Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Press Freedom

EGYPT: Cyber Insurgency Rattles Regime

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Jun 2 2009 (IPS) - Egyptian cyber-dissidents are becoming increasing vocal in their online criticism of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, utilising a widening repertoire of Internet networking and publishing tools to expose government abuses.

“The media used to be controlled by the state and it was very difficult to publish dissenting opinion,” says rights lawyer Ahmed Seif, executive director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC). “Now, particularly with blogs and social networking sites, it is the decision of every citizen what they wish to publish, and they don’t need the approval of an editor.”

Egypt’s state security faces a daunting task as it attempts to monitor – and at times stifle – the online content of those critical of the regime. There are an estimated 160,000 bloggers in the country. In addition, millions of Egyptians are registered on content-sharing sites such as YouTube and Flikr, and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

While the majority of online content is journal jottings and innocuous banter, the volume of politically charged content is growing. Increasingly, Egyptian citizens are using the Internet to organise demonstrations, expose corruption and disseminate evidence of police abuses. And even when they don’t post the content, they tend to pass it on.

“Electronic media, especially blogs and social networking sites, have played a significant role in political activism in Egypt by enabling youth to use the Internet to express their views,” says Adel Abdel Sadek, an Internet analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “It has allowed marginalised groups to state and defend their interests, taking advantage of the cheap cost of communication and rapid spread of the Internet, as well as its impact on public opinion.”

The Mubarak regime is concerned about its image abroad, as well as the impact cyber-dissidents could have on the 12 million Egyptians who go online regularly. Rights groups say state security has used an increasingly heavy hand to muzzle online criticism, arresting more than 100 bloggers in 2008 for the content of their postings.

“Although most bloggers were released after short periods, some were held for months and many were kept without judicial order. Most detained bloggers report mistreatment, and a number have been tortured,” the U.S.- based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement.

Police have used various pretexts to arrest bloggers while appearing to honour the promise President Mubarak made in 2004 to liberalise the Egyptian press and abolish imprisonment in publication cases. “The government is very careful not to arrest bloggers solely because they are bloggers,” says Seif. “They are officially detained for other reasons so it cannot be said for sure that it was for their online activism.”

Cyber-dissidents are usually arrested offline when they attend strikes or demonstrations, an easy charge to prosecute as Egypt’s emergency law requires a permit for gatherings of five or more people. Others have been charged with insulting Islam, espousing religious extremism, or libel against private parties.

In the case of Abdel Kareem Suleiman, better known as Kareem Amer, police acted on a complaint by Al-Azhar, the country’s highest Islamic authority. The secular blogger was arrested in 2006 and sentenced to four years in jail for writings that “incited hatred in Islam.” He was also charged for anti- Mubarak statements he posted online.

“The government played it perfectly with Kareem Amer,” says fellow blogger Noha Adel, whose human rights site Torture in Egypt has made her a target of state security. “They didn’t arrest him for writing against Mubarak; instead they had Al-Azhar file a legal case against him because he was writing against Islam – a charge by which they knew people would not sympathise with him.”

Yet the incarcerated blogger has become a rallying point for Egyptian activists who deem his affront to religion less offensive than the state’s suppression of his freedom of expression. Supporters have set up an offshore site, FreeKareem.org, its banner visible on thousands of web pages.

Amer’s arrest brought international pressure to bear on the government. But it is only a skirmish in the broader battle being waged to allay growing public dissatisfaction over the Mubarak regime’s political and economic policies.

Egyptian authorities have struggled to contain opposition voices coalescing in cyber space. Amorphous organisations like the April 6 Youth Movement, a Facebook group of disparate under-30s united by anti-government sentiment, have transcended traditional political affiliations to encompass young socialists, nationalists, libertarians and Islamists. The movement has utilised various online networking tools to campaign for everything from wage revision to inflation control and human rights.

Security officials fear these multi-headed hydras could cross over from the virtual world to the real one. While the April 6 Youth Movement’s calls for nationwide strikes were more successful in mobilising riot police than they were in drawing demonstrators, leaders say the security response shows how much the group is perceived as a threat by the regime.

“The government is struggling against numbers,” says Seif of HMLC. “If it wanted to stop the April 6 Facebook campaign, it would have had to arrest over 50,000 people.”

It is largely a numbers game, says Seif. The Internet has taken the voice of opposition from activists and given it to the average citizen. And as is the case with many insurgencies, for every opposition voice silenced, a dozen rise in its place.

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