Big Brothers

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

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.

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.

There is also the case of a documentary filmmaker, Howayda Taha, who has included in her work videos of torture supplied by bloggers—and was then arrested for reconstructing scenes of police torture on her own. The police claimed Taha’s torture scenes were faked and were intended to damage Egypt’s reputation, though they had given her permission to shoot them. In other words, they set her up. And the effect, of course, is to silence anyone who has new videos and wants to participate in the campaign against torture. Several policemen are on trial on torture-related charges as a result of the videos that the bloggers have published. One has already been sentenced to a year in prison. The government is desperate to put an end to this embarrassment.

The government is also forcing lesser-known young bloggers to shut down their blogs. One incident involved a Christian woman from Upper Egypt who criticized the government’s treatment of Christians. The police detained her for a while and forced her to shut down her blog. The police also shut down the blog of a woman in her early 20s who criticized the policies of Libya. These detentions show how the government uses fear to stymie bloggers whose arrests go relatively unnoticed.

Sometimes, I wish that I were among the bloggers who have been arrested. What can make a person in his right senses wish to go to jail? The alternative techniques that Egyptian security used on me. When I managed to evade arrest several times, the police started making threatening phone calls, saying that if I did not cooperate, they would arrest me. You’re a good guy, they told me. You are new. Your name came up in the investigations, but we don’t want to arrest you. If you cooperate, we will be like your older brothers. If you don’t, it will create scandal for your family. They gave me a phone number so I could think over their offer and use it when I was ready to talk. Instead, I published the conversations on my blog. They never called me again.

But when I continued blogging, gaining attention and stirring public opinion in Egypt and internationally, the government tried another technique: character assassination. The assistant of the Egyptian interior minister for legal affairs appeared on television to say that I had a criminal record. He did this three times on different stations and different talk shows; luckily, I have videos of that, as well, here and here. I had to respond by publishing my criminal record on my blog. It has a stamp saying “no criminal charges.”

Meanwhile, journalists at official newspapers have continued to tarnish my reputation. Their latest tactic is to spread rumors via the Internet that are calculated to diminish my credibility. They say that I converted to Christianity or that I’m a homosexual, neither of which can be tolerated in the Egyptian culture (and neither of which are true).

Now I’m getting information that the government’s next step will be to send me to jail on charges of espionage and homosexuality. I’m told they will use the fact that I’m spending this month in the United States as part of a Freedom House fellowship program—and as an intern at Slate—to back up those charges.

So, what would you prefer? To go to jail with honor as a political dissident? Or to have your reputation tarnished with charges like these? The bloggers in Egypt are the last independent voice. If we are silenced, no protests will be heard in Egypt, not only now, but for the coming quarter- or even half-century. And so the choice to blog is not only serious, but necessary.