Wednesday, February 28, 2007
THE BUSH administration has tolerated Egypt's brutal crackdown on domestic dissent and the broader reversal of its democratic spring of 2005 in part because President Hosni Mubarak argues that his adversaries are dangerous Islamic extremists. It's true that the largest opposition movement in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood; how dangerous it is can be debated. But what is overlooked is that Mr. Mubarak reserves his most relentless repression not for the Islamists -- who hold a fifth of the seats in parliament -- but for the secular democrats who fight for free elections, a free press, rights for women and religious tolerance.
The latest case in point is a blogger named Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman, who was sentenced to four years in prison last week on charges of religious incitement, disrupting public order and "insulting the president." A brave and provocative 22-year-old student, Mr. Soliman first achieved notice with postings that denounced riots in Alexandria directed at Egypt's Christian Copt minority. He said the brutality he witnessed was the result of extremist Islamic teachings, in part by his own university, Al-Azhar, which he called "the other face of al-Qaeda." He compared the prophet Muhammad to Israel's Ariel Sharon. And he said Mr. Mubarak was a "symbol of tyranny."
Setting aside the hyperbole, there was considerable truth in many of the blogger's charges. Right or wrong, he certainly would seem to deserve the same freedom of speech as Egypt's government-owned newspapers, which regularly publish vile anti-Semitic screeds. But Mr. Soliman was one of several Egyptian bloggers arrested last year. While others were released after being beaten -- and in one case, raped -- by police, Mr. Soliman was brought to trial by Mr. Mubarak's prosecutors in what seemed a clear attempt to freeze what had been a growing space for free expression.
"This verdict sets a legal precedent for prosecuting someone for what they write on the Internet, on charges that are not easily defined or defended against," wrote another Egyptian blogger known as Sandmonkey. "This could be used to prosecute any blogger the government feels like punishing and serves as a huge blow to freedom of speech in Egypt."
As a political prisoner, Mr. Soliman will join Ayman Nour, who was sentenced a year ago on fabricated charges after he ran for president against Mr. Mubarak on a liberal democratic platform. As many as 800 members of the Muslim Brotherhood have also been jailed in the past year. This by a government that continues to be one of the largest recipients in the world of U.S. aid, collecting more than $2 billion a year. What do American subsidies support? Not least, the elimination of what would otherwise be the strongest secular democratic movement in the Arab Middle East.