|Online activists and bloggers played an integral role in organising the protests of the Arab Spring [GALLO/GETTY]
They are bloggers, activists and many of them train others in their community on how to find a voice on the internet, and become citizen journalists in their own right.
The Third Arab Bloggers Meeting brought some of the most active cyberactivists in North Africa and the Middle East together in the Tunisian capital, where they shared ideas and strategies on how to make the biggest possible impact in cyberspace.
Most of them have been blogging for years already, and they were well-placed to communicate with fellow citizens and the rest of the world on the uprisings that have blazed across the region for much of the year.
|Wael Abbas – Egypt
The 36-year-old is one of the Egypt’s most influential social commentators. His blog, Misr Digital (Egyptian Awareness), has brought attention to issues such as sexual harassment, police brutality and torture, homosexuality and the rights of minorities that state media has long overlooked.
“It brought the attention of the public to a lot of issues that they’d never thought of before,” Abbas says.
As he gained a reputation for fearlessly publishing critical information, people began leaking Abbas often shocking material, much of it coming from within Egypt’s security forces.
He agrees that the lively Egyptian blogosphere has helped bring about social and political awareness.
“It has played an important role, not only in terms of media, but also in the development of civil society, by pushing the envelope,” he says.
His outspokenness made him a target during Egypt’s uprising. He was briefly arrested, but continued to upload news, video and photos throughout the protests.
Since the uprising, Egyptian bloggers have continued to battle for their right to free comment.
Maikel Nabil Sanad, sentenced by a military court in April to three years imprisonment, has been on a hunger strike for six weeks.
|Hayder Hamzoz – Iraq
Hayder Hamzoz is an Iraqi blogger and trainer who shows journalists and ordinary Iraqi citizens how to use social media tools to share news about what is happening around them, and how to protect themselves online using Tor and open source software.
The focus of his blog, HaMzOz, was originally on the war and occupation of Iraq, and its impacts.
“Before 2011, we were blogging on daily life in Iraq,” Hamzoz says.
More recently, he has been concentrating on techniques to enable Iraqis to share news about the protests that began on February 25. Social media is yet to catch on in a big way in Iraq, he explains, so he has been encouraging Iraqis to use services such as “speak to-tweet” to help them find their way.
The activist has been attacked and beaten twice during the weekly Friday protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
On April 22, he had his phone stolen by plainclothes security forces. The army helped the men escape when other protesters tried to get the phone back.
|Ola Eliwat – Jordan
Eliwat started her blog Cinnamon Zone five years ago after a friend convinced her she should put her short stories and thoughts on politics and social issues online.
“My friend kept nagging and nagging”, says Eliwat, who, aside from her blog, works as a translator in Amman, Jordan. “I would never have guessed that one day I would be travelling the world because I’m a blogger.”
The uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have cemented bonds between activists, and invigorated a sense of common identity.
“It gives you confidence, because since I was young, we always heard that Arabs were weak, like sheep. When I come here to Tunisia and I meet all these people, there is that feeling of belonging.”
The effect on political leaders in the Arab world, including in Jordan, has been that they have suddenly become much more attentive to perceptions on the street, the young Palestinian-Jordanian explains.
“It’s like a reverse big brother,” the blogger says with a wry smile. “They know now that the people are watching.”
|Ahmed Albokhari, Ahmed Wafa, Gharis Gheblawi – Libya
In his blog Taboo, Ahmed Albokhari tackles controversial topics such as sex, religion and racism, which few other Libyans would dare to write about.
Until this year, some topics were untouchable, even for him.
“Before the revolution I couldn’t write about politics like I want”, Albokhari, who is based in Tripoli, says.
He hopes to see the Libyan blogosphere evolve to be as vibrant as that in neighbouring Egypt.
“We want to be more open on the world”, he says.
Ahmed Wafa’s blog MADE !N L!BYA was a main source of news from Misrata.
He was describing the campaign against the population by pro-Gaddafi forces well before any journalists made it into the city.
From London, Gharis Gheblawi built a network of people inside the country, gathering information which he published on his blog about the situation through the eyes of ordinary Libyans.
“International media focused on the political angle, but I wanted to present the human side,” Gheblawi says.
|Malek Khadhraoui – Tunisia
Nawaat, the Tunisian blogging collective, has given Tunisian dissidents of all political stripes a platform to express themselves and has built a large readership since 2006.
Malek Khadhraoui, one of its four founders, says this was the key to its success.
“In this period, there were a lot of other websites dealing with censorship and against the regime. But Nawaat was the only one that offered its pages to all [political] perspectives.”
The entire team was Tunisian, unlike the other sites.
Since the end of Ben Ali’s regime, Nawaat has been registered as an NGO. Khadhraoui has moved back to Tunisia, after 15 years living in France.
|Racha Ghamlouch – Lebanon
Racha Ghamlouch has been blogging at Lebanese Voices since March 2010.
She grew up in the United Arab Emirates but moved back to Beirut six months ago.
Her blog details social issues and offers innovative ways for her readers to interact.
“My latest obsession is traffic,” she laughs.
The “Do you see yourself” online campaign is a platform for Lebanese drivers to upload photos and videos of atrocious driving, and the related Facebook page had attracted 25,300 “likes” at the time of writing.
“I was glued to the Tunisia and Egypt,” she says. “Before it felt like all the youth were minding their own business. Now you feel like you want to be part of it. Communication borders have disappeared.”
|Chafaa Bouaiche – Algeria|
This is the second time Algerian blogger Chafaa Bouaiche has participated in the Arab Bloggers Meeting.
Compared with the 2009 meeting in Beirut, this year’s is taking place in a very different context.
“Things have changed, even the fact that this meeting is happening in Tunisia is significant. This is revolutionary. Before, the Tunisian authorities were the most active internet censors.”
For the bloggers in countries such as Algeria, where repressive regimes are still in place, the opportunity to share experiences and techniques is crucial, he says.
In Algeria, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, protests earlier in the year failed to win popular support and lost steam.
“Algerians no longer trust anyone. The authorities have succeeded in discrediting everyone,” he says.
There is still reason for hope, he says. While Algerians are not very active on Twitter, there are 2,600,000 on Facebook. Bouaiche believes these online relationships have the potential to reinvigorate civic spirit, within Algeria and beyond.
“The government is afraid, because these virtual relationships can become real relationships.”
“We just had a workshop where we came up with the slogan ‘the people want the end of borders’,” Bouaiche says.
|Hisham Almiraat – Morocco/France
Hisham Almiraat is a Moroccan blogger from Casablanca, who is currently based in France.
He says he started blogging to be able to express himself, in a society where there is little other forum for dissident voices.
“I’m a member of the generation that experienced the Moroccan Spring,” he says, referring to the brief window of democratic reforms that took place in his homeland in the late 1990s.
“We were frustrated, so luckily there was the internet, so that we didn’t have to sit on our hands waiting for journalists to start covering these issues,” he says.
Almiraat began contributing regularly to Global Voices, an international community of bloggers, in 2009.
“That gave me a platform to speak to a much bigger audience,” he says. “It created an international network, especially those of us who are here [at the Arab Bloggers Meeting] today.”
In the spirit of his battle for freedom of expression, the blogger is the co-founder of the Moroccan branch of the Pirate Party.
Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan