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Jailed for blogging
In a cramped jail cell in Alexandria, Egypt, sits a soft-spoken
22-year-old student. Kareem Amer was sent to prison for over a
month for allegedly "defaming the president of Egypt" and
"highlighting inappropriate aspects that harm the reputation of
Egypt." Where did Amer commit these supposed felonies? On his
If the Alexandria prosecutors' standards of censorship were
applied in the United States or Europe, thousands upon thousands
of bloggers would be behind bars. The basic right of individual
free expression is sadly not respected in today's Egypt. Yet the
authorities' decision to jail an obscure student for his writing
reveals a larger struggle for free speech playing out between
dissident bloggers and state prosecutors across the Middle East.
For decades, the region's dictators maintained a monopoly on
public information. Newspapers, radio stations and television
broadcasts were nearly all state owned. These regime-controlled
media outlets toed the government line, maligned political
opponents and blocked critical voices. By inverting the watchdog
role of the press in which journalists question, investigate
and expose what should be a critical independent institution
was instead transformed into a mouthpiece for regime propaganda.
The advent of blogs in the past few years, however, has altered
the playing field. While some regimes like the Algerian
leaders may still own the main printing presses and control
the national supply of ink, any citizen can access free blogging
services. Now an individual's voice even that of a random
student at Al-Azhar University, like Kareem Amer can reach
audiences around the globe.
Regimes accustomed to control have struggled to respond. In
Tunisia, a Web publisher, Zouhair Yahyaoui, was dragged from an
Internet café by security forces and tortured into revealing his
site's password after he posted a quiz mocking President Zine
Abidine ben Ali. In Iran, authorities arrested a student,
Mojtaba Saminejad, after he condemned the arrest of several
fellow bloggers and "insulted the Supreme Leader." Daif Al-Ghazal,
an investigative reporter for the Web journal Libya Al-Youm, was
found murdered in Benghazi his fingers cut off as a warning
sign to anticorruption online writers.
Protecting free speech in the Middle East hinges on the fate of
young activists like Kareem Amer. Raised in a strict household,
Amer was placed in Al-Azhar's religious school system at age six
and watched as his sisters were forced to quit school and wear
niqab, the full-body veil. After 18 years inside the Al-Azhar
system, Amer rebelled. Rather than embrace the religious
establishment, he became a critic of discrimination against
women and non-Muslims.
Blogging became Amer's outlet and his downfall. When Al-Azhar
officials discovered a blogpost criticizing extremist
professors, Amer was expelled and his case referred to the
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human-rights lawyer accompanied Amer to his interrogation,
prosecutors made clear they were indicting Amer for his beliefs.
"Do you fast on Ramadan?" they demanded. "Do you pray?" They even
insisted he reveal his opinions on the Darfur crisis. Amer would
not retract his blogposts, so prosecutors threw him in jail and
laughed at the human-rights attorney present, openly mocking the
concept of standing up for individual rights.
Indeed, only a few years ago, the arrest of a student at Al-Azhar
would have been met with silence and indifference from the outside
world. But today, hundreds of fellow bloggers and readers from
around the world have sounded the alarm. Over 1,700 have sent
letters in English and Arabic to the Egyptian government and the
U.S. State Department demanding Amer's release. The technology
that has empowered unknown students in closed societies to speak
to the world also gives readers everywhere the ability to rally
together to protect free expression.
It also enabled Amer to smuggle blogposts out from his Alexandria
cell. "A person using his brain and expressing his ideas freely,"
he observed, "is more dangerous in our country than someone who
destroys others' property or deals drugs."
Amer's incarceration for writing on a Web site few have ever
read comes as the future of the Middle East hangs in the
balance. While recent years have witnessed a surge in young voices
challenging the status quo, powerful forces are trying to close
down that window of greater liberty. In the campaign to hold
Egyptian authorities accountable for criminalizing free speech,
much more than the fate of one young blogger is at stake.