New dissidents are young, secular and net savvy

President Hosni Mubarak has long known the face of the main opposition to his regime in Egypt. Bearded, dressed in long Islamic robes, it belongs to the religious conservatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Manal Hassan does not look like that at all. The secular 23-year-old, with her dark curls and cavernous eyes unhidden by any veil, is part of a new and potentially powerful dissident movement in Egypt.

Like the Muslim Brotherhood, she wants to see greater political freedoms and an end to the draconian Emergency Law under which Mr Mubarak has ruled the country since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Like the Muslim Brotherhood, she is outraged at the arrests of hundreds of opposition figures in recent weeks. Unlike them, she spreads a liberal, pro-democracy message – not through mosques, but through a “blog”.

“Our message is very different, but our demand for reform is common with the Muslim Brotherhood,” she said. Opposition figures from different ends of the political spectrum have met the same fate.

As hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members were rounded up, so too was Ms Hassan’s husband, Alaa Abdel Fatah, a 24-year-old pro-democracy campaigner.

Together, the couple – who met when they were 13 and 12 – created, an internet forum for diary postings and discussion which attracts thousands of users a day.

“The internet has allowed us to stay one step ahead of a slow, bureaucratic government,” said Ms Hassan.

“But we know the risks we are taking. Last year Alaa and his mother were severely beaten.” Now Mr Fatah languishes in a cell with seven other inmates at the Tora al-Makhoum prison, an hour’s drive south of Cairo. He is managing to smuggle out messages to continue his blog and the last one appeared on Friday. In one, a week ago, he mused on the possible death of Mr Mubarak.

“He is old and senile enough, and I’m sure millions are praying for his sudden death,” he wrote. That kind of tone goes down badly with a regime that has jailed Mr Mubarak’s presidential rival, Ayman Nour, for five years.

As the 77-year-old President edges towards the end of his leadership, his son, Gamal, is being groomed to take over, but the internet warriors are determined to stop the creation of an authoritarian dynasty.

“People get beaten and tortured … but they can’t shut everybody up,” said Ms Hassan, just before leaving to visit her husband.

Fears of an Islamist Egypt

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