Thursday, July 27, 2006

Blogging and the Future of Democracy in the Arab World!

The following is a summary of a talk I recently gave at a State Department conference on Blogging and Democracy. I thought it would e of some interest here.

Many people across the world are still dubious of the possible avenues and channels for communications and expression that blogging can pave. But that is not surprising really. People have given a similar lukewarm response to the Internet itself at one point, not too long ago. But who can dispute the power and impact of the internet now?

In reality, and as the various talks and presentations made at the Conference on Blogging and Democracy have amply demonstrated, people just need time to get used to the possibilities that can be are afforded them by blogging. No one is the wiser in this regard than the current generation of teens and 20-somethings, with many of whom already getting hooked on such blogging varieties as MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and many such similar sites that have already been integrated into teen and youth cultures. Now, these may not be “hardcore” blogs, that is, they may not necessarily tackle significant political and social issues in a journalistic or analytical manner. Still, it is only natural to expect that those who will get used to these media as means for self-expression, communicating and networking are more likely, in due course of time, to develop a greater affinity and respect for the more socially and politically pertinent blogs.

As such, and for all the aura that seems to surround the medium today, we are, in fact, only witnessing the birth of blogging. Its real impact on our lives is something that we will not really see or appreciate for a few more years to come.

And if blogging is still in its infancy on the international arena, it is indeed still in the embryonic phase in the Arab World, where bloggers number in the thousands only in comparison to the few hundred thousands of bloggers in Iran, for instance. Still, Arab bloggers have already generated some noise and news.

In Egypt, they took active part in organizing the Kefaya movement and its various anti-regime activities and protests. In Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf, they already managed to break certain religious taboos and have managed to empower a number of female voices, enough of them, in fact, to show that many women have indeed established their own socially dissident subculture in that conservative part of the Middle East. Some bloggers, especially in Bahrain and Egypt, have already been imprisoned for the views they expressed on their blogs, with some still waiting to be released.

All this shows that the internet and blogging in particular is destined to play an important role in the social and political transformations currently taking place in the region. The democratic forces are bound to continue on using it for intercommunicating and for organization, but so will the radical forces a well including the Islamists and the ultranationalists.

By itself, then, blogging is merely a tool, and unless a consistent effort is applied to transform it into a too of democratization, other actors on the scene are liable to use it for exactly the opposite purpose, namely to advance a more militant and reactionary agenda. Regime ideologues might also be able to use it as another medium for propaganda, but unless the regimes set on reinventing their worn-out political discourse and stratagems, the medium is unlikely to be of any help. By its nature, blogging is a dynamic medium, creatures of a stultified culture are not exactly the kind that can make adequate use of it. The real competition, therefore, is likely to take place, and is indeed taking place, between independent individuals and groups of various political and social stripes.