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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Abdel Moneim Mahmoud represents a new wrinkle in a long-time threat to the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

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.

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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."

That analysis is close to the Bush administration's freedom agenda for the Middle East, which singled out past US coddling of Arab dictators as helping to inspire terrorists. And Mahmoud, his Islamist political orientation aside, espouses for Egypt what the US says it wants for the whole region.

"Freedom is more important than the [food] you distributed during Ramadan," he wrote at the end of the fasting month in 2006, when food is typically given to the poor. "Freedom is more important than sticking posters on walls. Please, freedom is the ultimate priority."

But, in practice, the US has backed off from pushing Egypt and other Arab states to change since the Muslim Brotherhood's success in parliamentary elections here in 2005 and the rise to political power of Hamas, a Brotherhood offshoot, in the Palestinian territories.

The US has so far made no comments on Mahmoud's detention or on the pending military trials of 40 other Muslim Brotherhood members for their political activities.

"In 2005, there was pressure from the US for democracy in the region, and that gave us more space," says Ghuzlan. "But since the result of this pressure was big successes for the Islamists, they changed course again. It may serve their interests in the short term, but America's longstanding support for totalitarian regimes has created enormous pent up anger and people like [Al Qaeda No. 2 Aymen] al-Zawahiri and [Osama] Bin Laden."

The US government, which provides about $2 billion in aid to Egypt a year, did remark on the prison sentence handed to Abdel Karem Suleiman, a secular blogger, on Feb. 22. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said in regard to Mr. Suleiman, who was sentenced for his criticism of Islam, that "freedom of expression is critical in the development of a democratic and prosperous society."

Islam Shalaby, another Brotherhood member involved in the campaign to free Mahmoud, says, "I think the sentencing of Kareem [Suleiman] was to provide political cover for their attack on the Brothers.

"I don't like anything he stands for, but he has the right to speak for himself. The regime is just trying to set the precedent that it can silence anyone."

Referring to Egypt's constitutional reforms passed in late March, which make it harder for opposition groups to organize politically and enshrined the use of military courts against civilians, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted criticisms, but added that "when you are able to at some point look back … you will see a general trend toward greater political reform."

"In the absence of outside pressure, I think the regime expects, with some justification, that it can get away with anything," says Human Rights Watch's Mr. Zarwan.

"In 2005, you had Condoleezza Rice coming here and making very strong statements about the need of Egypt to have democratic reforms; now the Americans might talk about these things in private with the government, but in public not at all."

All of this contrasts with official US comment on the trial of Syrian human rights activist Anwar al-Bunni, who was given five years in jail for his work revealing torture in that country. Mr. McCormack described his sentence as "yet another example of the Syrian regime's contempt for the universally recognized right of free expression of ideas, and its blatant attempts to silence and intimidate the Syrian people."

The younger Muslim Brotherhood members say Mubarak's regime is expecting that its latest round of arrests will cause the organization to back down, something that waves in the arrest in the past successfully accomplished, but all of them say that's not going to happen this time.

"The world has changed," says Ghuzlan. "There are so many ways to organize – blogging, e-mail groups, all allow our activists to be interactive with the people and reach out. There's no going back."

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.

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