CAIRO 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
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
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
"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.