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An American geek, a Saudi bridgeblogger and an Egyptian reporter walk into a coffee shop…

When I was in Cairo in early December, I asked almost everyone I met with what they knew about blogs. A human rights activist I was meeting with suggested I get in touch with Amina Khairy, a reporter for Al-Hayat’s Cairo bureau, who had recently written a story about Egyptian blogs.

Amina was good enough to meet me for breakfast at my hotel, and we had an excellent, wide-ranging conversation about weblogs, technology, US-Arab relations and freedom of the press. I blogged about our conversation on WorldChanging, and made a mental note to give her a call again the next time I was in Cairo. And then I forgot about our conversation.

Until two days ago, when ego-surfing Technorati, I discovered that a Saudi blogger had linked to me, mentioning that an interview with me had just been published in Al-Hayat. I can’t read Arabic, but the few English phrases in the piece connected to topics I’m deeply interested in. So hey, perhaps it was an interview with me.

I posted to Saudi Jeans’ comments section and asked if he wouldn’t mind giving me a quick summary of what the article said. Ahmed, a pharmacy student in Riyadh, who blogs as “Saudi Jeans”, did one better and translated the entire article, which follows below. I’m deeply grateful to Ahmed for his excellent translation, and for linking to the article in the first place. I’m now reading his blog regularly and am grateful that he’s chosen to blog in English to help people in the west get a better understanding of life in Saudi Arabia.

And thanks, also, to Amina for a great conversation – glad it was a useful talk for you as well, and thanks for your kind and generous article.

from Al-Hayat, by Amina Khairy

An American Promotes Arabic Blogs as Alternative to the Lost Democracy

The meeting seemed very electronic, probably to go with the nature of

the subject we discuss. The beginning of the subject was with an

article in al-Hayat (18/10/2004) about bloggers in Egypt. A blogger

read it, and linked to it from his blog, in English. A seminal blogger

in the States picked up the message and asked a friend who knows

Arabic to translate the article.

After several emails, he could contact the newspaper. He was willing

to travel to the Middle East on his way to the heart of Africa, where

his heart is according to his words. I made several contacts to set a

meeting and drink a cup of coffee in the garden of the Marriott hotel

in Cairo.

The Blog is the Solution

Basically, I don’t know him. The American Ethan Zuckerman has come

from the other side of the world to search a phenomenon he knows it

exists in the Arab World, but he does not know any details about it.

He advised me to read his blog. I checked his website. In the top

there was a photo of Zuckerman he put it to give his site a human

touch. A photo of a huge man standing on the right side and a bull in

the center. The caption reads “I’m the one on the right.”

The interview with Zuckerman started on time. An American, tall with

huge body. His hair reaches his shoulders. He looks like one of the

hippies of the sixties. I found out his one of them, actually. In the

seventies and the early eighties he joined a group of peace and

anti-nuclear weapons activists. Most of them were highly educated.

They toured the cities and villages of America, in addition to other

countries. They carried what they believe in and did not care how they


I was amazed by how his look and his ideas were identical. I always

thought such people do no longer exist in a world of monopolies. Time

has changed some things about him. The most important thing is the

cause he is defending. Now, he says “the solution is the blog.” He is

a fellow at the Berkman Center. He teaches Electronic Democracy, and

how blogs can be used to change writing for media, and for media

coverage of the developing countries, and to bring awareness to their


Zuckerman is and editor of BlogAfrica, which is considered as the best

source to get information on young Africans and their problems.

Moreover, he is one of the most important sources for what is

happening in Africa because he is independent and well-informed.

The Iranian Blogging Experience

Zuckerman talks about blogging with a big passion, like he is talking

about the achievements of one of his kids at school. During his last

journey to Jordan and Egypt, he worked very hard to meet everyone

related with the world of blogs. The general answer he got was: “We’ve

heard about it, but there aren’t a lot of people doing it here.”

In the other hand, those few people looked like Zuckerman’s treasure.

He wrote on his blog: “I retract some of my earlier complaint that

it’s hard for an American to get a sense for the conversations taking

place in the Arab world. Turns out I just wasn’t listening in the

right places.”

However, blogs still exclusive for a certain type of people in the

Arab World. I told him about my experience with the bloggers of Egypt.

“Usually, bloggers are educated and computer literate people who speak

English. And the people who read blogs are not different from the

bloggers themselves, which means only a certain type of people are

communicating with each other. So, what’s the point?”

Zuckerman agrees, but he has his reservations. For example, bloggers

of America and Europe are white men who work in high positions. So,

the content of their blogs is concentrated on the American and

European politics. It’s like they are living in their “bloggie world.”

Zuckerman is optimistic, as usual. “There must be a start point. The

Internet itself when it had begun was only used by a certain type of

people, but it has spread later.”

He talks with much interest about Iran, where he thinks blogging is

very successful. During a conference called “Voice, Bits and Bites,”

the famous Iranian blogger Hoder talked about the Iranian experience.

He said the population of Iran is about 70m, with 70% under

30-year-old. The Iranian internet users are about 5-7m, and there are

70,000-75,000 Persian blogs.

The weird thing about Iran is that the spread of internet was started

by the spread of blogs. Blogs are divided into three things: windows,

bridges and cafs. As windows, blogs make it possible for Iranians to

look outside, and for non-Iranian to look inside. They are also

bridges that connect the people from different ages and types. They

are an important tool to communicate with people who don’t have other

choices. Moreover, they could bridges connect people with politicians.

For example, Mohammed Ali Abtahi, former vice president, is one of

most well-known bloggers in Persian, Arabic and English.

The Iranian blogs can also be cafs. It turns to be social forums with

endless discussions and debates.

Democracy in the Third World

These discussions and debates are Zuckerman’s goal. He considers them

as major parts of democracy. He points to what he calls “The Second

Great Power,” which his colleague Jim Moore wrote about. The idea of

“The Second Great Power” is about a group of people who try to use

democracy by a model composed of three parts: collecting information,

commenting on it and discuss it, and take action. The good thing about

this model is the new technologies such as the internet, can present

it. Zuckerman points that in the same time the regular/classic media

provide us with information, we can also get information from

alternative sources on the internet with minimum cost.

He keeps on praising “alternative media” by saying the people

connected to internet now can discuss in very new ways, and blogs make

them more powerful and effective, and newsgroups and IM, all that make

the practice much easier. Here, he uses another theory by another

colleague of his called “Accidental/Contingent Democracy,” which

indicates that making decisions can be derived from the world of

blogs. Ideas can be driven by limited networks of people to social

networks, then to political networks assisted by positive reactions.

Then making of decision will be moved from the individual to the

masses. However, Zuckerman realizes that these effective tools are in

the hands of few certain people, “and there is nothing wrong with

that,” he says.

But he says this group of people should realize that they don’t

represent the whole world. They should work hard to attract and

encourage people to use this kind of information technology to make

the blogs even better.

I said that everything he said means only one thing. Bloggers are a

group of optimists convinced they should share their ideas,

information and opinions with others, because this is the way to


After eating his vegetable omelet, he said “but there is a big problem

in this way in the Arab World which is the language. Even if blogs

became popular in the Arab World in a way that makes them alternative

to media, communicating with the West will remain hard because of the

translation problem. However, I know there are many attempts to get

over it especially that other languages already did.”