CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian bloggers have come into the spotlight, on the one hand as an important forum for political debate, on the other as the target of government attempts to limit their freedom of expression.
Earlier this month, Abdel-Karim Suleiman, a 22-year-old former law student at al-Azhar Islamic university, became the first Egyptian jailed for his blogging when he was handed a four-year prison sentence.
"Despite their small number, the bloggers have established themselves as an alternative media outlet," said Ehab el-Zalaky, a senior editor at the independent weekly newspaper al-Dustor, who has written extensively on bloggers.
Blogs also provide a platform for religious and social minorities whose issues rarely find space in traditional media.
Anti-Christian discrimination in Egypt is documented in one. Blogs by lesbians discussing their desires and feelings are new outlets for self-expression.
"In a society too conservative to accept these relationships, it was the first time for such explicit bold talk to appear in an Egyptian media outlet," said Zalaky.
The case against Suleiman, a Muslim and a liberal who uses the name Kareem Amer on his blog, was based on a complaint by al-Azhar University about eight articles written since 2004.
Suleiman accused the conservative Sunni institution of promoting extremist thought and described some companions of the Prophet Mohammad as "terrorists". He also compared President Hosni Mubarak to the dictatorial Pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
Bloggers and human rights organisations have condemned the conviction of Suleiman. They fear it sets a dangerous precedent for Internet censorship in Egypt, home to some 5,000 blogs across a population of more than 70 million people.
The Foreign Ministry has criticised the reactions to the verdict and said it was an internal matter and up to the judiciary to decide on.
Writing on his blog (karam903.blogspot.com) shortly before his detention in November, Suleiman was defiant.
"I am not scared at all ... I will not back away one inch from what I wrote and handcuffs will not prevent me from dreaming of my freedom," he blogged.
Since Suleiman's arrest, said fellow blogger Wael Abbas, 32, Egypt's blogosphere has changed. "I cannot say I am not afraid," he told Reuters. "With this government one has to expect the worst."
Bloggers broke a major story in November when a number of them posted video footage and pictures of an Egyptian minibus driver screaming as he was sodomised, purportedly at a police station.
The images led to the arrest of two police officers who now stand trial on charges of torture.
More torture footage has since appeared on the Internet, with the latest clip posted by Abbas showing a man in a police uniform beating and insulting two civilians.
Viewed nearly 26,000 times on Abbas's blog (misrdigital.blogspirit.com), the video's authenticity could not be verified.
The Interior Ministry said allegations of systematic torture were exaggerated and part of a campaign to tarnish the image of the police.
Late last year, Abbas and another blogger reported what they said was mass sexual harassment of women in downtown Cairo by scores of young men.
The government denied the incident but the bloggers' detailed description sparked an outcry in the independent Egyptian media.
"The time when they (authorities) thought they had control over everything has come to an end," Abbas wrote on his blog.
Hala Botros, a blogger who writes on what she calls anti-Christian discrimination in Egypt, says that while she and many others in the religiously conservative country may not agree with Suleiman, he is entitled to express his views.
INTERNET BLACK HOLES
Botros, 42, says she was also persecuted by security authorities for reporting on a number of sectarian clashes between Muslims and the Christian minority in southern Egypt.
"They beat up my father at night on the street and told him: 'This is a gift from your daughter'," she said. "I was summoned to the police during the night and they treated me roughly. I was kept in solitary confinement for hours."
Prosecutors later charged Botros with harming national security and publishing false news. She was released on bail and forced to shut down her blog, Copts Without Borders.
The international group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has added Egypt to its list of Internet Black Holes.
RSF said one spur for this was a court ruling authorising the Egyptian government to block or suspend any Web site likely to pose a threat to national security.
"This could open the way to extensive online censorship," said RSF in a statement.