Egypt: Mubarak giveth, Mubarak taketh away

Egypt: Mubarak giveth, Mubarak taketh away

Censorship seem to work best when it”s not complete.  Certainly, that”s exactly how Hosni Mubarak has kept power since 1981, and how his son Gamal intends to keep it.

To give examples – there are about 700 newspapers published across the country (good), but Ibrahim Issa, editor in Chief of Al-Dustour, was sentenced to two months in jail for questioning the President”s health (bad); there are innumerable blogs (good), but it”s illegal to carry a proper camera in the streets (bad). Emile Ibrahim, founder of the utterly non-political Cairo Camera Club, was arrested twice in Cairo”s Tahrir Square, and spent 7 hours in police custory in Upper Egypt for taking photos in a field.

Egypt is the centre of political blogging in the Arab world. Egyptian political blogging paved the way for similar movements in the rest of the region, and in the Gulf. The most famous – Wa”el Abbas of Misr Digital and Hossam Hamalawy of “Arabawy – are political heavy hitters and major figures in the activist and news world outside Egypt”s borders.

[Wa”el Abbas (right) and Gamal “Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information and the great blog-defender of the Middle East]

Hossam and Wa”el have both suffered from internet censorship. Hossam is right now querying why Flickr has taken down so many of his photos and videos. And Wa”el had a major spat with Youtube who closed his accounts and took down a number of videos of police brutality.

But broadly, there has been growing freedom on the web for commentators and bloggers. Everywhere, that is, except when it comes to the Islamists. Why? Because Mubarak and Co believe they far less to fear from secular, leftist groups such as Kifaya, than from the ever-growing number of Islamist movements, and the ever growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood – who are also starting to get properly involved in the blogosphere.

[George Ishaq – one of the Founder Members of the Kifaya Movement – in a cafe near the American University in Cairo]

In Cairo, I met with three young members of the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for running Ikhwanweb and Ikhwan Tube (the Youtube of the Brotherhood). They told me what I”d already been told in Syria and Jordan – that the real victims of censorship and human rights abuse are predominantly Islamists.

[Abdulrahman Mansour and his two colleagues from Ikhwan Tube]

For the Mubarak regime it is a win-win. They rightly assume that the international community would care a lot less about conservative Muslim journalists/bloggers in jail than they would about secular liberal ones. And they were right. The only one we ever hear about is Kareem Soliman – who was locked up as a sop to the Muslim Brotherhood (and all their boys in jail) for blogging (bravely) against Islam.

[Shahinaz Abdel Salam – the face of Wa7da Masrya, one of Egypt”s most popular blogs]

What has been interesting is the growing solidarity between these once-opposing teams. My Ikhwan connections on Facebook are all friends with my secular blogger links. And there”s a reason for it – as the Islamists learnt from their secular counterparts just what blogging and citizen journalism could do for their cause, as they learnt how important the right to free speech was for them, so their respect for it has grown. At least, that”s what Abdulrahman al-Mansour and his two friends from Ikhwan Tube told me. And the fantastic (and secular) Shahinaz Abdel Salam, with whom I was having coffee when they walked in, suggested the same.
And if that”s right, it shows the internet isn”t just a platform, but a tool, and one that has an enormous impact even on itself.