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.
The funny thing is that I got arrested that day, and the police confiscated my camera. But they let me go and gave the camera back after I fooled them into believing that they had deleted all the pictures by removing the batteries. In 2005, digital cameras were still a novelty for police who were accustomed to destroying analog film.
The presidential and parliamentary elections were marred by violence and death. Yes, death -- during the parliamentary elections, nine people were killed by police. It was all documented on my blog. And it was U.S. taxpayer money that funded the new police trucks, clubs, helmets and boots with which the police were equipped.
Of course Mubarak and his party won. But despite all the rigging, Ayman Nour, the leader of the liberal Al-Ghad, or Tomorrow Party, managed to get 1 million votes in the presidential election. And the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement won a fifth of the seats in parliament.
I suppose that could be considered progress. But then what did Mubarak do? He sent Nour to jail on charges of having forged the signatures he collected to establish his party. And today, hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as some of the movement's parliamentary members, are in prison on charges of having formed an armed movement.
I disagree with the Muslim Brotherhood and its manipulation of Egyptians' religiosity to achieve its political goals. But if we want a democratic country, we can't exclude any political sect.
The world may be afraid of an Islamist movement coming to power in Egypt, and that's why I believe in working on two levels -- advocating democracy while enlightening the people so that they make the right choice when the time comes for real democratic elections. That's why I called my blog Egyptian Awareness. The solution can never lie in supporting and funding a dictatorial regime to suppress the opposition.
Who's left? The bloggers. Those young fellows who think they're hotshot reporters, who dared to practice the first form of citizen journalism in Egypt. The ones who have been such a pain in the neck for the government, exposing corruption, negligence, violations of human rights and freedoms.
In the spring of 2006 -- the spring of democracy, as some have called it -- some judges became fed up with government interference in their rulings and decided to hold a sit-in. In support, a number of bloggers and activists decided to hold a parallel sit-in outside the building where the judges sat. Everyone who took part was arrested. Some of the judges were also assaulted during the raid. All those who were detained were treated inhumanely; some said they were tortured and sodomized.
Eventually, though, the authorities had to release them. And then they had to come up with another way to silence the blogs. They arrested secular blogger Kareem Amer and sentenced him to four years in prison on charges of insulting the president and insulting Islam with statements in his blog. Later, they arrested the Islamist blogger Abdul Monem Mahmoud on charges of belonging to a banned movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. He is now facing trial. Neither secularists nor Islamists are free to express their opinions online under Mubarak's "democratic" regime.
How much is enough to make Americans question why their money goes to support this government? We Egyptians want a fair struggle for our freedom. We'll never have it as long as Mubarak and his corrupt regime are propped up by U.S. aid. All we ask is: Give us a fighting chance.
Wael Abbas blogs at misrdigital.blogspirit.com.