If you follow the news in Egypt, as it is my duty as a journalist to do, reading the state-owned and independent or opposition papers isn't enough anymore to keep abreast of what is happening in the country. Nowadays, you need to follow people online as well. This really hit me when I joined Twitter and began to keep track of a variety of bloggers, mainly Egyptian journalists based in Cairo.
While the time we spend online most days is excessive, it is usually essential. No wonder telecom companies and sites such as Facebook are constantly trying to find ways to exploit the market in Egypt and other Arab countries. Being constantly online is a way of life for a huge number of young people. It's where they can share ideas, a place for self-expression in countries that put conformism first. It is also a place where they can blog, although this can be inherently dangerous - many have been arrested and persecuted for their views. This also brought back to mind an article I wrote about internet use a few years ago when I worked on a local Cairo paper. The editor wanted me to research computer use in the city by visiting cyber cafes.
I remember entering one which was dank with windows tinted black, making the place feel secretive, almost sacred. The room was lined with eight wide-screen PCs and three large televisions. Four teenage boys were squeezed on to a couch, the movement of their bodies reflecting the rhythm of a game they were playing - a wrestling or a boxing match. Besides the game's sound effects, the only other noises was their booing and cheering. Off to the side, a fifth boy wearing a large pair of earphones sat at a PC expertly navigating between his video game and an instant messaging application.
The cafe's owner told me that the busiest time of day was when the high school next door came out and the kids would pour in to play games or to chat online with friends or strangers. Parents, he said, used the cafe as after-school daycare - a place that would babysit their children while they struggled to navigate Cairo's rush hour traffic or finished running errands. Some teenagers came just to drop off their bags, buy a soda and hang out with friends. Those using the computers were allowed to visit any site except those dealing with politics, religion or pornography, as per government regulations, the cafe owner told me.
Fast-forward three years, and I am writing stories about Egyptian bloggers being arrested and put in front of military tribunals on charges of "attempting to shake citizens' confidence in the government or the army". Other Egyptian online celebrities are banned from travelling because they "sully the image of Egypt abroad" or have insulted the president or Islam. Coming from a North American culture where making fun of politicians is a multimillion-dollar business, and where members of government race to make fun of themselves on television shows, and where newspapers and websites are harsh critics of authority, including the military and the police, it was difficult to hear of the heavy sentences these bloggers can face.
Some have been seriously pushing limits by exposing sexual harassment cases on Cairo's streets, posting videos of incidents they have witnessed, or when calling for reform of Sharia law, or debating the kind of political change they want for their country. It has also been interesting to see who can get away with what. Those bloggers with better connections, more contacts in the West, or those with big family names, while severely harassed, can continue to blog and debate online. Those less famous or less well connected can spend years in jail.
The internet has certainly opened the eyes of Egypt to the outside world, more so than films or television. In particular, it has become a place for young people to share their dreams and needs. And although they operate in a difficult and potentially threatening environment, as technology grows, they will play an increasing role in how the world views Egypt. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo