Tunis, Tunisia - It is an explanation as simple as it is profound. When asked during the height of the Egyptian Revolution why people were now taking to the streets in incredible numbers to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, blogger and human rights activist Wael Abbas told filmmakers producing the soon-to-be-released documentary "Zero Silence," “Tunisia. The answer is Tunisia.”
It is only fitting, then, that nearly 100 bloggers, hacktivists and Tweeps have gathered this week in the country that helped spark a wave of protests across the region to call for freedom from the tyranny of dictatorship. Today, Tunisia stands as an inspiration for continued struggles in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and as recent as Tuesday, Saudi Arabia.
The 3rd Arab Blogger’s Meeting aims to foster a new form of solidarity among these cyber-visionaries, one that recognizes the importance of technology in bolstering the efforts of activists and revolutionaries, while at the same time acknowledging that the Internet does not in itself stimulate change; people do.
And their goals are shifting. “At the previous meetings [in 2008 and 2009], activists were more concerned with avoiding censorship and circumventing arrest. While this is still a problem, they’re also now concerned with how to monitor elections and hold these new governments accountable. So now that the situation has changed [for some of these countries], we have to start thinking in new ways,” said Doreen Khoury, Program Manager at the Heinrich Boell Foundation Middle East Office, which sponsored the event, along with Global Voices and Nawaat.
A critical concern voiced at the conference, which ends today, is how to maintain the momentum that carried the revolutionary impulse into this new phase of uncertainty, which will soon give way to elections in Tunisia on October 23, and in Egypt come November.
“The reality of what just happened in the Arab world is that several regimes were peacefully decapitated,” said participant Nasser Weddady, Outreach Director with the American Islamic Congress. “For bloggers, for the people meeting here, their responsibility is to create solutions to new monumental problems. And their ability to remain relevant hinges on their ability to adapt to this new context.”
Representing as many as 15 countries, these bloggers don’t simply thrive on the potential to stimulate change and participate in social and political discourse from the relative comfort of their Twitter hashtags and blog posts; they are courageously determined to shape and re-envision the course of history on their own terms.
Iraqi blogger and social media activist Hayder Hamzoz (@Hamzoz) emphasized the benefits of learning from his predecessors and peers at the meeting. “Blogging is still very young in Iraq… At this event, I can ask bloggers from Tunisia and Egypt about their experiences… The problem in Iraq isn’t censorship, it’s the possibility that someone will just come to your house and shoot you in order to silence you,” he said.
These new-age prophets of the Internet—who are cyber-celebrities in their own right, with a fathomable, insatiable appetite for transformation—are as much concerned with commenting on the world around them as they are at creating and realizing it.
Therein lies the undeniable tension of “citizen journalists:” the desire to not only disseminate, inform and educate, but to serve as a voice—at times loud and unapologetic—for those who are prevented from having one.
When word spread on Monday that 11 Palestinian bloggers were unable to attend the event after the Tunisian Interior Ministry refused to approve their visas, attendees acted quickly, releasing a statement condemning the apparent injustice. Their weapon of choice, the Internet, allowed them to defy the government, with a few of the Palestinian bloggers briefly joining the meeting on Skype the next day. “It was really weird. It was actually the first time I’d ever seen my colleague in Ramallah,” Khoury reflected enthusiastically. “This is someone who I speak with every day on the phone, but I’d never seen her face until then. It was unbelievable!”
Palestinian bloggers join the 3rd Arab Bloggers Meeting from Ramallah via Skype. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Popplewell)
“This is a benchmark. We have some of the early bloggers [from before the revolution began] at the meeting and some new faces. It’s a learning experience. And it’s an opportunity to unite face-to-face in order to take action on the ground,” said Beirut blogger Assaad Thebian [@Beirutiyat].
It serves as a poignant metaphor, the so-called Arab Spring, which gave way to the promises of summer dreams and now, with the impending onset of winter, a dubious destiny. Nature assures certain death for poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “pestilence-stricken multitudes,” carried to their “graves” by the “Wild West Wind.” But in this fateful course, one must remember, it is never the end, but a new beginning made possible by the opportunity for renewal and imagination.
No one knows this better than the individuals glued to their laptops, who, via their Twitter accounts and websites, are actively redefining digital activism, producing podcasts, learning about electronic surveillance and brainstorming new ways to reach out to international media. The Arab world’s leading bloggers have gathered in this birthplace of hope and freedom, in Tunisia.