Bloggers Against Torture
This is not the first time that bloggers in this country have roused the ire of the authorities. Last spring at least six bloggers were arrested in connection with demonstrations in solidarity with senior judges demanding independence of the judiciary from the executive branch. Although the bloggers were not explicitly picked up for their writings, their arrests revealed the deep links between electronic activism and the street at large. In Egypt in particular, blogging as a phenomenon was not born in a vacuum but rather has emerged as an extension of existing popular movements--whether it is the country's modest street opposition movement, Kifaya, or even the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which has equally embraced the web and the blogosphere (just look at ikhwanweb.net). Together with e-mail and text messaging, blogging has undeniably changed the way activism is carried out.
Alaa Abd El Fattah, a 24-year-old who blogs with his wife at manalaa.net and also runs omraneya.net, an aggregator for more than 1,500 Egyptian blogs (with 2,000 in queue), was among the detained last spring--held for forty-six days on various charges ranging from insulting the president to obstructing traffic to inciting citizens to topple the regime. As he was leaving state security upon his release one official took him aside, making it clear that he was an avid reader of blogs.
"The people they targeted at the time of the judges' demonstrations used the Internet to mobilize. We've gotten as far as we have as a movement because we're linked to the street. We spread word of demonstrations through blogs, we organize and gain supporters through them, we publicize abuses at protests. Kifaya even started as a petition on the Internet," El Fattah tells me. He counts himself among the self-proclaimed "geeks" who helped make building a community of bloggers a possibility in Egypt and ultimately made the Egyptian blogosphere a success story in the region.
Another young blogger, Mohamed al-Sharkawi, was arrested twice during the judges' demonstrations. On his blog, he had not only supported the striking judges but also posted strident editorials critical of President Hosni Mubarak. In detention, he was blindfolded, beaten and molested with a rolled-up cardboard tube. When I met him in January at his rooftop apartment, he recalled the experience. "All I remember is three voices hanging above me: 'Why are you attending demonstrations? Why did you write on your blog that we treated you badly in prison? Do you think you'll become a star?'" When I asked al-Sharkawi what he would do if the authorities eventually shut down his blog, which he continues to update daily, he replied, "I'll set up another one. They have nearly killed me already--what more can they do?"
But how threatening, we may wonder, can a handful of bloggers be--and how much of a threat could they be to the twenty-five-year-and-running rule of a leader like Mubarak? After all, many of them are simply tech-savvy twentysomethings recently out of university. And besides, how big a role can bloggers play in a country in which they number just over 3,000--a mere fraction of whom write political content?
Hossam el-Hamalawy runs arabawy.org, a blog that has been central to documenting what he has dubbed Egypt's very own Videogate. "We're exploding," he tells me. "The government didn't see it coming, and it's creating a domino effect. You read bloggers in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, and they take pride in the Egyptian gains. Once you get this far, there's no going back. You can't take the plug out." As recently as January 2005, there were only about thirty blogs in the country. "My dream is that one day there will be a blogger with a digital camera in every street in Egypt."
Exploding or not, this sort of electronic activism defies facile definitions. No longer simply an upper- or middle-class phenomenon, blogging has become an outlet for expression among a broad spectrum of people. Some bloggers post exclusively from Internet cafes (those without PCs), some are without a university education, many are women. Today there is a blogger in every urban center in Egypt--from the stark Sinai Peninsula to Mansoura in the Nile Delta. Most write in Arabic. Recently one blogger went so far as to set up a site devoted to bringing attention to police brutalities taking place in the Sinai following bouts of terrorism (hundreds, even thousands of Bedouins have been disappeared by state security, often locked away and abused with impunity). Other blogs broach the sensitive subject of how the country's religious minorities are treated--particularly the Copts, who make up Egypt's Christian community. Blogs have also been a crucial space for engaging such uncomfortable topics as sexuality, race and beyond. Suddenly, the (improvised) Arabic word mudawena, signifying a blogger, has found its way into the lexicon.