Behind the Arab Revolts, an Activist Quietly Pulling Strings From Boston

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If you've watched a TV report or read a news article on the Arab Spring, odds are you've encountered Nasser Weddady's work without even knowing it.

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At the 2009 Arab bloggers conference in Beirut / Jillian C. York

BOSTON -- Outside a Starbucks here, Nasser Weddady, the Mauritanian-born activist, is drinking a latte and texting a well-known Egyptian-American writer, brainstorming a social media campaign to free a recently arrested Syrian blogger. The next day, a new hashtag will spread on Twitter, from Weddady's account to his friend's, and to their followers from the United States to Damascus to Cairo. Activists will organize themselves around the new campaign.

"It's the new revolution," he says, lighting a cigarette.

Through Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, a core group of activists has managed to organize protests, secure the releases of protesters and writers in beleaguered Arab countries, and effectively set the agenda for the incestuously close network of Arab experts, policy makers, and journalists at the center of the Arab Spring revolutions. And somewhere in the middle of it all, talking to everyone within the circle but virtually unknown outside of it, is Nasser Weddady.

"His influence is more subliminal with key policy makers than is obvious"

In revolutions that assume that regimes like Bashar al-Assad's in Syria or Muammar Qaddafi's in Libya are deceitful, "activists like Nasser have become good go-to sources for information -- or at least, they're perceived as such and in doing so they help to set the agenda," says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Institute.

In a report published last month by New York-based social media tracker Socialflow, Weddady, 36, was ranked one of the top four most-influential Twitter users of the Arab Spring uprisings, on par with Ben Wedeman, CNN's venerable war correspondent, who has five times as many followers.

"The power comes from the attention they get," says Gilad Lotan, who spearheaded the study by looking at the traffic that came from Twitter hashtags like #Tunisia and #Jan25. "Nasser especially was central to the information flows, certain messages that started by anyone around the world on these topics."

"He's extremely influential," Lotan explains. "The info he would post would be taken and reposted by journalists, some non-media organizations, and others. I was not surprised to see these folks rank so high on the chart. They played a bigger role in the revolution than many journalists who have these massive built-in audiences."

At the start of the Syrian uprising, "there was some complacency among Western journalists, so the activists became a short cut" for information, adds Karl Sharro, a London-based writer and Arab affairs commentator.

Included in the same club as Weddady -- only a handful have the requisite amount of power -- are Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American writer based in New York ("she does an amazing job getting information out on Twitter," Lotan says) and Dima Khatib, a prominent Cairene activist.

Testifying to the global reach of the cyber activists, Jane Novak, a New Jersey housewife, has established herself as a highly-regarded source on all things Yemen, even, at one point, consulting with the U.S. State Department. Her Twitter feed and blog, armiesofliberation.com, are consulted by activists and journalists. She is well-known among policy makers, activists and reporters in the country's besieged capital, Sana'a. And she has never been to Yemen.

"She doesn't speak a word of Arabic, she hasn't set foot in the Middle East, but she still became an authority," Weddady says. He claims her influence helped secure the 2008 release of Yemeni journalist Abdulkarim al-Khawaini, who had been convicted of defaming President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Weddady has tweeted nearly 50,000 times, in Arabic, Hebrew, French, and English, on which protests to attend and which bloggers should be free and what news we should follow.

"We're all very connected in the region and we have a strategic approach," he tells me. "We figured out how to take cyber activism and throw it back into the real world. Campaigning is a form of political diplomacy."

From his perch at the American Islamic Congress -- he earns a living as its outreach coordinator -- he is networked in every country in the region.

"Nasser," one top magazine editor tells me, "knows everyone, everywhere. I don't know how he does it."

I ask Andrew Lebovich, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation focusing on the Sahel region, the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks of Weddady. "Everywhere," he replies, "all the time."

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Karen Leigh is a Berlin-based journalist, writing for Time and other publications. She previously covered Africa, India, the Arab Spring, and the 2008 presidential campaigns.

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