Egypt targets Web-savvy opponents
Activists say Abdel Moneim Mahmoud was arrested because he's a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and has a popular blog.
Abdel Moneim Mahmoud represents a new wrinkle in a long-time threat to the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.Skip to next paragraph
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He's young, passionate about democracy, and well educated. Perhaps most alarming to Egypt's autocratic ruler, he's a technologically savvy member of the main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Mahmoud and other like-minded 20-somethings have been pushing the Brotherhood to change from within, focusing on the Internet to recruit young Egyptians and to build alliances with secular activists in the fight for reform.
The journalist and human rights lawyer is spreading the word on his Arab-language blog, "I am a Brother." But while attracting new interest in the Brotherhood, he's drawn the attention of security services, too.
Mahmoud now languishes in Egypt's feared Tora prison, though he has not yet been charged with or convicted of any crime.
"He's played a very, very active role in youth outreach for us, he's helped lead the project on modernizing our media and communications, and his blog has attracted a lot of attention," says Mohammed Ghuzlan, a young Brotherhood member and close friend of Mahmoud's. "That's all a threat to the regime." Mr. Ghuzlan's father, a Brotherhood member, is in jail.
One of the widest-reaching crackdowns on political dissent is now ongoing in Egypt, largely focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most popular opposition group. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that more than 1,000 members of the organization have been arrested in the past year for their peaceful political activism.
Mahmoud is now one of the highest profile detainees, largely due to the popularity his blog.
The arrests are "just one of a series of threats to freedom of expression that have emerged in the past year, and you have to see it in the context of a broader political crackdown that the government is engaged in right now," says Elijah Zarwan, the Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch. "In Abdel Moneim's case … he was singled out because he helps run the Brotherhood's English-language website, because he's organized others to start blogging, and because he's spoken out at international human rights conferences."
On his blog, Mahmoud has been outspoken about Egypt's use of torture. His concern is, in part, personal.
He wrote this January about his harrowing detention at a wing of Tora prison in 2003, during which time he and others were forced to stand for 14 hours straight (those that fell over were beaten and then propped back up). When he removed his blindfold in solitary confinement, he wrote, he was beaten. Then he was forced to keep the blindfold on for 13 days straight as punishment.
Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, a young board member for Ikhwan Web, another Muslim Brotherhood website, says the current crackdown is designed to pave the way to power for Gamal Mubarak, the aging Egyptian leader's son who has become increasingly central to the planning of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
"We're the main obstacle to this authoritarian plan, so they're making sure the strongest opposition leaders are in jail," says Mr. Houdaiby. "This regime doesn't have ideology; it's not going after us because we're Islamists, but because we just happen to be the strongest opponent."
Houdaiby, currently overseas, says he fears arrest when he returns home in the next few days.
But his concern about the crackdown is not just about himself. He worries that more government attacks on basic freedoms will lead to more terrorism.
"This is the worst attack on the Brotherhood since the 1950s. The repression of that era led to most of the radical movements that have threatened the peace and security of the world since. I reject violence, and I always will. But when people see the door shut to peaceful expression, some will turn to violence."
Blogger in danger?
Most of Egypt's political bloggers continue to publish, for now. But "Sandmonkey" – who described himself as "snarky, pro-US, secular, libertarian [and] disgruntled" on his blog – said this week that he was hanging up his keyboard.
He said on his blog (sandmonkey.org) he'd noticed security agents on his street and clicking noises on his phone. "There has been too much heat around me lately," he said.
Whether Sandmonkey was in danger is hard to say; his family is linked to the ruling regime, and most bloggers who've been arrested were organizers of antiregime movements or embroiled in issues outside of blogging. But the sense of threat among bloggers has grown. "There is a wider security concern for Egypt's bloggers," says journalist Issandr El Amrani. Further arrests, he says, wouldn't surprise him.