Web community rallies to free Egyptian blogger

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

"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 manalaa.net.

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."

According to others, such as Hassan Nafae, head of the political science department at Cairo University, the crackdown on demonstrators is a symptom of political malaise. "President Mubarak is getting old, I am not quite sure he's in real command of the whole situation," says Mr. Nafae.

"There is almost an absence of overall policy, what to do with political reform and so on. [The government's] decisions reflect a situation of fear rather than self-confidence."

Meanwhile, Egyptian officials deny they are curtailing freedoms. At a recent press conference, Gamal Mubarak, heir apparent of President Hosni Mubarak, dismissed the attacks and detentions of demonstrators as "specific incidents" and "skirmishes." He said he had "ample evidence in other areas that prove that we're not turning back, that we're moving forward, with openness, with reform, with political debate."

The situation is "obviously demoralizing," says one young female activist who prefers to remain anonymous because of security concerns. "Every single important leftist is in prison. They're arresting everyone. We've given up on street work."

But with the streets increasingly off limits, Egypt's online activist community is remaining active and has picked up the slack, reaching out to counterparts abroad and organizing an effective awareness campaign around Abdel-Fatah.

"Alaa didn't write that much in the beginning," says Ms. Hassan. She adds that their blog "wasn't very political a year and a half ago," when it was started. "It changed as we changed."

The site freealaa.blogspot.com (created within 24 hours of Abdel-Fatah's arrest) documents all new developments in his case and those of other detained activists.

"It's easier to tell the story of Alaa, and then go back to other detainees," says Amr Gharbeia, a friend of Abdel-Fatah and the author of an award-winning political blog in Arabic. "He's been covered in the media, he's much more connected."

Close to 1,000 people have signed an automated petition form, demanding the Abdel-Fatah's release, which is sent to both Egyptian and American officials.

Like many Arab countries, Egypt is experiencing a steep growth in Internet users and bloggers. "There were 500 blogs six months ago," says Mr. Gharbeia, "there are 1,000 now. The number is doubling every six months."

The Internet has allowed Egyptian activists not only to coordinate local events, but also to reach out to international activist networks when in need.

Gharbeia says local bloggers have coordinated efforts before, but that the campaign for Abdel-Fatah's release is "the first time we do something this big."

"A lot of people write and say: We heard about this and what can we do?" says Hassan. Already, small demonstrations have been planned or carried out in front of Egyptian consulates or embassies in Washington, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris.

Meanwhile, no one knows when Abdel-Fataha and the other activists will be released. According to Egyptian law, their detentions could be renewed indefinitely.

The young blogger concluded his last post describing conversations with other inmates: "I have to explain about the judges and I have to explain why I'm here, why it's worth it, and to be frank I've no idea why. It isn't worth being away from Manal for three days let alone 30 (very well, Egypt), but I can't really say that, can I?"

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