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Why a Jailed Dissident Is Palestine's Best Hope

Despite being imprisoned in Israel, Marwan Barghouti proved his popularity at the Fatah party congress. Here's why the politician holds promise for his party and Hamas -- as well as Palestine and Israel in general. 

By all accounts, the Fatah party congress held in Bethlehem from Aug. 4 to 11 -- the first in 20 years for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' party -- was a success.

It demonstrated democracy in action, the type that the White House would no doubt like to see throughout the Arab world. Fatah party members elected their own leadership. Based on the party's predominance in the Palestinian Authority, the summit -- held for the first time within the territory -- held special importance for its political future.

Among the congress's victors was Marwan Barghouti, who directed votes for himself and his allies from inside an Israeli prison, where he is serving five consecutive life terms for his leadership role in the second intifada. Despite his physical absence, Barghouti, a shrewd and charismatic reformist, loomed large: He is now a party heavyweight with uniquely broad support among Palestinians and even Israelis. A consensus is growing that he merits a leadership role. If he wins one, it will have a major impact on Fatah's ability to tame Hamas and change the tenor of its relationship with Israel.

Barghouti came in third in voting for the Central Committee, which directs party policy. But he polled first among the "young guard" -- Fatah members minted during the two intifadas, who are now in their 40s and 50s. This group tends to be more reform-focused and grass-roots-oriented than the older Fatah leaders, including Abbas himself. It also includes businesspeople and university intellectuals. On the basis of this support, Barghouti has declared his intention to run for the presidency in 2010, even if he is still behind bars. (If Abbas decides to run again, Barghouti might run for a second-in-command spot.)

There is a possibility, though, that he might be free by the next election. In his years in prison alongside Hamas leaders, Barghouti won the respect of the Islamist movement. Today, his name is likely at the top of the list for a potential prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas has held captive for more than three years.

But the subject of Barghouti's potential release is bitterly divisive in Israel, due to his alleged role in the second intifada. Some members of the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, have called for the prisoner exchange, including former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Others, such as Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima party, have insisted Barghouti -- convicted for five life terms -- should never walk free.

At the same time, there is a growing acknowledgement among Israelis and Palestinians that Barghouti's broad appeal and reformist streak offer the best prospects for peace. Politicians in Israel see him as the best hope for strengthening the nationalist camp against Hamas -- ironically, due to his close ties with the opposition party and thus his ability to influence them.

"Fatah needs a leader, and according to all the polls and information that we have, Marwan is the leader of the nationalist camp, not only of Fatah," Haim Oron, a Knesset member and head of the dovish Meretz party, told me. Oron visits Barghouti in prison on a regular basis and has good ties with his allies in the West Bank, including Fatah politician Qadura Fares, considered Barghouti's eyes and ears outside prison.

"From [Barghouti's] point of view, a two-state solution and finishing the conflict with Israel and an existing liberal state has always been his goal. Every Palestinian leader who speaks about a peace agreement knows more or less the parameters of the deal," Oron explained.

"If Marwan is out of prison, in one year we can find a new atmosphere. We need a national leader," said Fares, who spoke with me from his office in Ramallah. "Marwan can bring together all the factions and create a new structure and national identity that includes part of Hamas, the big groups, the intellectuals, and the secular." Fares himself signed the Geneva Accord -- a private initiative that calls for a two-state solution and an end to the conflict -- after getting the nod from Barghouti.

Barghouti does face some competition from within Fatah's young guard in the form of Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan. Although Dahlan garnered fewer votes than Barghouti last week, he is a powerful member of the Central Committee and a favorite of Abbas.

But Dahlan does not hold the same promise as Barghouti -- within Palestine or outside it. "Dahlan is a problem for the public because he hasn't succeeded in convincing the majority of Palestinians that he is clean," said Fares, the Barghouti ally. His reputation for corruption would taint Fatah at a time when the party is attempting comprehensive internal reform. Further, Hamas despises Dahlan, as he made his name by cracking down on and allegedly torturing its leaders.

Although Fatah has become more popular of late -- with about a 35 percent popularity rating, as opposed to about 20 percent for Hamas -- there is still a consensus that Palestinian unity needs to precede negotiations with the Israelis. Thus, looking ahead, the man in prison, Marwan Barghouti, seems to be the right man for the job.

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Profile

Meet Afghanistan's Biggest Blogger

How 26-year-old Nasim Fekrat helped create Afghanistan's blogosphere out of thin air.

At this point, the litany of contemporary Afghanistan's problems is well known. The country has few paved roads, let alone computers; its population is poor and illiterate; it is blighted with poverty, disease, and violence. For the past 30 years, Kabul has been under the control of radicals, strongmen, foreigners, or some combination of the three. Only rarely can the foreign reporters who describe these conditions leave the safe bubble of Kabul or the back seat of an armored vehicle. As a result, Afghanistan's people, culture, and traditions remain woefully unknown to the world, or reduced to crude stereotypes.

"People outside of Afghanistan have no idea what really exists here," a deep-voiced 26-year-old blogger named Nasim Fekrat says. "I was searching for Helmand [on the Internet] the other day. The only things that came up were about terrorists and suicide and bombs. But there is another side to Helmand, another face. There is agriculture, art, museums, culture."

On his groundbreaking blog, Afghan Lord, Fekrat hopes to tell that to the world. Writing in Farsi as well as self-taught English, he has taken it upon himself to show Afghanistan's softer, more genuine face. Until recently, he feels, this face was nearly impossible to find.

"In 2004, a journalist friend of mine told me that he was using the Internet to search for an Afghan word. He kept on coming up with this picture of a dog -- an Afghan hound!" Fekrat says, laughing ruefully. "We didn't even know there was such a dog in Afghanistan."

Although he passionately hopes to bring Afghan art, culture, and music -- life, really -- to readers around the world with his blog, Fekrat certainly does not downplay the trauma of Afghanistan's recent history. Indeed, his life and his blog are very much a product of it.

Fekrat grew up in a religious family in a village in Ghazni province. His childhood, he recalls, was defined by hardship and alienation. In particular, the young Fekrat strained under the strictures of his father, who once raised his hands to the heavens and called on God to kill his son when he would not pray one evening. Fekrat was 11.

But Fekrat has always been strikingly intelligent, erudite, and resourceful. When he was a teenager, he fled to Kabul, then under the control of the Taliban. A local family took in the refugee and gave him shelter. Soon after, he found life there too onerous -- he gives no clear reason why -- and joined the peripatetic community of Afghan refugees moving from country to country. Along the way, he spent time in Pakistan, Iran, Pakistan again, and the United Arab Emirates.

While living abroad, Fekrat became a member of this literate and engaged, if disaffected, Afghan expatriate community. He discovered a profound love for poetry and classical music in spite of his lack of higher education -- he delightedly describes how he pulled together money to buy compact discs of sonatas, concertos, and religious music in the record stores of Islamabad.

Around this time, Fekrat also discovered the online Afghan diaspora. People applying for political asylum in the West, Fekrat says, started to find one another on the Web in Farsi and Pashto chat rooms starting around 1998. Fekrat was swept up by the virtual community.

"For me, the Internet became a portal not just for information" about Afghanistan and its people, but "literature, poetry, and music," Fekrat says. "And it did not just become a way to communicate. As much as I learned, I became more uninformed," he says, pausing to struggle with his English. "No -- that's not how you say it. When I'm online, I realize I'm not informed enough," he says, and chuckles.

In 2000, the year before the United States invaded Afghanistan, Fekrat contacted two people he found writing articles online in Farsi. They were both native Afghans applying for asylum and living abroad. In their online correspondence, Fekrat -- who had by then returned to his native country -- discovered blogging. It was a revelation. "I asked them how they were publishing online," he says. "And they said, 'No, no, it's a blog!' I went online and found the ready-made template. It was so easy. For me, it was amazing."

Soon after, Fekrat joined the nascent Afghan blogosphere. His first blog, founded in 2002, was an anonymous and sophomoric effort on poetry and music. Reading what he wrote, he felt dissatisfied with his work and changed his subject and pseudonym several times. Nevertheless, Fekrat delighted in expressing his own thoughts and feelings with a level of freedom virtually impossible to find in Taliban- or even U.S.-controlled Afghanistan.

Fekrat moved around between a few jobs in journalism, but it wasn't until 2004 that he decided to make blogging his vocation. Afghan Lord was born.

His first post reads, typos and all: "Who can believe that Afghanistan got its peace after an awful situation more than two ddecades war. The situation that human was killing human, brother killing brother, war lords were killing innocents people and lots of difficulties occurred in Afghan land. What was the reason? Who was responsible for all these? Who is guilty? Who was supporting them and armed them to kill each other for nothing? And what is going on now? To all these categories I will put my pen. I will try regularly post daily from Afghanistan."

It spoke to the trauma of the Taliban takeover, and the shock of the U.S. invasion. And it allowed Fekrat to begin speaking to the world.

Over the past five years, not only has his English improved in leaps and bounds, but Fekrat has found his voice as a writer -- aching with wonder at the beauty of his culture and the horrors of war. He posts mostly on breaking news events, interspersed with commentary on politics. But he also includes reflections on the joy of riding a motorbike, or a poem. As with so many blogs, it reads like an upload of the author's thoughts -- unadulterated, emotional, and sometimes contradictory.

Committed to life as a professional blogger, Fekrat became a more professional journalist as well -- and his profile quickly grew. In 2005, readers around the world voted for his blog for Reporters Without Borders' "Freedom of Expression" blog awards. His writing on occupied Kabul became internationally known; he bought partner URLs and expanded his Web presence. He started working for the BBC's Farsi edition and other journalistic outlets, including for international organizations such as NATO.

His career as a blogger has not come without danger, though. A few years ago, someone stole his pseudonym to post pro-Taliban comments. With his Internet persona and reputation compromised, he had no choice but to reveal his true identity. Since then, he has received numerous death threats in comments on his blog, and in text messages, phone calls, and e-mails. When I spoke with him in May, he was living on friends' couches, moving every few days to avoid men he believed to be following him.

Last year, a journalist he knew in northern Afghanistan was sentenced to death for allegedly making anti-religious comments on a Web site. But Fekrat thinks the security situation and the nascent community of those speaking truth to power is improving.

In 2006, Fekrat decided to take his blog community offline as well, and he created the Afghan Association of Blog Writers to aid the country's community of about 20,000. (An absurdly high number if one considers that there are only a few hundred-thousand computers in Afghanistan, most brought in by the United States or aid groups.)

As the head of the organization, Fekrat started meeting up regularly with other bloggers in Internet cafes. He decided to start teaching blogging as well, as those expatriate Afghan journalists had taught him. "I would ask people to donate just a few dollars," he says. "We would hire a generator so that we could run the computers at night. And then we'd turn on the Internet."

Now, he runs a blog school, teaching young Afghans about digital media, blogging, photography, and videography. It is his proudest achievement. "I show young, talented Afghans the Web. And now they have powerful tools to write about the situation, the society."

About a year ago, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul began funding Fekrat's blog school -- before then, he had sought donations on his Web site. The new-media guru now travels all over Afghanistan (usually on a motorbike) teaching remote communities about the power of the Internet and blogging. When I spoke with him last week, he had just finished stints in Helmand and Bamiyan.

This spring, he came to the United States for the first time, on the invitation of Joe Torsella, then the chief executive of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Fekrat ended up staying in the United States to learn more about digital media and culture on a three-month fellowship at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University. (He has a great video post of himself riding around the North Carolina campus on a pink bicycle.) And he may return to the United States to attend Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

Now, Fekrat sees an opportunity for Afghanistan to leapfrog the United States into the age of digital media. "Afghanistan is not in an era to experience print media," he says. "In the United States, [newspapers] are in a state of crisis. In Afghanistan, we shouldn't repeat those mistakes. The world is going digital. I found the world online. And I want to put Afghanistan online. Why wait? Why spend the money to fund a newspaper?" His dream is to continue blogging and running his small-scale media shop -- and, eventually, to find funding for a "for-Afghans, by-Afghans" think tank.

Although he welcomes all the funding and support he can get, Fekrat doesn't just blog for the NGO crowd; he is most encouraged that his writing is finally catching on with literate Kabulis and rural Afghans alike. "It used to be, when you talked with someone and said you were a blogger, people thought you're not doing something responsible," he says. "Because of the religions and minorities, you are always offending someone." But now people are much more open to user-produced media, and much more open to blogs and political commentary.

This growing acceptance has a lot to do with what has been happening next door in Iran and the role online media played in the recent disputed election there. "Our neighbor, in Iran, it is a big country for writing blogs. And that has impacted here in Afghanistan, because Farsi is a language spoken here," Fekrat explains. "People have realized that there is an audience, and there is a way to [disperse] information. Everybody here knows about what happened in the Iran election, and they know how the Internet and blogs changed it."

Of course, Afghanistan is facing an election of its own, and the growing Afghan blogosphere will have a role to play, however small in a country where only one in 30 has Internet access. "Before, people always had to ask 'What is a blog?', and that is changing," Fekrat says.

In the meantime, Fekrat's mission remains showing Afghanistan to the world -- and spurring Afghanistan to put itself online. I asked him what he hopes to achieve with his journalism and community-building in the next year. "We are people and we need connection. For you, Annie, to understand me as a human being, as an Afghan, as a human being who has feelings, love, hatred, and culture, is listening to the same music as Annie listens to."

That is Fekrat's goal. And to achieve it, all that needs to happen is for readers to visit his blog.

Nasim Fekrat