Wael Abbas hasn’t been arrested by Egyptian police, but the blogger fears it could happen any day. A democracy activist who never leaves home without a camera, he has drawn the attention of state security by posting videos that show what many Egyptians only talk about behind closed doors — police brutality and male harassment of women on the street, such as fondling.
Abbas is just part of a wave of Middle Eastern bloggers who are eroding tight government control on information and thus drawing intense scrutiny from police.
Egyptian authorities arrested a string of prominent bloggers last year, including one who remains jailed and is on trial for allegedly defaming Islam by posting criticism of Islamic institutions on his Arabic-language blog.
«I might be next,» Abbas said at a Cairo coffee shop. He said his family has received anonymous phone calls asking about him, which he suspects come from state security.
«I think there is a campaign against the bloggers here,» he said. «We are exposing what all Egyptians know but weren’t talking about.»
Mideast governments for decades have dominated the media, trying to keep a monopoly on information and deter criticism of authorities. But bloggers are chipping away, writing about everything from human rights to the region’s rulers to the most taboo topic — Islam.
Weblogs — or blogs for short — started taking off in the Mideast a few years ago as access to the Internet and technology for creating sites grew. There are now hundreds of Arabic- and Farsi-language blogs posted from the Middle East.
Many of the blogs are just personal musings. But many others strive to tackle political and social issues, and their authors are increasingly getting into trouble, with governments blocking their sites and throwing them in jail.
«I firmly believe that blogs now with normal people using them have become the fifth estate. They watch the watchers, especially in this area of the world, because there are no controls over them,» said Mahmood al-Yousif, a Bahraini blogger.
Al-Yousif said his blog was blocked by authorities briefly last year after he published articles about an election-related scandal on the Persian Gulf island kingdom.
Reporters Without Borders has five Mideast countries — Egypt,
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and
Syria — on its list of the globe’s 13 worst Internet freedom enemies that block Web sites and detain bloggers.
Governments defend their Web regulations, saying they are protecting citizens from «immoral» and «defamatory» content. But rights groups and bloggers say officials are really trying to retain their media control.
«Five years ago, authorities didn’t care about bloggers because the Internet’s reach was less,» said Julien Pain, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Internet Freedom Desk. «Now, what is most interesting is the Weblogs in the local languages. You look at what the authorities censor — they censor content in local languages.»