Help Our Fight for Real Democracy

By Wael Abbas
Sunday, May 27, 2007

CAIRO Last Thursday, I returned to my country, Egypt, after several weeks in the United States on a Freedom House fellowship. I came home full of anxiety. I feared that the authorities would arrest me as soon as I set foot on Egyptian soil.

That didn't happen. But as I went through the airport arrival procedures, I felt that I was being closely watched and followed. Men using walkie-talkies observed me from a distance. When I joined my family members outside the terminal, they, too, told me that they had been watched while waiting for me.

I could still be arrested. And if I am, it will be because I dared to speak the truth about President Hosni Mubarak's regime, which continues to receive billions in foreign aid from the U.S. government -- including funds ostensibly intended to support democracy. It will be because I dared to expose the actions that have made Mubarak's administration one of the world's foremost violators of human rights, according to human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.

I am an Egyptian blogger. And the Mubarak regime is out to get me and others like me.

It is engaged in an all-out campaign against those of us who use the Internet to report the truth about what is happening in Egypt. It is spreading rumors about us and targeting us for character assassination. Judges allied with the government have filed lawsuits against more than 50 bloggers, accusing them of blackmail and of defaming Egypt and demanding that their blogs be shut down. Meanwhile, security officials appear on television to claim that the bloggers are violating media and communications laws.

Is this the kind of regime you want your tax money to support?

My story begins in late 2004, several months before the election in which Mubarak was already the preordained winner. People, however, were fed up. After 25 years under this regime, Egyptians had lost all hope of prosperity and of ever being offered economic solutions.

New political movements, such as Kifaya (which means "enough" and is the moniker for the Egyptian Movement for Change), began to call for reform. They held street demonstrations, chanting anti-Mubarak slogans. But no journalists dared cover the protests because of the thousands of security officials who surrounded the activists. So the Egyptian people knew nothing about what was going on.

That's when we bloggers decided to take matters into our own hands. We believed in the people's right to know. I took photos and video footage of the demonstrations and posted them on the Internet, restricting my comments to simple explanations of what was in the pictures. You can write a book and it can all be lies, but one picture can tell the whole story truthfully.

Almost all the opposition and independent newspapers used my photos. I was annoyed at first when some of them stole the material from my blog without crediting me, but in the end I came to feel that it was all right, as long as the message reached the people.

I had about 30,000 visits to my Web site each month. But in May 2005, the situation changed dramatically. On the day of the presidential election, Kifaya, the socialists, the liberals and some Islamists took to the streets to call for a boycott. This time, Mubarak used a new technique. His political party, the National Democratic Party, paid thugs and criminals 20 Egyptian pounds per person (a little over $3) to demonstrate in support of him. The thugs attacked the peaceful demonstrators, tore and burned their banners, sexually harassed female (and some male) activists and journalists. They tore the clothes off one female journalist. I saw men pulling the jeans off a young man and beating him on the buttocks.

I was able to take pictures of what was going on; I was even able to interview one of the thugs, who confessed that he had been paid and that he and others had been brought by bus from the slums specifically to disrupt the peaceful demonstrations. I published the photos and the interview on my blog, and my site received half a million hits in two days. It caused a huge scandal for the government. Newspapers wrote about it for months.

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