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Egypt detains Facebook activists – again

Last week, police arrested Ahmed Maher and about 14 other online critics who had organized through the social networking website.

By Liam StackCorrespondent / July 30, 2008

Facebook activist: Last week, police arrested Ahmed Maher and about 14 other online critics.

Liam Stack

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Cairo

Following a general strike in April, life has returned to normal for most Egyptians. But many activists and factory workers sympathetic to the strikers remain in prison or under police surveillance.

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Last week, police arrested more than a dozen "Facebook activists," including Ahmed Maher, who used the social networking site to help publicize the strike, drawing more than 60,000 people to a Facebook group in support.

Mr. Maher was originally arrested and tortured in May, shortly after a protest fizzled out, but he was released without charges. He has now been drawn again into Egypt's labyrinthine justice system after speaking out to local and international media about his detention and torture at the hands of state security.

"State security officers call me on the phone and send me threatening messages on Facebook – it is a constant campaign," Maher said before his arrest. "They say, 'Last time was easy, next time it will be harder. Last time, we only threatened to rape you, but next time we actually will."

Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says the detention of Maher and 14 other members of the activist group "Facebook Youth," is tied to its continued detention of dozens of textile factory workers and townspeople from Mahalla, a large city in the Nile Delta.

"These detentions are vindictive," Mr. Bahgat says. "Security agencies appear to be still bitter about the overwhelming public support for the April 6 strike and the new detentions... are clearly aimed at deterring any similar mobilization in the future by sending a chilling message that a price will be paid."

According to Human Rights Watch, six Mahalla residents have been held for more than 90 days without charge and a further 49 face a range of charges before Egypt's Supreme State Security Court, including illegally gathering in a group of more than five people.

"Not only has the government blatantly violated the right of workers to strike, it has refused to provide those arrested with basic due process rights," says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Nothing justifies torturing and indefinitely detaining protesters without charge."

Maher was arrested off the street in Alexandria, one day after 14 members of the Facebook Youth were arrested as they held a small demonstration on the beach, waving flags and singing patriotic songs on the national holiday commemorating Egypt's 1952 revolution. They have all been charged with "incitement against the regime," lawyers say.

Lawyers have been able to communicate with the men detained on the beach but it has been harder to communicate with Maher, says Gamal Eid, the director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Mr. Eid says he has been told that Maher will be separated from the other Facebook detainees and sent to a prison that also houses Kareem Amr, a blogger jailed for posting comments critical of Egypt's political and religious leaders.

"Burg el Arab is where the government holds political prisoners and people whose opinions they do not like, and when the police relocate someone there, it is a serious situation," says Eid. "People who go to Burg el Arab usually stay there for a long time."

Critics of Facebook activism say there is a big difference between a chat room and a political movement, but the government appears to be taking no chances.

Mohamed Sayed Said, editor of the daily newspaper Al Badeel, says the government's continued harassment of Maher and other online activists is part of its larger anxiety over the political uses of the Internet and the country's accelerating "return to the rule of the police state."

"The government wants to separate electronic space from politics and clamp down on young people who would dare to use that space to call for an end to the regime," he says.

"It is launching a wave of terror against young intellectuals who would use electronic space as a means to access freedom of expression."

Liam Stack first reported on Egypt's crackdown on Facebook activism July 7.

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