and sentenced to three years in prison. In February, Police Major Yosri Ahmed Essa and two others were sentenced to prison for forcing a parking attendant to walk along a street in Alexandria dressed in women’s underwear — another event documented in a video posted by Abbas.

While Abbas notes that the recent convictions only scratch the surface of the problem of torture in Egypt, he does feel that it’s a start, and a good omen for the future role of blogs in raising awareness. But he concedes that his own future might not be so bright. Abbas alleges he has been harassed with threatening phone calls, kidnapped off the street and detained for hours, slandered on satellite TV as a criminal, an atheist, and a homosexual by high-ranking government officials (all false accusations) and been rendered virtually unemployable.

If he could go back in time, would he still use his real name in the blogs? Or would he retreat to the safety of anonymity, as so many Egyptian bloggers do?

“Yes, of course I would say my name,” Abbas answers without hesitation.

“The time of us speaking through pseudonyms is over. I put my name for a certain aim […] which was to encourage people to speak up.”

The Making of a Blogger

A 1994 graduate of Ain Shams University’s Faculty of English, Abbas says he was never an activist on campus. He recalls being captivated with the ideas he read in books, with Charles Dickens, Christopher Marlow, TS Elliot, and Machiavelli among some of his favorite authors.

“Opposition has always interested me, but I didn’t have the inclination to express myself in public,” he says. “I used to express myself with family, and colleagues in university but no more than that.”

After graduation, he worked as a graphic designer and computer programmer. It was only with the advent of the internet that Abbas began taking an interest in citizen journalism or, as he puts it, “receiving and transmitting information.”

In the beginning, he used the internet for the usual activities — browsing, downloading music, chatting with people he met online. “We used to be a group of people speaking about a bunch of trivial things. But then we moved on to important things: politics, religion, society and what’s happening in the country,” Abbas says. “And I found out people cared. […] The media tells us that Egyptian youth is ineffectual and only cares about marijuana and urfi marriage, but this wasn’t true.”

Initially disappointed with the lack of available Arabic-language reading material online, he decided to create some as soon as Arabic website software became available. To his surprise, he found out that his articles were being forwarded and distributed. “My mailing list eventually reached 10,000 people. But then it was destroyed under mysterious circumstances,” he says wryly.

In 2004, blogging exploded on the Egyptian scene: As organizations such as Kifaya and Shayfenkom began organizing protests against the government, people used the internet as an often anonymous way to discuss the issues of the day.

“There were a lot of developments that I thought weren’t getting the coverage they deserved from national press,” says Abbas. “People for the first time were protesting and took to the streets and called for the impeachment of the president. They were very brave and people had to know that someone was calling for their rights and speaking freely. I believed the Egyptian citizen had a right to know what was happening.”

Abbas believes the country’s political movements — whether they are the Muslim Brotherhood or the liberals, the leftists or the Shi’ites — were treating Egyptians like a flock of sheep that must be led. “I said no, the citizen needs awareness; he needs to know everything about everyone,” Abbas says. “Because in the end he is the one who will have to decide who is good and who is bad.”

Abbas stands by his neutrality and criticizes both Islamic as well as authoritarian regimes. He recounts one email from the follower of an Islamic group: “May God honor my sword by slaying Wael Abbas.”
Abbas began blogging as part of a group blog titled Sout El-Shaab (Voice of the People); eventually he started his own blog called Al-Waay Al-Masry (Egyptian Awareness) at misrdigital.blogspirit.com, with the tagline “under the whim of its owner who doesn’t work for anyone.”

Aware of his Egyptian audience, Abbas blogs in aamiya (colloquial Arabic). Today, the blog is part personal observations and part online newspaper. From photos of his tours around the world and criticisms of the Arabic movie Kalashnikov for advertising an Israeli shotgun, to photos of the protestors in Mahalla, he tries to include everything. Abbas says he lives by the adage ‘a picture is worth 1,000 words,’ and therefore relies heavily on the photos and videos that are sent to him, some of them via mobile phone, others emailed anonymously. Abbas says the infamous clip of El-Kebir was allegedly filmed by one of the police officers present to use as a warning to other microbus drivers; one of those drivers forwarded the clip to the blogger.

Abbas claims that in a good month, approximately one million people visit his site — that’s 30,000 every day. According to the Geo-Traffic link on his blog, 62 percent of his visitors come from Egypt, six percent from Saudi Arabia and another six percent from the Palestinian Territories. Other hits have come from Kuwait, the United Kingdom, Israel and as far away as China, Austria and Hungary. Abbas has received invitations to speak at conferences in Lebanon, the US, Morocco, Mexico and Turkey.

In the beginning, local authorities left the bloggers alone, and Abbas speculates the government may have thought the blogs had little impact. That changed as international press agencies began picking up his stories in 2006, and as his blog began to expose serious issues like torture in which the government was denying involvement.

Abbas says his blog is continually hacked and was hit so severely once it was down for three days. Both his Yahoo and YouTube accounts — which included almost 200 videos of torture, protests, TV clips, personal trips and other clips — were disabled. Since 2005, his Yahoo account has been disabled four times without any justification provided. YouTube followed suit, telling him his account was cancelled due to the fact that too many of his videos were of a graphic nature. CNN, Reuters, Fox News and the Associated Press all reported on YouTube’s action against Abbas, and a number of bloggers took up his cause. “Most were American,” he noted, adding that he had hoped Egyptians would have been more willing to stand up for one of their own. YouTube has since reinstated Abbas’ account.

“You’ll think I’m paranoid but both Google [which owns YouTube] and Yahoo don’t have a very solid history when it comes to press freedoms,” he says, “so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a relation between their actions and the [Egyptian] government.”

The blogger also alleges that the smear campaign against him on satellite television has ruined both his reputation and credibility, and claims it is the reason he lost his job at a foreign press agency. Abbas fears that he cannot find employment unless he gives up his blogging.

“Everyone must speak and complain and express their opinion honestly,” Abbas says. “They shouldn’t have to hide themselves or their personality.”

Anonymous Media

The government began to clamp down on both traditional and internet-based media in 2006, and a number of bloggers who had been calling for democratic reforms were arrested on defamation charges. In 2006, the administrative court of the State Council ruled that the authorities could block, suspend or close down any website likely to pose a threat to “national security.”

In February 2007, blogger Abd Al-Kareem Nabil Sulaiman, aka Kareem Amer, was sentenced to four years in prison under charges of insulting Islam, insulting the president and inciting sedition through his online posts. Four editors-in-chief of major opposition newspapers were jailed on defamation charges last March after their papers published rumors about President Mubarak’s health.

“Trying to lower the ceiling of freedom of expression affects everyone working in this field,” Abbas says, shaking his head, “whether [you’re a] blogger, reporter or even political activist.”

That ceiling has lifted, just a little, as of late: Last year, the Administrative Judiciary Court rejected a petition by Judge Abdel Fattah Murad to block access within Egypt to 51 websites that he claimed insulted him, President Mubarak and Islam.

“It’s a judgment that I see as historic in blog history,” Abbas says with a smile, “which [proves] that blogs are part of freedom of speech and freedom of expression and that the freedom of blogs is freedom of press and everyone [has a] right to say what they want online. This judgment gave blogs credibility.”

There is definitely debate surrounding the credibility of blogs as a news source. One of the blog’s biggest advantages — its lack of ties to any organization — is also a weakness. For the most part, bloggers are not funded by governments or organizations and so theoretically have no ulterior motives. However, bloggers do have their own personal ideologies that may slant the writing. A blog may also contain quotes, rumors and other information that is unverifiable.

To boost his own journalistic credibility, Abbas has sought out professional development, interning with American online magazine Slate, and attending workshops on civic participation in Jordan.

While he recognizes the value of journalism, Abbas sees blogs serving a different purpose, noting that in Egypt, blogs are an arena for discussing political, social and religious issues in the relative safety of anonymity. He believes they remain the only free outlet in an otherwise censored press, with other outlets either “censored, governmental, or tied to advertising and political gain.”

That said, Abbas doesn’t believe blogs can or should replace traditional media. Instead, they should mobilize people and educate them on their rights. “I want change to come from inside,” he says, “So when it comes we will have been the ones who shaped it, and it can’t be said that America or the West [was behind it].”

“[Blogs] are starting to take political directions. [] I dislike this, this wasn’t what blogs were in the beginning and it wasn’t that that made people band around them. The truly influential blogs were the independent ones that weren’t calling for any party or ideology.

Blacklisted and unable to find work, Abbas now spends his days picking up freelance assignments wherever he can. “My future isn’t defined,” he says. “Maybe I’ll find a job and continue blogging. But maybe I’ll be in prison for one charge or another.”

Fame or notoriety, call it what you will, has brought him job offers from abroad. “After the relations I cultivated with people, and the credibility I built up, can I really leave?” he says, before admitting, “sometimes I feel alone and weak. If things escalate more than this and I feel that I am more alone than I am now, I may leave.” He pauses. “Not very hero-like behavior, eh?”

People believe he has some wasta [influence] and Abbas says he gets emails asking him to intercede on their behalf. “I do what I can, but don’t consider me a hero, ya nas [people] — I’m not. I may let you down at any time,” Abbas says. “I’m simply an Egyptian looking for a job, and who feels that my life might pass me by with nothing having changed in this country.” et

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