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 bloggers—many of whom have never met—has paved the way for the emergence of the “other opinion” 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 Jazeera’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 the 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 as emoodz, Redbelt, and Silly Bahraini Girl scaled back on covering local events out of fear of intimidation 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 blogger Fouad al-Farhan wrote a post titled “Ten Saudis I never want to meet.” 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, he was detained 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 “picked up” for investigation by the Ministry of Interior “anytime in the next two weeks,” after which he ended his blog entry with: "I don`t want to be forgotten in jail."
During al-Farhan’s 137-day detention the most vocal support came from Hadeel al-Hodaif, the twenty-five-year old Saudi female author of the blog Heaven’s Steps. Al-Hodaif was unique for blogging in her real name and launched a “Free Fouad” campaign and Facebook page that attracted the attention of global media such as the BBC Arabic, who hosted her to speak about al-Farhan’s plight. Sadly, a few days before al-Farhan’s release on 26 April 2008, al-Hodaif fell into a coma and passed away in a hospital twenty-five days later. Saudi Arabia’s blogosphere was inspired by al-Hodaif and is enriched today by other brave female bloggers such as Manal, Fotat, and Ghada as well as Eman Al Nafjan and Manal Al Sharif, both of whom were chosen amongst Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers list in early December 2011.
Although Fouad al-Farhan’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: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Al-Farhan’s blog was ignored, then he was detained, and finally in February 2011 he “won,” 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 “regards to the young people on Twitter’’ 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 the Saudi Jeans blog, wrote an emotional post about Hadeel al-Hodaif’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 rated Heaven’s Steps as the 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. “Do you remember when my website was blocked and you were the first to defend me despite the criticism?” he wrote in May 2008. Saudi Jeans continues to be among the top cited blogs from the region, tackling issues such as the detention of Saudi Youtube activists and a proposed Saudi anti-terror law, even though its author is heavily active on Twitter and keeps a full-time job with NPR.
Another of the region’s most established cyber-activists is Mahmood al-Yousif, also known as “Bahrain’s blogfather.” In a December 2005 blog entry titled, “Thematic trends in Gulf blogs,” 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 “bitching on how bad life is in the Emirates,” while Qatar, he noted, needed more bloggers as he has “no idea what is going on in that scene.” He praised Kuwaiti bloggers’ legendary sarcasm that rips the government and parliament. Finally, al-Yousif observed how “cuddly” Omani blogs were, saying “I read Omani blogs if I want to believe that everything in the world is hunky-dory and relax.”
As if a right of passage for bloggers in the Gulf, the levelheaded al-Yousif was arrested briefly 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, he wrote: “Heads MUST roll, the first of which is that of the Minister of the Interior.” Al-Yousif also blogged about the “Entrenched Hate” phenomenon that Bahrain has experienced in the last year, and wondered “if we have the courage to press a much required reset button in order for us to move on.” Back in December 2006, al-Yousif—who in addition to being a prominent blogger is also a political activist—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 Bahrain’s Criminal Investigative Department for slandering a government official in February 2007 and had his blog blocked for a few days. He told a Bahrain daily: “It is laughable trying to eradicate criticism in such a heavy-handed fashion.”
Another prominent Bahraini blogger is Ali Abdulemem, who started his online activism in 1998. Abdulemam launched the Bahrain Online 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 day—a record number for the small population of Bahrain. In September 2010, a month after his last blog update, Abdulemam was arrested for allegedly spreading false news on Bahrain Online. During his time in prison, Abdulemam claimed that he was subjected to torture. He was then suddenly released on 23 February 2011 following King Hamad’s pardon of a group of prisoners at the height of the Bahrain’s popular uprising. Following the regime crackdown on the Lulu Roundabout sit-in, Abdulemam was sentenced in absentia in June 2011, this time to a fifteen-year jail sentence. Abdulemam continues to be in hiding to this day.
Perhaps one of the most controversial Middle Eastern blogs, UAE-based Lands of Sands belonged to the self confessed Emirati atheist Ahmed Benkerishan. The topics of Benkerishan’s last blog entries in November 2010 were as diverse as masturbation and political Islam. At one point, Benkerishan’s Land of Sands was referred to as "the most famous Arab blog." Bahrain’s Mahmood al-Yousif wrote: Benkerishan should be reason enough for any non-Arabic speaker to start learning the language.” 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: “If you wrote in Arabic, you would have been the greatest writer in the Gulf.”
Benkerishan’s opinions were alien to the region but refreshing to read nonetheless. In 2005 he wrote: “It’s not a democracy when a man can talk politics without being threatened. It’s a democracy when a woman can talk about her lover without being killed.” Benkerishan’s blog is (not surprisingly) blocked in the UAE. In August 2009 OpenNet published a report about the increasing level of Internet censorship in the UAE, noting that the government’s electronic surveillance departments were blocking blogs that offered “unorthodox perspectives on Islam” and cited three different addresses of Benkerishan’s website that were blocked by the Telecom Regulatory Authority. A fourth secret address that Benkerishan shared with me was not blocked. Although the Land of Sands 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 the Lands of Sand, many other popular Gulf blogs were, for unknown reasons, either discontinued voluntarily or rarely updated, such as Reem Site, the Religious Policeman, and Wardat Al Khaleej. Every Gulf Arab state has detained and arrested bloggers either prior to or during the 2011 Arab uprisings. Qatar, for example, arrested and released Sultan Al-Khulaifi along with three others in March of this year. The UAE arrested and released Ahmed Mansour and four other activists. Oman arrested and then released Abdullah al-‘Aisari as well as several others. Kuwait surpassed other Gulf states, detaining several social media activists in 2011 beginning with Mohamed Al-Jassem and carrying through to Twitter activists Hamad Al-Olayan, Tariq Al-Mutairi, and Nasser Abul 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 as Alaa Abdel Fattah and Maikel Nabil Sanad, whose peaceful activism was deemed to be too risky to tolerate. Egypt has also deported bloggers such as the Lebanese Imad Bazzi in September 2011 after interrogating him over his relationship with the above-mentioned Egyptian bloggers. Other Arab bloggers who were detained include the Syrian Razan Gazzawi, whose account continued to be updated by her friends during her two week detention. Previously, the Palestinian Authority detained atheist blogger Waleed Al-Husseini “for his own safety” after publishing this blog entry. And after arresting twenty-six-year-old blogger ElBachir Hazzam in 2009, Morocco arrested Mohamed Douas in September 2011 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: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”