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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.