By APCNews CAIRO, Egypt, 31 October 2005
Manal and Alaa Bit Bucket — www.manalaa.net — an Egyptian blog set up on March 20, 2004, promoting free expression and human rights, was one of eight finalists chosen for a weblog contest by the German radio station Deutsche Welle.
Announcing this, the global media-watchdog group Reporters Without Borders’ internet freedom desk said some of the finalists had been chosen by the group for the "freedom of expression" category.
Manal and Alaa have been working with the APC in the field of FOSS (free and open source software).
Reporters Without Borders’ Internet Freedom desk described www.manalaa.net as "an Egyptian blog promoting free expression and human rights. A forum for discussion, but also a resource centre for Arabic-speaking Internet users who would like to set up their own blog."
"From the more than 130 blogs proposed by Internet users, Reporters Without Borders and Deutsche Welle picked the shortlist of eight because of a particular passion they have displayed in their defence of free expression," RSF explained.
All eight blogs carry "news and information not found in the traditional media". Internet users can vote on www.thebobs.de to indicate who they prefer. But it will be up to the panel of judges to choose the final winners, explained the event organisers. The results will be announced on 21 November.
Other nominees in the RSF-sponsored category included a rich-in-current-affairs news blog about China published outside the country (China Digital Times: http://chinadigitaltimes.net), that of a French resident in Addis Ababa criticising repression in Ethiopia, including a lot of interviews with Ethiopian dissidents (http://www.addisferengi.net); and a Chinese intellectual "who uses his blog as a microphone to denounce the repressive system that rules his country" (Wang Yi’s microphone, http://zhivago.tianyablog.com).
Then there’s also an independent Iranian journalist’s blog which led to its author spending a month in prison in September 2004 (Hanif Mazrooie’s http://hanif.ir); one of the oldest Iranian blogs known for its open criticism (Parastood www.parastood.com); and Colombian realities (http://lacoctelera.com/realidades), a blog by a Colombian journalist who writes critically about a range of issues including his country’s pervasive violence and corruption.
Yahyaoui (http://yahyaoui.blogspot.com) is a blog of former judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, one of Tunisia’s leading political dissidents and the uncle of cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui. His blog was recently pirated and rendered unavailable. But it can still be accessed by using Google’s "cache" function (enter yahyaoui + blogspot in Google and then choose the "cached" option).
Mokhtar Yahyaoui is one of seven Tunisian civil society figures who are currently on a hunger strike in protest against the lack of freedom in Tunisia, where his blog is censored, along with dozens of others. "Nonetheless, Tunis is to host the World Summit on the Information Society on 16-18 November, which is being organised under the aegis of the United Nations," RSF noted.
On the Egyptian blogger’s home, an announcement boldly says: "Welcome to Manal And Alaa’s space, where we record our thoughts and feelings, keep in touch with friends and upload the occasional file. We also offer Drupal (an easy-to-use tool to create websites and blogs) based free hosting space and free aid in developing a website for any cause we find worthy or interesting and for any speech that is censored or prosecuted in Egypt."
Alaa told APC.org in an email interview that their site contains blog posts which they wrote "about our experience as part of the pro-democracy movement in Egypt". It also includes detailed accounts of street protest, political rallies, elections monitoring, police brutality, the picketing of court houses in order to get activists released, secret meetings and the like.
Although not the sole platform of convergence for dissent, resistance and criticism, manalaa.net has become increasingly popular among those wanting to understand and fight regime violence. Since May 2005, the site has started aggregating contributions from other Egyptian political blogs, thereby becoming one of the most important online references of the democratic movement in Egypt.
"We helped make the movement more transparent and we exposed incidence of abuse by the regime and security forces that where not covered by the media," the bloggers said.
Their blog was also used to help organise five innovative protests — covering everything from discussion about how to hold it and where to publicise the event, as well as report on it and provide feedback.
It features guest writers too.
Said Alaa: "We used the blog to promote the building of a citizen journalism movement in Egypt. We managed to not only encourage citizen journalism but to also build ties with the traditional media, the opposition and independent newspapers (which) take leads, photos and material from the blogs now. The Al Jazeera satelite channel relies on bloggers as sources. It reuses video footage we published on the web."
[Al Jazeera, meaning "The Island" or "The (Arabian) Peninsula", is an Arabic-language television channel based in Qatar. In 2004, Al Jazeera was voted, by brandchannel.com, the fifth most influential global brand behind Apple computer, Google, Ikea and Starbucks.]
They also offer other services on the site, such as an events’ calendar — http://www.manalaa.net/event — which is open to anyone to add, and lists independent culture and art events, as well as political ones.
"We also run the Egyptian blogs aggregator — http://www.manalaa.net/egblogs — which aggregates posts from all known Egyptian blogs (400+) and is the primary way people read blogs in Egypt (that is by far the most popular thing in manalaa.net)," said Alaa. They run another aggregator for citizen and alternative journalism.
They also provide a free hosting platform, FOSS based and localized. Currently, they host a few blogs, non-profit organisations, various political groups, artists and researchers.
"We established a forum on manalaa.net to provide tech support for people interested in publishing on the web. It covers everything from html to a CMS (content management systems), to how to use encryption. We also hold workshops and training sessions for activists on the same topics," said Alaa.
[A content management system, or CMS, is a computer software system for organising and facilitating collaborative creation of documents and other content. It makes it easier to update and maintain fresh content on a website.]
Their website also hosts multimedia files — everything from photos documenting police brutality to satirical anti-regime animation and video. "They are usually made by young people who send us the stuff because they have no place to publish on," said Alaa.
They collect some important documents that are not available on the web, listings of illegally detained people, tables of torture victims, reports on security interference in academia, and the like.
These resources are open to people of all political views, not just those they agree with. "So you’ll find socialists, Islamist groups, liberals, Coptic church associations and undecided individuals," says Alaa.
Their blog posts are written in colloquial Arabic of the Egyptian variant. Usually, only songs are written in the language used for everyday speech, and for the written word the people adopt a classical language.
"We tend to use strong, provocative or even obscene language, this is specially shocking when it comes from manal, since women (specially married ones) are expected to ‘behave themselves’. There is much controversy about that going on, specially on the comments section," said Alaa.
But that’s not all: they have "more plans for the future".