Egypt: Blogging Behind Bars

On May 10, Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam, the award-winning blogger detained three days earlier for participating in peaceful protests in Cairo, became one of the first people to blog from prison.

“Today it hit me,” Alaa began his post, “I am really in prison. I'm not sure how I feel…The way fellow prisoners look at me tells me I do not feel well but I can't really feel it.”

Thanks in part to an energetic campaign in the Egyptian, Arab, and international blogosphere, his detention has already helped call attention to the Egyptian government's recent crackdown on dissent. Soon after Alaa's detention, a handful of bloggers from around the world began a group blog dedicated to campaigning for his release. Andy Carvin, a Massachussets-based blogger created a video urging bloggers to participate in a “Google-bombingcampaign to associate Alaa's name with “Egypt” in Google's databases. Others began work on a Wikipedia page on Alaa. Shohdy Naguib Sorour—in exile in Russia since 2002, when he became the first Egyptian to face prosecution for his online activities—urged Russian bloggers to get involved. Sandmonkey started a successful online petition (and found he was getting a lot of online visits from the Egyptian government thereafter).

The international press penned stories. International rights groups Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch issued statements. People gathered for protests in front of Egyptian consulates in big American cities. Meanwhile, the comments on, the blog Alaa and his wife Manal maintain, continue to show an outpouring of support from within Egypt and around the world.

Sandmonkey, referring to a few of the international posts seemed astounded by the response from the “one blogging world:”

Do you understand what this means?

It means that the Americans, Europeans, Arabs and Israelis are actually 1) in agreement, 2) united with one goal in mind, and 3) working together to achieve it. How about that? Is the blogsphere awesome or what?

His good mood didn't last long. On May 11 in Cairo, two outspoken, senior judges refused to appear before an extraordinary disciplinary board convened to punish them for speaking out against vote-rigging and voter intimidation in last year's elections because they could not bring their defense lawyers with them.

Outside, police violently dispersed demonstrations in their support, again. This time, police and “middle-aged men with walkie-talkies” (Issandr El-Amrani's description) also beat journalists from Al-Jazeera, Reuters, and the Associated Press. They also briefly detained an employee of the U.S. Embassy. Sandmonkey was blogging the day's events in real-time. Issandr has a good account at Arabist and photographs on Flickr. A friend sent me an account with some analysis by email.

Baheyya, reflecting on the recent unrest, remained optimistic:

What is happening in Egypt today has caught the men of the regime off guard. They never anticipated the resolve of judges to follow through on their mission of ensuring clean elections. They never anticipated the persistence and depth of popular support for the judges. And they never imagined that indiscriminate and brute force would only reinforce the resolve of both judges and activist segments of the public. Most of all, they never thought that election-time mobilisation would continue well after elections were over.

Sometimes, it is the simple but fatal mistake of miscalculation that is the undoing of the high and mighty.

My emailing friend is less so:

This state is hopeless. It is authoritarian and rotten to its core and one can only hope that some sort of change occurs. Yet, I remain skeptical that no matter how brave or stubborn the social forces resisting the state are, that much can be achieved. In Egypt, there can be no third way. This is not a state that is behaving like its scared or weak. It is a state that is boldly asserting its repressive power against its unarmed citizens. This state is not interested in practicing politics. It is incapable of dealing with its polity politically or diffusing political problems. Instead, it relies on repression, coercion, and intimidation. A high majority of Egyptians will be forced in acquiescence through fear. Yet, fear cannot and will not ever expand regime power.

The U.S. State Department even weighed in. Its May 11 statement on the government crackdown was about as strong as these things come:

We are deeply concerned by reports of Egyptian Government arrests and repression of demonstrators protesting election fraud and calling for an independent judiciary. Particularly troubling are reports of Egyptian police tactics against demonstrators and journalists covering the event that left many injured. We urge the Egyptian Government to permit peaceful demonstrations on behalf of reform and civil liberties by those exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.

We are also troubled by reports that the periods of detention of many of those arrested have been extended and that security-related charges have been filed against them. We have noted our serious concern about the path of political reform and democracy in Egypt and actions such as these are incongruous with the Egyptian Government's professed commitment to increased political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society. We will be following up with the Egyptian Government regarding our concerns and will continue to push for political reform and freedom of speech and press. We support the rights of Egyptians and people throughout the Middle East to peacefully advocate for democracy and political reform.

Further, the Associated Press reported grumblings about Egypt's U.S. military aid package on Capitol Hill.

A “namby pamby response” Sandmonkey scoffed. “A muddled message,” agreed. Perhaps, but the press, and now the diplomatic response, should have at least put the Egyptian government on notice that it can't detain more than 100 secular activists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, or beat journalists covering the detentions, without the world taking notice.



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