Bloggers Against Torture
The turning point in Egypt in particular, if one were to identify one, may go back to May 2005. Under pressure from his Western patrons to engage in what is casually referred to as "reform," President Mubarak had called for a referendum vote on a constitutional amendment that would provide for the country's first multiparty elections. The proposed amendment, however, was dismissed by many within the country as little more than window dressing to appease the United States, an empty gesture at best. Protests calling for boycotts of the vote on referendum day devolved into a melee marked by hundreds of men--many of them hired government thugs--harassing and sexually abusing women who had gathered on downtown streets. While the government vehemently denied allegations of sexual abuse (dismissing the "fantasies" and "fabrications" of a few "creative minds"), images shot by both participants and observers on small digital cameras and phones wound up on blogs like Wael Abbas's in the following days--making it virtually impossible to explain away the accusations. Since that time, blogs have become a repository for everything from stories about striking ambulance workers threatening to commit suicide to debates about corruption in the health sector to accounts of camel butchers shouting obscenities at parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour. In other words, these are stories that would never see the light of day given the conventions and dictates of the state press.
For good reason, the government is growing jittery about blogging. At the moment, at least one blogger, Abdul Kareem Nabeil Suleiman (who goes by the Internet name Kareem Amer), remains in solitary confinement, awaiting trial for his criticisms of Islam in general and conservative Al-Azhar University, where he was once a student, in particular. The charges against him include "defaming the president of Egypt." One Coptic blogger, Hala Helmy Botros (she goes by the Internet name Hala El Masry), who has written at length about persecution of the Coptic minority, clearly went too far recently; the computers at an Internet cafe she once frequented have been confiscated. (Proprietors of Internet cafes are often given lists of people who may not use their services, checking ID is de rigueur and prominent signs announce "No entry to political or sexual sites by order of the State Security.") And on January 8 a reporter from Al Jazeera named Howeida Taha was detained as she was leaving the country. Taha had tapes in hand for work on a forthcoming documentary on torture; she had recorded testimonies of victims and had amassed various videos of police brutality. Al Jazeera, for its part, announced on its Arabic-language website that Egyptian prosecutors had accused the journalist of "filming footage that harms the national interest of the country, possessing and giving pictures contradicting the truth, and giving a wrong description of the situation in the country."
There are additional signs that the government campaign against electronic activism may be escalating. The Interior Ministry has been pursuing this campaign through a special unit called the Department for Confronting Computer and Internet Crime. Thanks to a 2006 court ruling, websites can be shut down if they are deemed a threat to national security. Some of the country's more active political bloggers, such as Abbas and al-Sharkawi, are regularly trailed, harassed and intimidated by state security. And the official press has been launching rhetorical attacks against bloggers at large, accusing them of "spreading malicious rumors about Egypt," "working for the Americans," "engaging in satanic sexual fantasy" and so on.
Across the Middle East bloggers are engaging in a sort of citizen journalism that stands, in its own modest way, to alter the political terrain. In Bahrain they have clamored for freedom of expression on the web, also having played a large role in pushing for female participation in that country's parliamentary elections. Earlier this year Bahraini bloggers used Google Earth satellite maps to juxtapose the vast wealth of the ruling family against increasingly destitute areas, exposing the rampant inequities in the Gulf kingdom at large (imagine palace meets slum). The Google Earth site was shut down for three days until international attention seemed to shame the Bahraini government into lifting the ban. In Lebanon blogs provided a home for reactions to last summer's war, along with documentation of its ravages. In Qaddafi's Libya blogs persist, though a number of political bloggers have been imprisoned, and in one especially sordid case a writer covering government corruption had his fingers chopped off before he was murdered--presumably a sign to others who would consider following his lead. And this is to say nothing of Iran, where Internet activity is so significant that despite restrictions, Farsi has cracked the top ten represented languages in the global blogosphere.
But where, you may ask, are the Western governments that have lent such impassioned rhetorical support to the democratic aspirations of citizens of the Middle East since 9/11? In Egypt, the US government in particular has undeniably played some role in creating openings for activists, bloggers among them. But today that commitment seems to have ebbed, the enthusiasm for democracy promotion dampened by the prospect of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah gaining power via elections throughout the region.
And so when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice passed through Cairo on one leg of a Middle East tour in January, she made it crystal clear that her Administration had opted to favor stability over rocking the boat. She uttered hardly a whisper about the events of recent weeks (torture revelations, jailed bloggers) or the country's dismal human rights record in general. At a news conference in the historic city of Luxor, Rice intoned, "Obviously the relationship with Egypt is an important strategic relationship--one that we value greatly." On previous trips to the country, Rice had been more confrontational, raising issues such as the importance of free and fair elections, the need for an independent judiciary and even the country's subpar treatment of its political prisoners. This time around, however, there was not a peep about anything that could compromise the postcard image of Egypt as a reliably moderate, pro-Western Arab regime. As the US government's grandiose plan to democratize the region stumbles--and Iraq in particular (which was to be the jewel in the crown of this new Middle East) slips further into pandemonium--even the requisite lip service to reform has all but disappeared. The noose on local democracy activists, in the meantime, tightens.
Just days before the Secretary of State's visit, in what seemed an uncanny twist of fate, al-Kabir, the young bus driver, was sentenced to three months in prison. The charge: "resisting authorities." While the police officers responsible for his abuse will face a trial in March, his lawyer and human rights groups expressed concern that al-Kabir would face further torture in prison. His bizarre sentence seemed to signal that little may have changed, despite the glimmer of hope offered by the media frenzy of the past weeks. Indeed, as the ruling was announced, it seemed that for the Egyptian regime as well as the US government that readily accommodates it, it was back to business as usual.