Monday, March 22, 2010

Egypt’s Blogger Wars

By William Fisher

Egypt’s war on bloggers suffered a major hit this week.

Caving to pressure from the United Nations and international human rights groups, a military court released a 20-year-old civilian university student accused of blogging false information about the army and insulting officers involved in recruitment at a military academy.

The trial of Ahmed Mustafa, an engineering student, would have marked the first time a civilian blogger had been tried in a military court under Egypt’s Emergency Law.

Two weeks earlier -- four days after Mustafa was arrested in his hometown of Kafr El Sheikh in the Nile Delta -- he stood before the court accused of writing a single blog post more than a year earlier. The post told the story of a student allegedly forced to resign from a military academy in order to leave room for another applicant amid accusations of nepotism.

The Court, which convened behind closed doors, completed its investigation in less than two weeks. It denied Mostafa’s lawyers access to the prosecution’s “evidence.”

But Mostafa’s unexpected release from detention came after a scathing report by a United Nations Special Rapporteur and international condemnation by human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The UN Rapporteur, Martin Scheinin, excoriated Egypt for applying its Emergency Law in situations where there is no link to terrorist activities, such as the frequent arbitrary detention of political activists and bloggers and the repeated use of military courts and state security courts in politically motivated cases.

He also emphasized that when combined with a pending counter-terrorism law, Article 179 of the Egyptian Constitution would create a permanent legal state of emergency.

His report to the UN Human Rights Council also said that administrative detention orders repealed by the judiciary in Egypt are often “renewed immediately upon a person’s release or, in the worst case, just ignored through unacknowledged detention until a new order of official administrative detention is obtained.”

That was the case with Mostafa. His release was conditional – he agreed to apologize and remove the March 2009 posting from his blog, which is called “Matha Assabaka ya Watan” (What happened to you, oh nation?). This means that his case could be reinstated at any time in the future.

Egyptian military court rulings cannot be appealed or overturned.

Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said it was the first time a military court was convened for a blogger, although bloggers have been sentenced to prison by other courts.

"This should not have gone to a military court," he said, adding such trials are typically "unfair and speedy."

According to Moataz El Fegiery, Executive Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, “The Rapporteur confirmed what human rights defenders have been warning about for several years: The proposed counter-terrorism law in Egypt is an attempt by the government to normalize the state of emergency and undermine the constitutional protection of fundamental rights.”

That law, an amendment to Article 179 of the Egyptian constitution, grants the police absolute powers in the area of arrests, allows the police to monitor private conversations, and would allow the Egyptian president to deny those accused of terrorism access to the ordinary judiciary and to refer them to extraordinary military courts.

El Fegiery told Truthout that Mostafa’s prosecution “was a serious precedent for intimidation.” He added, “We are also still concerned about other bloggers who are at risk.”

Human Rights Watch, the US-based rights group, called on the government to drop the charges. "The government should not be prosecuting Mustafa at all, much less before a military court, with no possibility of appeal," said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.

Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders said Mostafa’s trial was "designed to intimidate anyone who dares to criticize the army."

Amnesty International welcomed his release. The organization considered Mostafa to be a prisoner of conscience.

The head of the Egyptian Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), Emad Mubarak, said that Egyptian authorities have been ramping up their pressure on political bloggers, especially after a few of them reported some of the ruling regime's human rights violations.

Egyptian emergency law allows military courts, which are presided over by an officer, to try civilians. The armed forces are extremely sensitive to criticism.

Egyptians have been living under an Emergency Law (Law No. 162 of 1958) since 1967, except for an 18-month break in 1980. The emergency was imposed during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and reimposed following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

Under the law, which has been continuously extended every three years since 1981, police powers are expanded, constitutional rights suspended and censorship legalized. The law sharply circumscribes any non-governmental political activity: street demonstrations, non-approved political organizations, and unregistered financial donations are formally banned. Some 17,000 people are detained under the law, and estimates of political prisoners run as high as 30,000.

“Emergency law is used regularly by the Egyptian government to harass and imprison journalists and human rights activists attempting to bring to public attention corruption and favoritism, as has occurred with the recent arrest and trial in military court of blogger Ahmed Mustafa,” said Daniel Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs at Freedom House.

But Mustafa is far from the first blogger to be harassed by security police or put on trial for something he wrote. The roll of persecuted Egyptian bloggers has been growing longer every year.

Egyptian police started to crack down on Internet users in early 2001. By the end of 2003, improper Internet use was being used as a justification for the increased prosecution of individuals from several different political groups along with Islamists, journalists, homosexuals, and political activists.

A new specialized police unit was founded under the general department of Information and Documentation. Officially called the "Department to Combat Crimes of Computers and Internet," the unit is now known by its simpler title -- "Internet Police"

The first public appearance of the unit came in March 2004 in the pages of the semi-governmental newspaper Al-Ahram. It was mentioned in a news story about a computer programmer who was arrested for creating a web site defaming a famous official and his family. But the unit was well known to its victims long before its name was published.

One of those early victims was Shohdy Naguib Sorour, the son of the late poet Naguib Sorour. In June 2002, Al Sayda Zainab Misdemeanors Court sentenced him to a one-year prison term and a fine. Shohdy was condemned for the possession and dissemination of the political colloquial poem "Kosomiat" written by his late father in the early1970s. The court stated that the poem, which had been posted by Shohdy on his Web site, “transgressed public morality.”

The case was decided on the basis of Article 178 of the penal code, which criminalizes the possession of “materials violating public morality with purposes of distribution, trafficking, or breaching morality.”

During the police investigation of the case, it was found that not only was Shohdy's computer not connected to the Internet but also that its hard disk did not contain the poem he was accused of posting. The only piece of evidence found by the Vice Squad -- and the only evidence that it seems was required for the successful prosecution of the case -- was a hard copy of the poem in Shohdy's possession.

Perhaps the police didn’t realize that Shohdy was Naguib Sorour's son. As the author's son it was reasonable that he would have his father's poem, much like thousands of the poet's readers and fans possess this same poem by a poet renowned for his criticisms of the political situation.

Internet-based prosecutions – and threats of prosecutions -- grew amid an environment of manufactured hysteria.

Rafat Radwan, engineer and chairman of the Information Center in the Cabinet, said, “Net cafes must be monitored. Any activity has good and bad elements. There should be several restrictions such as a central control on material sent through the Internet that could be against Egyptian principles. The Vice Squad in the Ministry of the Interior should play a role in monitoring these net cafes.”

And, referring to a blogger who was sentenced to a four-year jail sentence for calling President Hosni Mubarak a “symbol of dictatorship,” and Al-Azhar University a “university of terror,” prosecutor Mohammed Dawud warned, “If we let people like him off without punishment, a wildfire will blaze up that consumes everything in its path.” He added, ”Exactly that is what civil rights activists dream of, many of whom pin their hopes on a grass-roots digital democratization initiated by the country’s bloggers.”

Harassment of bloggers has increased year by year since then. For example:

In 2007, blogger Kareem Amer, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and Egypt’s al-Azhar religious authorities on his blog.

Hani Nazeer, another prisoner of conscience, has been held in administrative detention since October 2008 for posting on his blog the cover of a book deemed insulting to Muslims.

In October 2008, blogger Mustafa Mahmoud was summoned to State Security in Fayoum. There he met Abd Al Latif Al Hady Badran, State Security inspector, who threatened to throw him in jail along with his family, because of his blogging.

Blogger Abd Al Rahman Fares was kidnapped in April 2009, in front of Fayoum cultural palace in a van, prior to a strike. He was detained and charged with inciting to strike, “using the prevailing democratic atmosphere to overthrow the regime,” and distributing flyers and other publications for the 6th April and Kefaya political movements. He was released by State Security days later, without charge.

Bloggers Mohamed Khairy and Khalifa Ebeid were arrested on in October 2008 because they participated in a "break the siege of Gaza" demonstration and also because of critical writings on their blogs. They were released after 15 days.

Marawan Mazen, a state security inspector, broke into blogger Ahmed Mohsen’s home in April 2009, and “turned every thing upside down.” Ahmed was not at home -- he was at work as a radiologist. He was accused of “using the prevailing democratic atmosphere to overthrow the regime and hindering the law and constitution.”

Mohsen was put in solitary confinement, served one meal a day, subjected to timed usage of restroom, and denied visits from his lawyer and family. He started a hunger strike.

He was held in one prison for 15 days and then transferred to another to end his strike. He was detained an additional 30 days before his unexplained release.

In November 2009, blogger Wael Abbas was sentenced to six months in jail for cutting an Internet cable, a verdict that was considered "ridiculous" by Reporters Without Borders.

In Alexandria, blogger Abdel Karim Nabil Suleiman, a 21-year-old law student at al-Azhar University, was taken from his home and detained by State Security agents. His family believes Karim’s political opinions and writings for several outlets, including Copts United, were behind the arrest.

Copts are a Christian minority, making up about ten per cent of Egypt’s population. Human rights observers say they are subjected to many forms of discrimination.

Al-Azhar University is the center of Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning in the world and the world's second oldest surviving degree granting university. Among many other disciplines, Al-Azhar trains Egyptian government-appointed preachers in proselytization.

Egypt-watchers say the country’s war on bloggers is simply a newer phase of the Mubarak regime’s relentless crackdown on freedom of expression. After promising reforms, the 81-year-old authoritarian continues to regularly put journalists in jail.

These days, the government increasingly uses the “war on terrorism” to justify its political repression. At the same time, Egypt has successfully promoted its image as one of the “moderate Arab states.”

But human rights advocates say there is nothing moderate about current-day Egypt. The country has a well-documented history of torture and death in detention and a full panoply of other human rights abuses.

Nonetheless, Mubarak has managed to sell himself to the West – particularly to the U.S. – as a dependable partner. For many years after he signed a treaty normalizing the country’s relationship with Israel, Egypt was the recipient of billions of dollars in economic and military aid, second only to Israel.

Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has eloquently summed up the current situation in Egypt. Commenting on the “travesty of democracy” likely to play out in the country’s upcoming elections, she writes:

“Politically, Egypt has become a one-dimensional society where there is no true alternative to the present ruling establishment.”

“In the face of the unrelenting closure of the political space in Egypt and the outright repression exercised by the security apparatus not only against the Muslim Brotherhood but also against liberal opponents who attract some support or even call attention to themselves, the United States and the international community more broadly have been largely silent.”

“After a rhetorically strong beginning, the Bush administration dropped efforts at democracy promotion in Egypt and in the wider Arab world following the 2005 parliamentary election in which the Muslim Brotherhood won twenty percent of the seats. The Obama administration has kept curiously silent about democracy -- other than for passing references in President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009 and more recently in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech in Qatar in February 2010.”

“In light of the growing stifling of political activity in Egypt, the Obama administration cannot continue to remain silent, even if it can do little to alter the situation in practice. The normal tools of the democracy promotion kit -- including pressure on the regime, assistance to make the electoral process more honest, assistance to domestic election monitors, and the deployment of international observers -- are unlikely to make a difference. Even assistance to political parties will not help when, just a few months before the elections, the liberal and leftist parties are moribund and the Muslim Brotherhood is deeply divided, with many of its top leaders in jail and even some of the strongest advocates of political participation calling for a participation moratorium.”

“Yet by not speaking out, the Obama administration is sending a message that the United States accepts the travesty of democracy this election cycle represents.”

This article was originallypublished in