Blogs as intelligence: a missed opportunity in Egypt

Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel analyses WikiLeaks Egypt cables to see how much attention the US is paying to political opinion in Egypt prior to the ongoing demonstrations against the Mubarak regime.

Her conclusion: not much.

There are just 14 WikiLeak cables in this database mentioning both Egypt and bloggers (out of 325 that mention Egypt) but just one–dated March 30, 2009–that talks in detail about the actual content of blogs rather than Mubarak’s persecution of them as a human rights issue.

That single cable does point out however that there are many blogs in Egypt and that a significant number of them are political:

(C) Egypt has an estimated 160,000 bloggers who write in Arabic, and sometimes in English, about a wide variety of topics, from social life to politics to literature. One can view posts ranging from videos of alleged police brutality (ref B), to comments about the GOE’s foreign policy, to complaints about separate lines for men and women in government offices distributing drivers’ licenses. One NGO contact estimated for us that a solid majority of bloggers are between 20 and 35 years old, and that about 30 percent of blogs focus on politics. Blogs have spread throughout the population to become vehicles for a wide range of activists, students, journalists and ordinary citizens to express their views on almost any issue they choose. As such, the blogs have significantly broadened the range of topics that Egyptians are able to discuss publicly.

However, despite this hint, it appears Embassy staffers paid blogs little attention.

Blogs and social media are obviously a key political resource. Given the sophistication of search engine tools these days it shouldn’t be too difficult to map out trends in keywords in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen etc. and to compare these to US foreign policy (eg the longstanding support for the Mubarak regime).

This fits with recent rethinking that “open source” intelligence may be more valuable, and certainly less ethically challenged that secret spying, warrantless wiretaps and communication intercepts. It also lets other participate rather than just the state.

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