Bloggers Against Torture
The video that circulated on Egyptian blogs this winter showed Emad Mohamed Ali Mohamed, a 21-year-old bus driver, lying on the floor stripped naked from the waist down--his hands bound behind his back and his legs held in the air. He screams and begs as he is sodomized with a stick while those around him, whose faces are not visible to us, taunt him.
Hours earlier, Ali Mohamed (known among friends as Emad al-Kabir) had been picked up by two plainclothes police officers in Bulaq al-Daqrur, a roughish slum in Giza, across the river from downtown Cairo's crumbling Europeanate area. The young man's offense was venturing to break up a scuffle between police officers and his cousin. Despite the inhospitable treatment he endured, al-Kabir was released thirty-six hours later with no charges to speak of. After all, torture of this variety is commonplace. Protesting its manifestations, or questioning the logic behind it, is usually met with a shrug, even contemptuous indifference.
And so, when it was announced in late December that the two police officers who had supervised the abuse, Capt. Islam Nabih and Cpl. Reda Fathi, had been detained and their case transferred to a criminal court for investigation, it seemed that something had changed. With the simple act of uploading the video to a blog, a web impresario known as Demagh MAK had unleashed a storm of attention both at home and abroad around the case of the diminutive, soft-spoken bus driver. A link to the video, passed around among activists and journalists and posted on YouTube (until it was removed for graphic content), was finally picked up by the more intrepid Egyptian independent papers as well as Arab satellite channels such as Al Jazeera and Dream TV. Even a handful of jihadi websites chimed in, fuming about the excesses of the infidel Egyptian regime. Within days, the video had taken on a life of its own.
Watching the revelations unfold, one couldn't help but think there was more to come. Sure enough, before long another leak--also spread via blogs--revealed a man (later identified as Ahmed Gad) receiving sharp slaps to the face from a belligerent officer. And then came the jarring image of a young woman, ostensibly a murder suspect, pleading for mercy while suspended from a stick held across two chairs, in what seemed a throwback to a medieval interrogation method. Whoever was behind the camera, presumably a police officer, seemed to relish the ability to capture the scene: As the woman screams "Please, ya basha!" (a sign of prostration) over and over, the camera moves in and out, making use, with abandon, of the zoom function.
Indeed, this may be just the beginning. Wael Abbas, a Cairo-based blogger who was among the first to post the torture videos, has received nearly a dozen additional videos since the beginning of December. Most have been forwarded anonymously, and most, like al-Kabir's, were captured with simple cellphone cameras.
I met Abbas in late December in Cairo, just as the stir created by the al-Kabir video was reaching its peak. "We know people get raped, beaten all the time. And who's going to stick up for a bus driver? But now it's public, and everyone is talking. The government has to do something. They've lost face," he explained.
Bloggers in the developing world have long been the subject of romantic odes in the Western press (give a young man a blog and he will start a revolution). While the capacity of digital technologies to jump-start democracy has often been exaggerated, recent events in Egypt demonstrate blogs' enormous potential as an advocacy tool and, more broadly, as an alternative source of news. Here, a number of bloggers seem to have cracked into a hitherto tightly sealed state monopoly on information dissemination, breaking stories in many cases before the mainstream press.
In this neighborhood, the official press dominates circulation numbers--with a single state-controlled paper producing up to 1 million copies a day, while the whole of the independent press puts out 10,000-40,000, according to Arab Press Freedom Watch. Though a handful of independent papers, such as Al-Dustour (whose editor, Ibrahim Issa, faces charges of "insulting the president") and Al Masry Al Youm (whose writers have faced similar charges), have managed to push the bounds of what is allowable in the public sphere, until recently it would have been unheard of to take on such subjects as torture carried out by officials without being summarily shut down.
But things are changing. In many cases blogs, working hand in hand with the modest independent press as well as satellite television channels ("We are the children of Al Jazeera," one blogger recently told me), have broken a number of big stories--from sectarian strife in Alexandria to state-sponsored violence during the last parliamentary elections, and even the type of routine crackdowns that occur during demonstrations. Together these forces have not only created an alternative source of information but have increasingly managed to shame the government into punishing those responsible for abuses. Since the leak of the notorious "slaps" video, the officer charged with the abuse of Gad, for example, has been suspended while his case is under investigation. The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, has publicly called for the identification of the pleading woman hanging from the stick, as well as the officers who carried out that abuse.
Still, whatever happens to the perpetrators of the recent spate of leaked abuses, torture will likely remain routine in Egypt for the time being. The sort of roughing up that takes place in dark alleys, security checkpoints and dingy police stations daily--normally targeting ordinary citizens--continues to pass unquestioned. Not only are torture and abuse tolerated; in the security services violence is broadly valued as a sign of authority, strength, bravado. It is not uncommon for lower-level officers to get promotions for such theatrics. In fact, the original video of al-Kabir appears to have circulated for months (the abuse was carried out in January 2006) among police officers and taxi drivers, Abu Ghraib-style, before it was leaked to the public. The images were likely shared for bragging purposes--and to serve as a sort of warning to those who would dare to tread on police turf, as al-Kabir had. It's hardly surprising that, following the video's wide circulation and al-Kabir's statements on a satellite television channel about his experience, he received a torrent of phone calls demanding his silence and threatening both him and his family.
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.
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.