CAIRO: Bloggers and activists from belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and the political opposition joined forces at a rally and conference on the defense of electronic press freedom in Egypt at the Press Syndicate in Downtown Cairo on Wednesday night.
Armed with banners, megaphones, and Egyptian flags chanting slogans like “we are forbidden to speak and “where is our freedom? activists staged a pre-event manifestation outside the Press Syndicate, denouncing alleged crackdowns on outspoken web activists by the authorities.
However, when activist members of the Brotherhood suddenly started chanting the organization’s official hymn, a number of non-politically affiliated event participants were not happy.
“I do not want to participate in this singing. I had the impression that this was not supposed to be a politicized event. I guess I was wrong, a female event attendee told The Daily Star Egypt.
The forum itself entitled Electronic Press Freedom focused on the alleged deteriorating conditions of internet freedom in Egypt and featured a range of speakers. They included Mohammed Abdel Qoddous, Head of the Freedom Committee at the Press Syndicate, and Brotherhood blogger/journalist Abdel Moneim Mahmoud who was recently arrested and detained for his online writings.
While the audience included many familiar faces from the Egyptian blogosphere and activist communities, a substantive number of newcomers also appeared in the halls of the Press Syndicate.
For Hind, a young activist and member of the Brotherhood, Wednesday night marked her first visit to such a discussion forum.
“I am not a blogger myself, but I enjoy reading blogs, especially that of Abdel Moneim Mahmoud. I don’t know anyone here though. I came here by myself, said Hind.
Asked about what she thought of blogging in Egypt, Hind said: “Bloggers open the door for freedom of expression for the people, but the authorities are constantly taking it away.
Egypt has, indeed, witnessed a significant increase in crackdowns on its outspoken cyber activists in recent times.
In January this year, Alexandrian student blogger Kareem Amer was sentenced to four years in prison for defaming Islam and President Mubarak on his internet blog.
Earlier this spring, the Brotherhood’s Abdel Moneim Mahmoud was detained on vague charges. Rights groups, activists, and the Brotherhood stress that Mahmoud’s detainment was a consequence of his online writings in which he posed strong criticism of the government.
Most recently, blogger Amr Sharqawy was arrested on June 11 and detained for three days while covering alleged fraud at Egypt’s recent Shoura elections.
“It was my first time in detainment. I was very scared. Fifteen security guards attacked me and confiscated my camera at the election facility. Security should be neutral in elections and protect the people, Sharqawy stated at the conference.
According to Hind, bloggers exposing wrongdoings of the authorities pose a significant threat to the government.
“I believe the authorities are scared of the bloggers because they expose things the state does not want the public to find out about. It is important that Egypt’s bloggers back up and protect each other, Hind continued.
For Sharqawy, it was the strong support from fellow bloggers that made him rethink his plans of quitting his weblog following the arrest.
“I was going to delete my blog, but the strong support I received from other bloggers made me change my mind and not give up, he argued.
According to Abdel Qoddous, bloggers should be able to receive the same protective measures by the Press Syndicate as journalists.
“I hope this will be our last meeting of this kind here at the Syndicate because this institution ought to start handling the issues of webloggers at this point, Abdel Qoddous said.
Marking one of his first public appearances since his release from prison, Abdel Moneim Mahmoud thanked fellow bloggers and activists who showed solidarity with him during his one and a half-month long detainment this spring.
“This was not the first for me in prison. In fact, it was my shortest prison term to date. I have been detained twice before, Mahmoud said at the podium while photographers flocked around him.
Mahmoud, moderator of the blog ‘Ana Ikhwan,’ was arrested by state security at Cairo Airport in mid-April while en route to prepare a report on the state of human rights in the Arab world for a British satellite news channel.
“They asked me at the airport what I was doing and why I was writing about torture in Egypt on the internet, Mahmoud said.
He was held at Mahktum prison facing various charges including “membership of an illegal organization and “tarnishing Egypt’s image. He was released earlier this month.
“As bloggers, we paint a different picture of Egypt that has not been seen by the public before. For example, we were the ones who exposed torture practices in Egypt. We had all heard about its existence, but we had never seen it, Mahmoud said.
In his final words, he warned of more attacks on bloggers in the future, adding that “he hopes it can be stopped.
Furthermore, the audience received an update on imprisoned student blogger Kareem Amer by blogger wa7damasrya (one Egyptian) who recently paid a visit to him at El Borg prison in Alexandria.
“It was a harsh experience for me seeing Kareem in prison. It is just as if one of us would be locked up among drug dealers and criminals simply for writing, she argued.
In defensive efforts, wa7damasrya advised bloggers to become more active in the streets and cooperate with each other on a more regular basis to strengthen the network.
Egypt has received strong criticism from international rights groups as well as foreign governments for its treatment of cyber dissidents.
Press freedom groups Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists recently added Egypt to their lists of Internet Enemies and “Backsliders of Press Freedom.
Earlier this week, Egyptian rights group the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRInfo), issued a press release welcoming the publishing of a new guide for “citizen journalism on the internet.
Authored by journalist and media trainer Stephen Franklin, the 10-page guide entitled “Ten Steps towards Citizen Journalism on the Internet, aims to provide advice to new bloggers in addition to informing them of their rights.
The guide is accessible in English and Arabic through the following link: http://www.openarab.net/faq/2007/icfj.shtml