A cautionary tale from Cairo:
Just over a year ago, Alaa Seif al-Islam was one of a growing number of Egyptian bloggers who recounted their lives online, published poetry, provided Web tips, helped private aid agencies use the Internet and stayed out of politics.
But on May 25, 2005, Seif al-Islam witnessed the beating of women at a pro-democracy rally in central Cairo by supporters of the ruling National Democratic Party. He was then roughed up by police, who confiscated the laptop computer ever at his hand.
After that, Seif al-Islam’s blog turned to politics. It began not only to describe the troubles of Egypt under its authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, but also described acts of repression and became a vehicle for organizing public protests.
On May 7, Seif al-Islam took part in a downtown sit-in to show support for two judges whose jobs are threatened because they denounced electoral fraud during parliamentary elections in November.
Police with sticks broke up the protest and trucked dozens of demonstrators, including Seif al-Islam, to jail, where he remains.
At least six bloggers are among about 300 protesters jailed during the past month’s suppression of demonstrations. The bloggers, supporters say, were singled out by police, who pointed them out before agents rushed in to hustle them away. In the view of some human rights observers, the Egyptian government has begun to note political activity online and is taking steps to rein it in.
Under Egypt’s emergency laws, which have been in place for 25 years, the bloggers can be jailed indefinitely. A special court reviews such detentions only every 15 days. Some prisoners held under emergency laws have been jailed for more than a decade.
Among the charges lodged against Seif al-Islam is insulting Mubarak, who has been Egypt’s president for a quarter-century.
Publicity about the recent demonstrations, with pictures of beatings and arrests spreading throughout the Egyptian press, on Arabic satellite television stations and on the Internet, appears to be getting under Mubarak’s skin. In an interview published Tuesday in the state-run Al Gumhuria newspaper, he called the protests “evidence of democracy” but went on to say that coverage of the demonstrations reflects “mean intentions and a desire to achieve personal benefits.
“Most of what they are writing could be punished according to the law, because it is libel and blasphemy,” Mubarak said. Referring to himself as the source of whatever free speech exists in Egypt, he added: “If they think that what they are doing is an expression of their freedom, they should remember who gave them this chance, and who is insisting on its continuity.”
That could never happen here… right? I mean, no one could get roughed up for protesting an election result, or bring down the wrath of the government and put their life or job in danger just for embarrassing the president… right?