The perils of blogging in Egypt.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 14 2007 1:45 PM

Big Brothers

In Egypt, blogging can get you arrested—or worse.

Screen capture of manalaa.net. Click image to expand.
The popular Egyptian blog Manalaa.net.

So, you woke up this morning on the right side of the bed, and you decided to start a blog. Who cares? It is your own choice, you are free to blog as well as not to blog—it depends only on your interests and willingness to express yourself.

Except, in Egypt, the slogan of the State Security Police is: "We care." And they mean it, and not in a good sense.

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And so whether to blog is a life-changing decision for Egyptian youth. Of course, you are safe if you decide to write about trivial matters like your day at university or your cat having the hiccups. But once you decide to go political, the police are all ears. Literally. They will tap your phones, harass you with phone calls or by summoning you to their headquarters or stopping you on the street or intruding on your family, even by putting you under arrest.

The Egyptian press is totally under the control of the government. Not only the official newspapers, but also the opposition and independent newspapers, because they are subject to censorship. Bloggers, by contrast, have succeeded in providing neutral and many-sided coverage of events of national import, including the presidential referendum and parliamentary elections; the activities of new movements calling for change in the country; and police brutality toward voters, activists, and ordinary citizens. For example, in connection with the latest election last month, involving President Hosni Mubarak's effort to amend the constitution to make permanent the infamous "law of emergency," bloggers were a repository of reports, photos, and videos showing vote rigging. On my blog, I posted videos of the voting officials themselves checking the "yes" box on people's ballots. I have also posted videos, received from anonymous sources, depicting torture of suspects in police stations—including a sodomizing incident that inflamed public opinion and especially angered the police.

Our readers see blogs as transparent and credible. Not surprisingly, Egypt's less-than-open regime sees them as a threat. The government started losing its patience in the spring of 2006, when a number of bloggers were detained for taking pictures of a sit-in protest, in which they also participated. Bloggers Alaa Seif and Malek Moustapha, and dozens of other activists, including other bloggers, were kept in inhumane conditions, in the company of real criminals, who harassed them under direct orders from state security. It took 45 days for them to be released. At that point, they were warned against participating in any forthcoming demonstrations.

But some of the bloggers did not listen. They participated in another demonstration to protest other detentions and to support the independence of the judiciary. The police were able to arrest only two of the group but made sure to make an example of them. Kareem El Shaer was beaten severely. Mohammad Sharkawy was taken to a police station, sodomized and tortured, then sent to jail for a few more weeks.

Later, in a separate case, Kareem Amer, who blogged from February 2004 to October 2006, was sentenced to four years in prison—three for insulting Islam and one for insulting the Egyptian president. He had been critical of the country's religious institutions and of the Islamists who are behind attacks on churches. He also had declared himself a secularist. The government singled him out in order to create a precedent, scare other bloggers, and foster an image of bloggers as secular religion-haters. A different sort of function is served by the prosecution of an Islamist blogger, Abdul-Monem Mahmoud, who is facing trial for belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement. The government went after Mahmoud as part of a campaign against the Brotherhood and to stifle accusations that the police are systematically torturing activists and also ordinary citizens. While Mahmoud was not one of the bloggers who posted videos of torture inside police stations, he was one of the torture victims, and he talked to the media about it.

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