Egypt’s blog rebels silenced by jail

Egypt’s blog rebels silenced by jail

A popular Egyptian blogger known for his withering criticisms of the government has given up writing after becoming the latest victim of a state crackdown on dissent.

The blogger, known as Sandmonkey, signed off last week, writing that he had noticed state security agents on his street and heard clicking noises on his phone. “There has been too much heat around me lately,” he wrote.

In recent months, the Egyptian regime has jailed several bloggers, ending a period in which it had taken a more relaxed attitude towards internal critics. Human rights activists claim the about-turn follows the US administration”s decision to relax pressure on Middle Eastern governments to enact democratic reforms.

During Sandmonkey”s three years on the internet, his was one of the most widely read Egyptian blogs, popular especially among Western readers for his unconventional opinions about his country and the Middle East. “Cynical, snarky, pro-US, secular, libertarian, disgruntled” was how he described himself.

He is a 26-year-old American-educated investment banker, and his mother is a member of Egypt”s ruling National Democratic Party.

In February, Abdel Kareem Nabil, 22, a former student at Egypt”s Islamic Al Azhar University, was jailed for four years for insulting Islam and Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, on his blog.

Last month, another popular and outspoken blogger from the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel Monem Mahmoud, was thrown into Egypt”s notorious Tora prison, where he remains today.

On his blog, Mahmoud claimed he was tortured in an Egyptian prison in 2003. He had encouraged scores of other Muslim brothers to become bloggers and used the internet to organise anti-government protests.

Bloggers are not the only targets of the regime crackdown. More than 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood activists have been arrested in the past year, according to Human Rights Watch.

And on Wednesday, an Egyptian court jailed an al-Jazeera television journalist for six months for allegedly fabricating torture scenes for a documentary.

“We are in the midst of a broadening crackdown against a host of fundamental rights here,” said Human Rights Watch”s Egypt researcher, Elijah Zarwan.

The country”s well-educated and internet-savvy opposition has seized on the internet to rally against the government, running blogs and websites to organise protests and publish anti-regime material free of censorship.

Initial ambivalence on the part of government security agents changed in November, said Mr Zarwan, when a cellular phone video appeared on dozens of Egyptian blogs showing two police officers apparently sodomising a detainee with a rod. A public outcry ensued and the officers are being tried for torture.

Hossam Hamalawy, who writes a Cairo-based blog called 3Arabawy, said that, despite the crackdown, the bloggers are growing bolder.

“Some people are intimidated but overall it”s producing the opposite effect,” he said. “It is radicalising the blogosphere even more. We have bloggers joining every day.”