Battle of the blogs
The arrest and then release of an Alexandria blogger has pushed the vibrant Egyptian blogosphere into the limelight. Amira Howeidy
talks to some of its stars
FREE ABDEL-KERIM: Bloggers designed a logo for their campaign to release the first Egyptian blogger Abdel-Kerim Suleiman
If the thousands of posters adorned with the features of parliamentary candidates that have covered the walls of Cairo for more than two weeks are the public face of elections it is an unflattering photo of 21-year-old Abdel-Kerim Nabil Suleiman that has become the face of Egypt's blogosphere.
The Alexandria-based Azhar law student turned blogger was arrested in the small hours of 26 October at his home in the Moharram Bek district. 'Barbarian storms hit Alexandria', the blog entry posted the day before his arrest, was his third harsh criticism in a row of last month's sectarian tensions in Alexandria.
Although a Muslim Suleiman described Islamic teachings as "dirty", referred to Prophet Mohamed as a "symbol of terrorism" and said the Quran teaches hatred. All Muslims want, he claimed, is to drive Copts from Egypt.
News of his arrest was quickly picked up by Alexandria and Cairo-based bloggers who immediately launched a campaign demanding his release. Three Alexandrian bloggers who visited his family to ask about his whereabouts and the reasons for his arrest were told by Suleiman's brother that police had stormed their house at 4am on the morning of 26 October taking away Suleiman's papers and print outs from his blog.
Suleiman is also a women's rights activist and a correspondent for both Copts United, a Web site for expatriate Copts, and Civic Dialogue, a progressive left-wing Arabic netzine.
Released on 13 November, throughout his 18 days of detention Suleiman's whereabouts had remained unknown. On Monday 14 November he posted a brief message on his blog announcing his release in which he revealed he had spent six days at the Alexandria State Security Investigation headquarters after which he was transferred to Cairo's Tora Prison where he remained for a further 12 days. "I promise to write about my days in prison and the people I met there," he said. At the time of going to press Suleiman could not be reached for comment.
On 15 November an Alexandrian blogger who refers to himself as Malcolm published a post after meeting with Suleiman following his release. According to Malcolm, Suleiman was arrested because of his writings on the situation in Alexandria. Though Suleiman wasn't tortured or subjected to any physical abuse, Malcolm said he had been blindfolded during SSI interrogations which focused on his motives for posting "inciting" views.
"Suleiman explained to them that he is a secular Muslim," said Malcolm, after which he was transferred to Tora Prison where he was placed with political detainees. He was treated well during his prison stay. Following his release from Tora Suleiman was transferred back to the Alexandria SSI where the prosecutor asked him to "tone" down his writings "and told him he didn't want to see his face there again".
"End of Kerim Nabil Suleiman's story," concluded Malcolm.
But is it?
Suleiman's arrest, the campaign for his release and the debate it triggered between bloggers from different backgrounds certainly refreshed public interest in the Egyptian blogosphere. It was also an occasion for serious discussions on the meaning and limits of freedom of speech in the small but growing blogosphere which, like the Internet, remains uncontrolled ground.
"The vast majority of bloggers disagreed with Suleiman's views," said Amr Gharbeia, 26, of the Arabic language Hawaliyat Saheb Al-Ashgar (The Arboreal Annals). "Only a minority supported them yet most people were against his detention."
The arrest also poses questions about the security apparatus's monitoring of cyberspace. Interior Ministry officials were typically unavailable for comment though Gharbeia seems to know where he stands.
"I can't predict what the security apparatus is going to do or what it thinks of [the blogosphere] but people should be able to say what they want on the Internet and the street .This is a right and it's not supposed to be conditional."
Suleiman may be the first Egyptian blogger to be arrested but he is not the first to be prosecuted for expressing views online. Al-Ahram Weekly's Web master Shohdy Surur was arrested by the vice police in 2001 for posting a political poem that used explicit sexual language written by his late father, celebrated poet and playwright Naguib Surur. In 2002 he was sentenced to one year in prison under Article 178 of the penal code which forbids the possession of materials intended for sale or distribution "that have the intent to corrupt public morals". As his lawyers appealed the sentence half-Russian Surur left for Moscow. He has been dubbed "the first Arab Internet prisoner of conscience".
Suleiman is, then, the second Internet prisoner of conscience in three years. It might not signal a pattern and he was released without being charged. But should bloggers be afraid?
"This depends on the individual," says Gharbeia. "Bloggers can write without exposing themselves though I think Suleiman felt that revealing his identity actually gave him some protection."
Besides his photo Suleiman posted his full name, address and telephone number on his blog, information that helped Alexandria-based Mohammed of the Tak Hanak (Digressing) blog locate and contact Suleiman's family to confirm his arrest.
It's not clear if the arrest will have an impact on bloggers.
"Some people say they are afraid. Will this change what they write? I don't know," Alaa Abdel-Fattah, 24, of 'Manal and Alaa's Bit Bucket' told the Weekly.
"Suleiman's case was connected with an already explosive situation [in Alexandria]. I don't think the government is particularly concerned with what's happening on the Internet as much as with what's happening on the ground, in the streets," he said.
The Egyptian blogosphere gained international attention earlier this year as the number of blogs increased with the growth of political dissent movements. Mubarak's surprise decision to amend Article 76 of the constitution to allow for the first ever multi- candidate presidential elections in February added to the attention Egypt was getting. For many Western and Arab journalists and observers the local blogosphere is a window on the repercussions of this and subsequent political events.
Bloggers not only provided valuable sources of information the media failed to deliver, they also made the news. By far the best coverage of the violent attacks against women demonstrators that occurred during the constitutional referendum of 25 May was found on the blogosphere. And the series of protest demonstrations that followed every Wednesday for almost two months were often organised by people like Manal and Alaa and the Gharbeias, who designed the demonstration logos that marked every event.
In June Ghada Mahmoud's blog ma3a nafsi (By Myself) launched a powerful Internet campaign against an ad promoting Egypt as a tourist destination that featured women wearing tiny bikinis and belly-dancing. She designed a logo with a belly dancer enclosed in a circle with a bar across it emblazoned with the words 'Egypt isn't like that' in Arabic and English. As her campaign gained momentum on blogs, and then in the press, the advertisement was pulled.
Despite being at the centre of what he calls the "fetishism" of "Egyptian bloggers", Abdel-Fatah of 'Alaa and Manal' thinks the Egyptian blogosphere is overrated. "Blogs are one of many sources for publishing opinions and they are not the most influential, not in Egypt and certainly not compared to the US or Iran."
There are approximately 400 bloggers in Egypt, compared with 70,000 in Iran, "though both countries," he points out, "have almost the same number of Internet users -- eight million."
Fetishism or not, 'Manal and Alaa' won the special Reporters Without Borders (RWB) Best of the Blogs (BOB) -- Deutsche Welle International Weblog Award 2005 on Monday.
The husband-and-wife pair, said RWB, have become "an institution among Arabic bloggers and journalists critical of the Egyptian regime. Manal and Alaa strive to promote freedom of expression and protect human rights as well as highlight the need for political reforms in Egypt".
Their Weblog offers other bloggers free storage space and practical help starting their own initiatives and has been "crucial" in "developing a critical and engaged blogger scene in Egypt and the Arabic-speaking world," said RWB.
Welcome to the Egyptian blogosphere.