EGYPT: Egyptian democracy activist blogs from cell
Popular pro-democracy blog Manalaa acts as Internet hub for activists in country where state-run media predominate
Even from his cell in an Egyptian prison, Alaa Abdel-Fattah is blogging — scribbling messages on slips of paper that make their way to the internet and spread around the world.
The 24-year-old Abdel-Fattah’s blog, which he does with his wife Manal Hassan, has become one of the most popular pro-democracy voices in Egypt. He has continued writing despite being arrested in early May during a street demonstration in Cairo — part of a crackdown on reform activists by Egyptian security forces.
“We covered the walls of our cell with graffiti of our names and slogans and website addresses,” Abdel-Fattah wrote one time, referring to himself and fellow imprisoned activists. “We chanted and sang and the mood was great.”
But another posting was very different. “I’m sitting here terrified they’ll move me to a worse cell or cut off my visits. What should I tell you — that the day will come for them [the regime]? I’m afraid our grandchildren won’t see that day, much less us.”
The duo call their blog Manalaa, a combination of their first names. Young, secular and anti-authoritarian, they link the blogosphere with a democracy movement demanding reform from President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power longer than they have been alive.
Their blog, launched two years ago and written in a mixture of English and Arabic, is an internet rallying point for activists in a nation where state-run media predominate and give little voice to reformers.
It posts announcements of planned demonstrations, political commentary, even photos — with names — of plainclothes security agents notorious for beating protesters. In March, the couple used their blog to organise a sit-in, where more than 100 protesters slept in a downtown Cairo square.
Equally vital is the technical support — including Web hosting — the blog gives fellow bloggers in the growing political movement on the Internet. Manalaa collects posts from more than 1,000 Egyptian blogs, allowing users to scan the entire Egyptian blogosphere on a single page.
The number of political blogs feeding Manalaa has doubled each month for the past year, Hassan said.
“It’s a revolution on the Web in Egypt — they’re civilian journalists with no censorship,” said Salma Abdel-Fattah, 20, a childhood friend of Alaa’s who is not related to him.
“Instead of opening sites like Al-Jazeera or the BBC, we open Manalaa’s blog to see what’s going on,” said Abdel-Fattah, whose boyfriend, Ahmed El-Droubi, was arrested with Alaa.
Glenn Reynolds, University of Tennessee law professor and author of the popular American blog Instapundit, has written frequently about Abdel-Fattah.
“He’s certainly the most famous blogger in Egypt and arguably the best known reformer there now,” Mr Reynolds told The Associated Press. “When you suppress dissent, even minor voices become incredibly powerful.”
The blog is also part of a love story.
The sweethearts met through politics — in a socialist youth group when he was 13 and she was 12. Since late 2004, Hassan and Abdel-Fattah — who stands out with his 1960s counterculture-style long, curly hair and scraggly beard – have been a constant presence together in the wave of pro-reform street protests.
“We’ve never been separated for more than a week, so I’m not used to this,” Hassan told The Associated Press. “It’s the first time he’s been away from his two loves — me and his computer.”
In the past month, riot police have cracked down on reform protests, bringing sharp criticism from the United States, which had hoped Egypt would be the centrepiece for its policy of democratic change in the Middle East.
Police have chased and beaten protesters and arrested well over 600. Most of the arrests have been of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest fundamentalist movement. But security forces have also taken a no-tolerance stance toward secular, pro-democracy demonstrators like Abdel-Fattah.
Abdel-Fattah was picked up with 10 other activists during a May 7 protest. He could face charges that include illegal assembly, blocking traffic and insulting the president.
Hassan says her husband was targeted because of their blog.
“They knew who he was when they got him — they have files on all of us,” she said, speaking in the couple’s three-room cement-block flat not far from the Pyramids of Giza.
Hassan has visited her husband at Tora prison south of Cairo several times. He has posted on the blog three times since his arrest, but Hassan and Abdel-Fattah’s mother, Leila Soueif, wouldn’t say how he’s getting his messages out – only that he writes them by hand in his cell.
“He has no computer and he’s not allowed to pass letters without going through the prison censor. So people should use their imaginations,” Soueif said with a smile.
Soueif said her son learned early to be wary of authority. His father, veteran human rights activist Ahmad Seif Al-Islam Hamad, was in prison for five years in the early 1980s for involvement with a communist group.
“While Alaa was growing up, I had to tell him things like, ’there are bad policemen and good policemen,’” Soueif said. “I had to explain that people can go to prison for being good, not bad.”
After Abdel-Fattah’s arrest, Egyptian, American and European bloggers launched a worldwide “Free Alaa” movement — circulating a petition and encouraging readers to write to their local Egyptian embassy. Hassan said the Manalaa blog got 3,000 daily hits before Abdel-Fattah’s arrest and the number has skyrocketed since, though she has not tabulated them.
Web banners of the couple emblazoned with the words “Let Alaa return to Manal” get 150,000 daily hits on United States sites alone, said Sam Adam, another Egyptian blogger who writes at http://www.sandmonkey.org.
As in other Middle Eastern nations where the press is tightly controlled, middle-class Egyptians have found an outlet on the internet to spout on politics, culture and daily life – often in the sort of raucous language that newspapers won’t print. Internet cafes have become common.
But internet use remains low among the huge proportion of Egypt’s 73 million people who live in poverty.
The couple hopes to bridge the digital divide so that in Egypt “everyone has access to tools to express their souls and opinions,” Hassan said. “It’s the same in the political movement: We’re trying to help people express themselves — to communicate and organise freely.”