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Web community rallies to free Egyptian blogger

A young activist's case is being used to spotlight the plight of hundreds of detainees

By Ursula LindseyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 17, 2006


"Today it hit me, I am really in prison. I'm not sure how I feel," began the May 10 entry on Alaa Abdel-Fatah's popular Egyptian blog

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A pro-reform activist and prolific online critic of the Egyptian government, Mr. Abdel-Fatah's account from his Cairo jail cell appeared - it was smuggled out - three days after he was arrested by Egyptian security forces.

He is just one among hundreds of demonstrators detained over the past few weeks while protesting the treatment of two judges who claimed recent Egyptian parliamentary elections were rigged. But his detention has rights groups and fellow activists concerned that Egypt is extending its violent crackdown on demonstrations on the street to free expression on the Internet, which is being used more and more throughout the Middle East as a tool to organize and a forum for open political discussion.

In August 2005, the Monitor profiled Abdel-Fatah in an article on Egypt's growing cyber-activist community. His Web log - which was created with his wife, Manal Hassan - serves as a meeting point for hundreds of Internet-savvy and politically active young Egyptians. In November 2005, the blog won a top award from Reporters Without Borders for promoting freedom of expression.

In March, Abdel-Fatah helped organize an overnight sit-in in Cairo. Alerted by websites, e-mails, text messages, and newspaper ads, about 100 demonstrators spent the night singing songs and waving anti-Mubarak signs at passing traffic.

"In the last year we won back the right to protest," said Abdel-Fatah at the time, referring to the frequent demonstrations that various prodemocracy groups had been holding in the streets of Cairo since January 2005.

But Tuesday Egypt's Interior Ministry said that any unauthorized street protests would be considered as breaking the law. Since April 24, more than 300 demonstrators, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular opposition, have been detained. They were all arrested while trying to hold demonstrations in support of the two Egyptian judges. Abdel-Fatah was detained May 7 while standing with a small group of protesters outside a Cairo courthouse where the judges were arguing their case.

Abdel-Fatah and other protesters - many of whom were beaten by plain-clothes officers and security forces during their arrests - have been charged with crimes such as insulting the president, blocking traffic, rioting and destroying public property, disseminating subversive materials, and inciting the public to demonstrate. All those arrested are being held in detention pending investigation.

Protests are illegal under Egypt's emergency law, reinstated last month, which bans any gathering of more than five people. But most protests have been tolerated over the past year.

"The government before was talking about reform, they wanted to show they were serious, and allow different groups to express themselves," says Hafez Abu Saeeda, head of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights.

But now, he says, Western governments see the Egyptian regime as a necessary ally in the region, and are more willing to overlook its lack of reform, although both the US and the European Union have been critical of the recent arrests. On May 11 the US State Department said, "We are deeply concerned by reports of Egyptian Government arrests and repression of demonstrators."