Egypt's critics have a voice, but never the last word
Diaa Eddin Gad, a blogger, was taken away by the police on Feb. 6.
(Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times)
By Michael Slackman
Published: February 18, 2009
CAIRO: In Egypt, there is relative freedom to complain about and criticize the government, even the feared security services. Egypt is not Syria in that way, or Saudi Arabia, where public criticism aimed at the state is often dealt with harshly.
But that is where freedom stops.
"I call it the freedom to scream," said Fahmy Howeidy, a writer who has often criticized the government without penalty. "You can say what you want. But you cannot act."
The detention this month of Philip Rizk, an Egyptian-German who organized a peaceful march in support of Palestinians in Gaza, received international attention because of his dual nationality and because he was held incommunicado and without charge.
But what made Rizk's case extraordinary was how routine it actually was, according to political activists, political scientists, bloggers, Islamists, former prisoners and human rights groups here and abroad. It is all too common for the security services to grab citizens, detain them without charge, refuse to release any information concerning their whereabouts and deny them even the minimal protections, under an emergency law passed decades ago to help fight terrorism.
"In Egypt, it's sort of a soft dictatorship," said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in Cairo. "They want to have a pleasant image. But Egypt is ruled by the security apparatus."
The security services appear to have decided that it is generally acceptable to write for a newspaper. But bloggers are another matter. For some reason, as yet unexplained, blogging seems to cross the line from speaking to acting.
It may be that bloggers, by nature, are less willing to stop at the edge of what criticism is tolerated. Newspaper writers, for example, are cautious about how they deal with the president; bloggers have often attacked him head-on.
Many bloggers have been arrested and beaten and thrown in jail. Eid said his organization was handling more than 100 cases of bloggers facing criminal charges. He keeps on his wall a snapshot of Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman, a young blogger sentenced to four years in prison for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and the state's religious institutions.
Karim el-Beheiri is a blogger too. He is a nervous wreck. His legs don't stop jumping, his eyes dart around, and he smokes three packs a day. He suffers memory loss and fatigue. He's been that way since he was held without charge for 73 days by state security — even after a judge ordered his release.
Beheiri, 25, wrote about corruption and workers' rights. He worked in a state-owned textile factory where tens of thousands of workers went on strike last April in a dispute with the government over wages. He said he had been beaten, shocked, handcuffed and manacled through much of his ordeal.
"For a second, after the judge said I should be freed, I thought there really were laws in this country," Beheiri said, dragging on a cigarette.
Diaa Eddin Gad, 23, another blogger, was grabbed the same day as Rizk and has not been heard from since.
But there is a gray line through it all. The Muslim Brotherhood — a religious and social movement that wants to see Egypt ruled by Islamic law — is legally banned and its members are often arrested, even tried before military courts. But it has offices around the country and is allowed to operate religious and charitable activities.
There are some critics who say that the government allows the brotherhood to survive so that Egyptian officials can say to the West that they are fighting to keep the Islamists from power.
Still, 740 of its members were arrested because they protested in support of the Palestinians in Gaza.
"There is a red line: don't make a big deal of your ideas," said Nasser Hobshi, 42, an engineer, as he sat with friends at an outdoor café near the stock exchange.
There are laws on the books that provide for some degree of due process. Even the emergency law, which gives the government broad powers to ignore civil protections in the Constitution and to detain citizens without charge, requires the authorities to make public that a person was detained, legal experts here said. But, they say, the rules are often ignored, largely because the security forces operate with impunity.
There is also a belief among some political activists here that Egypt's leaders think the new administration in Washington is too busy with the transition and the economic crisis to think much about repression in Cairo.
"It's an old regime that doesn't have the imagination to find new answers," said Hassan Nafaa, a former political science professor at Cairo University. "This pattern of repression — it is not the result of a political vision; it is the product of a security apparatus."
The government disputes the criticism. General Hamdy Abdel Karim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said: "None of these false allegations on the part of wrongdoers are going to stop me from exercising my authority to enforce stability and order. Anyone in trouble will try to justify his position."
He added: "Your impression is wrong, wrong, wrong, because you're listening to some bloggers. But to get the real general impression, you have to go back to the street and ask the people who deal with the police on a daily basis."
Where better to ask than in bustling Falaki Square, where Sayed Mohammed, 50, had a cigarette in his mouth as he tinkered with the engine of his white Peugeot.
"Of course there are laws," he said with a quick qualification: "Texts."
"They say the people who go to jail are against the government," he said. "But when you look at how the system works here, you see that it's the government who is against the people."
Nadim Audi contributed reporting.
Egypt police beat, detain blogger says rights group
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian police have beaten and detained a 22-year-old Egyptian blogger and activist who has expressed support for Gaza, an Egyptian human rights group said on Monday.
A statement from the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information said police officers on Friday beat Diaa Eddin Gad in front of his house in the Nile Delta province of Gharbiya, put him in a police car and drove off.
Police gave no reason for the arrest, and have not yet disclosed where Gad is being held, according to the group.
An interior ministry spokesman did not return calls asking for confirmation of the detention.
Gamal Eid, director of the Network, described Gad as a member of the liberal Wafd party and the Kefaya (Enough) protest movement, and said he had attended protests against the recent 22-day Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip.
Gad's website Sawt Ghadib or "An Angry Voice," (http://soutgadeb.blogspot.com) contains pro-Gaza slogans and news and commentary on the Israeli offensive, as well as strident denunciations of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and security services.
"Bloggers have become a major target of the police authorities in Egypt, and all these assaults are committed outside the law or under the cloak of the emergency state," the statement said.
Also on Friday, police detained Egyptian-German political activist and blogger on Gaza Strip issues Philip Rizk.
In a separate release, the Network said that Egyptian police had carried out a raid on Rizk's house early on Monday, searching it and demanding Rizk's father accompany them to his office, which the police said they wanted to search.
The release said police threatened to use force on Rizk's father, also a dual national, if he refused, but were dissuaded by the presence of a lawyer from the Network and an official from the German embassy.
(Writing by Aziz El-Kaissouni; Editing by Giles Elgood).
Egyptian blogger beaten in jail: rights groups
CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian blogger serving a 4-year jail term for insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak has been beaten in prison and sent to an isolation cell, rights groups said on Tuesday.
Abdel Karim Suleiman, a former law student convicted in connection with eight articles he wrote since 2004, was the first blogger to stand trial in Egypt for Internet writings.
The February verdict was widely condemned by human rights groups and bloggers as a dangerous precedent that could limit online freedom in the most populous Arab country.
Reporters without Borders said Suleiman, in letters sent from prison, had complained of being handcuffed and beaten then put into an isolation cell where he received very little food or water.
"I have been subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," the Paris-based media watchdog quoted Suleiman as saying. The group urged Egypt to release Suleiman, who also goes by the name Kareem Amer. He is being held in Borg el-Arab prison near the northern port city of Alexandria.
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which represents Suleiman, said in a statement that a prison guard and another prisoner beat him while a prison official looked on. The beating caused one of his teeth to be broken.
Later, the group said, Suleiman was sent to a "disciplinary cell" where he was put in handcuffs and leg shackles and beaten again. The group said the beatings resulted from Suleiman "uncovering an act of corruption in the prison" but gave no further details.
An Interior Ministry spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment. The government says it opposes torture and prosecutes abusers if it has evidence of wrongdoing.
The Internet has emerged as a major forum for critics of the Egyptian government to express their views in a country where the state runs large newspapers and main television stations.
Suleiman, a secular-minded Muslim, has not denied writing the articles for which he was convicted, but said they merely represented his own views.
One of Suleiman's articles said al-Azhar in Cairo, one of the most prominent seats of Sunni Muslim learning, was promoting extreme ideas. Suleiman has also described some of the companions of the Muslim prophet Mohammad as "terrorists" and likened Mubarak to dictatorial pharaohs who ruled ancient Egypt.
(Reporting by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Janet Lawrence).
Egypt: Bloggers beaten, arrested
Two Egyptian bloggers were reportedly arrested and beaten by police yesterday during a demonstration in Cairo.
Reporters Without Borders , which sent out emails about the incident today said, "The eye-witness accounts we have received about the arrests of the bloggers and the attack on the LA Times reporter are very disturbing."
The two bloggers were identified as Mohammed Sharkawy and Karim El-Shaer. The Los Angeles Times correspondent was identified as Hossam El-Hamalwy, who was reportedly tear-gassed while he was covering the demonstration.
An anti government demonstration in Cairo yesterday.
According to an Associated Press report, Sharkawi, 24, was sodomized "using a rolled up piece of cardboard for nearly 15 minutes," his lawyer Gamal Eid told AP.
An Associated Press reporter on Thursday saw more than 15 men in plainclothes grab el-Sharkawi and punch and kick him after he participated in a peaceful protest outside of the Journalists' Syndicate in downtown Cairo.
Sharkawi is also a member of Youth for Change, affiliated with the political opposition movement Kifaya, which means Enough. A statement on Kafiya's web site said El-Shaer had also been tortured.
According to Reporters Without Borders,
The two bloggers are now being held in Tora prison, where they are supposed to remain in detention for at least two weeks. They are accused of "insulting the president" and violating the state of emergency (which bans gatherings of more than five people). They both asked to be examined by an independent doctor to verify the injuries they received, but their requests were rejected.
Egyptian Interior Ministry officials were not available for comment, according to AP.
"The international community should react firmly and condemn such practices on the part of a government that claims to be democratic," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.
Posted By: Andrew S Ross (Email) | May 26 2006 at 02:25 PM.
Death pits technology against Chinese control
Chinese Blogger beaten to death 1/12/09
Wei Wenhua Murdered by Cheng Guan
By Jaime FlorCruz
BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Wei Wenhua was a model communist and is now a bloggers' hero -- a "citizen journalist" turned martyr.
The construction company manager was driving his car when he witnessed an ugly scene: a team of about 50 city inspectors beating villagers who tried to block trucks from unloading trash near their homes.
Wei took out his cell phone and began taking pictures. The city inspectors saw Wei and then attacked him in a beating that lasted five minutes. By the time it was over, the 41-year-old Wei was slumped unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital but was dead on arrival.
His death earlier this month continues to stir controversy. In China's mainstream media and in the blogosphere, angry Chinese are demanding action.
After the Web site sina.com published news of Wei's beating, readers promptly expressed their outrage. In one day alone, more than 8,000 posted comments. Bloggers inside and outside China bluntly condemned the brutal killing.
"City inspectors are worse than the mafia," wrote one Chinese blogger. "They are violent civil servants acting in the name of law enforcement."
Another blogger asked, "Just who gave these city inspectors such absurd powers?"
Known as "chengguan" in Chinese, city inspectors are auxiliary support for police. They are expected to deal with petty crimes. Their tasks include cracking down on unlicensed trading. They frequently are seen chasing street vendors off the streets and confiscating their goods.
Critics have said they often abuse their authority and prey on the weak. In the central city of Zhengzhou last year, 1,000 college students scuffled with police and overturned cars after city inspectors roughed up a female student who had set up a street stall. These incidents prompted the government to redefine the role of city inspectors.
Still, observed Jeremy Goldkorn, editor in chief of Danwei.org, "Some bloggers [are] saying this whole chengguan system is prone to corruption and abuse and it should be disbanded."
Beijing scholar Xiong Peiyun wrote in Wednesday's Southern Metropolis Daily, "Perhaps no one wishes to face this question. Wei Wenhua's death stands as clear proof of the violent ways of local city inspectors. It's 2008 and another citizen goes down. When will we stand up and restrain the law enforcement violence of this city inspectors system?"
More and more victims of abuse already are standing up. "It's the latest in a series of incidents which have pit provincial government authorities against citizens -- those who are protesting against something who are recording and blogging and writing about something that they consider scandalous," Goldkorn said.
Some journalists and bloggers have even compared Wei's fatal beating to the Rodney King case, when the Los Angeles police repeatedly clubbed him. Others say this is reminiscent of the 2003 death of graphic designer Sun Zhigang in the Chinese city of in Guangzhou. The 27-year-old college graduate was fatally beaten while in detention for not carrying proper identification. The public outcry, amplified in the country's blogosphere, prompted China's premier to restrict police powers of detention.
Years ago, killings such as these would not have received such attention, and victims would have been forgotten, but with modern technology in the hands of ordinary citizens, abusive officials are getting caught in the act.
China's burgeoning economy allows a relatively freer flow of information. In September, China had 172 million Internet users, 10 million more than the last official count was released in July. Officials said about 4 million Chinese go online for the first time every month.
Millions have opened blogs, too. Mobile phone users also reached more than half a billion in September, according to the government.
Even though Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution is supposed to guarantee freedom of speech, China continues to restrict the flow of information. Fearful of the surge in Internet and mobile phone usage -- and the information they are able to transmit -- the Chinese authorities are stepping up efforts to monitor and restrict their use, according to Reporters Without Borders, which fights against censorship and laws that undermine press freedom. A few Internet data centers have been closed down, along with thousands of Web sites.
Controversial blogs are blocked and unblocked multiple times. But silencing these citizen journalists is getting more difficult.
Days after Wei's January 7 death, a government official in Tianmen city, Wei's hometown, was fired, four others detained and more than 100 placed under investigation. Chinese authorities now appear to be taking these cases seriously.
Goldkorn said: "It's the kind of trouble that is very threatening to the party and the government, because it's the kind of trouble that questions their reason d'etre. So when looking at things like this, in the back of their minds, is always, 'Could this develop into a real mass incident that has the power to threaten the stability of China?' "
Meanwhile, bloggers are heaping eulogies for Wei. So far, no one has seen the pictures Wei took that day. It is thought his camera was destroyed in the beating.
"Eternal repose to Citizen Wei Wenhua," wrote blogger Wang Gongquan. "In the face of violence and brute power, he lifted a citizen's rights, conscience, responsibility and courage."
Reporters Without Borders said, "Wei is the first 'citizen journalist' to die in China because of what he was trying to film."