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."
Seif al-Islam's parents were well-known political activists whose approach to bringing about change in Egypt centered on long meetings with like-minded militants who emphasized leftist slogans and organized marches that attracted fierce government repression. In the 1980s, Seif al-Islam's father was jailed for five years.
"Alaa used to criticize the approach of our generation," said Seif al-Islam's mother, Layla Sweif. "We were not independent; we belonged to parties. He just wants free expression. He wants Egypt to be like other countries."
Now, in a sense, Seif al-Islam is following in his father's footsteps, though using the Web to do it. Last year Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press freedom watchdog group, gave Seif al-Islam and Hassan a freedom of expression award for their blog.
Internet observers say there are about 1,000 bloggers in Egypt, a small number compared with Iran, which has about the same number of people but about 75,000 bloggers. The Egyptian number has been growing, however, increasing about 50 percent in the past six months, estimated Amr Gharbeia, a prominent Egyptian blogger.
Seif al-Islam provided a hint of the Internet's effectiveness when he organized a rally last summer that drew several hundred protesters to an Islamic shrine, an unusual site for such an event. Most political demonstrations in Egypt take place in front of government buildings or government buildings or those that house lawyers' and journalists' unions.
"The young people are more imaginative than us," said Ahmad Seif al-Islam, Alaa's father and head of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a human rights group. "We would never have thought of going to a popular shrine."
Bit Bucket has also reported on events not covered by Egypt's independent newspapers. During riots in Alexandria that followed the recent stabbing by a Muslim man of several Coptic Christians during worship, Seif al-Islam traveled to the city and provided a blow-by-blow description of the sectarian violence. "We view it as citizen journalism," Hassan said. "And we have to keep it alive."
The meeting of the blogosphere and police truncheons has come as something of a shock to Internet activists in Egypt. They largely belong to the middle class and aspire to professional careers, observers of the community say -- just the kind of people the Egyptian government says represent the future of Egypt.
Ahmed Droubi, for instance, studied biology and political science and worked as an environmental consultant. When plainclothes security agents picked him up late in April, he was kicking around a soccer ball after midnight with other people demonstrating to support the judges.
"I was shocked," said Salma Sayeed, a friend who witnessed the arrest. "We didn't really expect this, since demonstrations had been tolerated for a while. Now, we know anything can happen. It's scary."
Another blogger, Malek Mostafa, is also in jail for insulting the president, as well as for blocking traffic and endangering public order. His blog was notable for its tolerant take on religious issues.
Mostafa belongs to al-Wasat, a religious party that broke from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and bills itself as a liberal alternative within Islamic-based politics. Recently, Mostafa defended members of the Bahai religion demanding official recognition for their sect; the Brotherhood, which wants to apply Islamic law in Egypt, opposes the Bahai, calling them apostates.
Mostafa was picked up at a rally for the judges on April 27. "It's no coincidence that the bloggers were taken in," said Eid, the human rights worker.
One of the bloggers most recently arrested, Moahmmed al-Sharqawi, said that police sexually assaulted him. Gamal Eid, who is part of a team of lawyers defending the bloggers, said that Sharqawi was badly beaten when rousted from a Cairo street last Thursday during a demonstration.
Publicity about the recent demonstrations, with pictures of beatings and arrests spreading throughout the Egyptian press, on Arabic satellite television stations and on the Internet, appears to be getting under Mubarak's skin. In an interview published Tuesday in the state-run Al Gumhuria newspaper, he called the protests "evidence of democracy" but went on to say that coverage of the demonstrations reflects "mean intentions and a desire to achieve personal benefits.
"Most of what they are writing could be punished according to the law, because it is libel and blasphemy," Mubarak said. Referring to himself as the source of whatever free speech exists in Egypt, he added: "If they think that what they are doing is an expression of their freedom, they should remember who gave them this chance, and who is insisting on its continuity."