New Vehicle for Dissent Is a Fast Track to Prison

Even from an Egyptian cell, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, shown with wife Manal Hassan, blogs by scribbling on slips of paper messages that reach the Web and spread quickly.
Even from an Egyptian cell, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, shown with wife Manal Hassan, blogs by scribbling on slips of paper messages that reach the Web and spread quickly. (By Nasser Nasser -- Associated Press)

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By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

CAIRO J ust over a year ago, Alaa Seif al-Islam was one of a growing number of Egyptian bloggers who recounted their lives online, published poetry, provided Web tips, helped private aid agencies use the Internet and stayed out of politics.

But on May 25, 2005, Seif al-Islam witnessed the beating of women at a pro-democracy rally in central Cairo by supporters of the ruling National Democratic Party. He was then roughed up by police, who confiscated the laptop computer ever at his hand.

After that, Seif al-Islam's blog turned to politics. It began not only to describe the troubles of Egypt under its authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, but also described acts of repression and became a vehicle for organizing public protests.

On May 7, Seif al-Islam took part in a downtown sit-in to show support for two judges whose jobs are threatened because they denounced electoral fraud during parliamentary elections in November.

Police with sticks broke up the protest and trucked dozens of demonstrators, including Seif al-Islam, to jail, where he remains.

At least six bloggers are among about 300 protesters jailed during the past month's suppression of demonstrations. The bloggers, supporters say, were singled out by police, who pointed them out before agents rushed in to hustle them away. In the view of some human rights observers, the Egyptian government has begun to note political activity online and is taking steps to rein it in.

"Blogging was a new but growing phenomenon. The government is monitoring, and it doesn't like" what it sees, said Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

The legal status of the jailed bloggers and other detainees distresses their relatives and friends: Under Egypt's emergency laws, which have been in place for 25 years, the bloggers can be jailed indefinitely. A special court reviews such detentions only every 15 days. Some prisoners held under emergency laws have been jailed for more than a decade.

Among the charges lodged against Seif al-Islam is insulting Mubarak, who has been Egypt's president for a quarter-century.

"Today it hit me; I am really in prison," Seif al-Islam wrote in letter that his wife, Manal Hassan, posted on their Web site, Manalaa.net, on May 10. "I'm not sure how I feel.

"I'd say prison is not like I expected, but I had no expectations. No images, not even fears, nothing. Guess it will take time. I expect to spend no less than a month here. I'm sure that's enough time to see all the ugly sides of prison, to be genuinely depressed."

"He's okay," said Hassan, co-blogger on the site Manal and Alaa Bit Bucket. "He's heard the stories about his father's time in jail, so he knows he will have to adapt."


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