The first thing that struck me as I passed by the Press Syndicate earlier this week to eavesdrop on a meeting of Egyptian bloggers was the Central Security trucks parked around the corner. The steel police barriers around the sidewalk and steps of the Syndicate were lightly manned by a few cops, who stood facing the doors of the Syndicate. They were there, it seemed, to keep the journalists and computer geeks from getting out. Or to send a message. I received it.
Middle-aged men with walkie-talkies (again, borrowing Issandr‘s phrase… he's got a knack), loitered across the street. These days I go to the Press Syndicate only when there's something vaguely subversive going on, so I don't know if the trucks and the men with walkie-talkies are there all the time now. That night, the image of the glowering cops manning the barriers around the Syndicate struck me as a nice illustration of the government's attitude toward freedom of expression… and it was meant to.
When I arrived, a couple hundred people were crammed into the main auditorium, watching the recent Al-Jazeera documentary about Egyptian bloggers. Posters calling for Alaa‘s release and the release of the other prisoners flanked the doors to the hall. So this was my second impression: Here were hundreds of people in an auditorium in the Press Syndicate, watching an Al-Jazeera documentary about bloggers and cheering and laughing all the way though. When I first interviewed Wael Abbas last year, he complained that the Press Syndicate wasn't giving online journalists the time of day. Now the local opposition press, Al-Jazeera, Deutsche Welle, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Politiken, Die Welt, and Liberation are doing “the Egyptian blogger story” and the Press Syndicate is hosting a packed event. The opposition weekly is Al-Dostour is syndicating Egyptian blog posts. How times have changed.
It's too bad it took a rash of detentions to change them. True, media interest was already percolating last summer and fall, but I had a really hard time getting any of the 300-plus reporters at the November World Summit for the Information Society in Tunis to care about Abd al-Karim Suleiman's detention for writing an offensive, but not criminal, post on his blog. Al-Jazeera interviewed Abd al-Karim after his release and followed Alaa and Malek around as they handed out flyers in Tahrir Square, then sat on the footage until Malek and Alaa were arrested. Even then, it took Wael Abbas’ lobbying to get them to air the damn thing already.
The next night, banners and placards calling for the release of the detained protesters, including the bloggers, lined the doors and the auditorium of the Lawyers’ Syndicate, where secular activists and representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood and the banned Islamist Al-Amal Party met to discuss strategies for arriving at common goals. In the garden behind the Syndicate, recently released activists greeted friends they hadn't seen in more than a month. Some participated in a brief demonstration at the gate. Given the treatment Mohammed al-Sharqawi, who also blogs, received when they turned up for a May 25 protest soon after their release from prison, that took courage. And indeed, almost every speaker who took the podium mentioned Al-Sharqawi and Alaa.
The recently freed bloggers continue to campaign for change online and in the streets. Ashraf Ibrahimdetained in 2003 for emailing photographs and accounts of police violence against anti-Iraq war protesters to human rights organizations, then again on April 27, 2006, for participating in a protest in support of judicial independence and clean electionswalked out of the police station last week determined to go directly to the rally at the Lawyers’ Syndicate with Malek, who had only been released days earlier himself. Ibrahim told me over the phone that he “wanted to send a message to State Security, to tell them that they wouldn't be intimidated.” In the end, only his exhaustion kept him at home.
At a recent gathering of bloggers and activists in a downtown Cairo apartment, the activists without blogs joked with those who had them about the attention they were getting. Blogging, they laughingly agreed, now confers “brestige.”
But this new prestige may yet carry a price. There's been a lot of email traffic among the Arabic-language bloggers noting that more comments on their blogs that seem to be written by SSI agents. And in a recent comment on The Skeptic, expat Egyptian blogger forsoothsayer reported that she'd heard warnings that “the government is planning an even bigger blogger crackdown” from a public prosecutor friend of hers.
That would be a shame. Egypt has so far maintained a relatively open policy with regard to online speech. Perhaps all the publicity on bloggers, and the Al-Jazeera documentary in particular, might have raised the government's sensitivity to critical blogs.
If the government does, in fact, launch a concerted crackdown on bloggers for what they write, English-speaking readers would do best to turn to Hossam al-Hamalawy at Arabist.net for the latest informationassuming he's not arrested with the rest of them (he's already been briefly detained at an abortive protest in front of the police station where Al-Sharqawi was beaten). Big Pharaoh and Sandmonkey are watching closely as well.
For close analysis and background, particularly on the conflict between the Judges’ Club and the government over the revised law on the judiciary that touched this recent round of protests off, turn to Baheyya. Check her blog early next week for an analysis of the as-yet unpublished law, which, having won Cabinet approval, should sail through both houses of Parliament as early as next week. Expect, also, more protests when it does: The judges got a peak at the bill during their meeting with the Minister of Justice and told the press that it contains only cosmetic changesvery little that would address their demands or the demands of their supporters in the streets.