Why Egypt Is Cracking Down on Bloggers

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Three days before he was arrested at an anti-regime protest in downtown Cairo, award-winning Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fatah told TIME he knew he might pay a price for speaking out, but said he had developed a taste for freedom of speech and would not give up so easily.

"For the core group of activists, which is growing, there is absolutely no fear anymore," said the 24-year-old activist. "I mean, there is of course fear when the moment happens, but its not the fear that makes you stay home — you go back again." Almost a month later, Abdel Fatah is still in jail — and still blogging. "Today it hit me, I am really in prison," he wrote in a note smuggled out of jail and posted by his wife on the coupleís blog, "Manal and Alaaís Bit Bucket." "Iím not sure how I feel."

Abdel Fatah is one of more than 300 opposition activists — at least six of them bloggers — who have been detained and beaten over the last few weeks during an ongoing government crackdown on peaceful protests. Like many of his fellow prisoners, Abdel Fatah is being held under Egypt's repressive, 25-year-old Emergency Laws, which allow initial detentions of 15 days that can be renewed indefinitely. The blogger and other activists stand accused of blocking traffic, assembling illegally in public, and insulting President Hosni Mubarak, 78, who was reelected in September on a platform of political and economic reform.

As a close U.S. ally and one of its biggest recipients of military aid, Mubarak has lately had to walk a fine line, continuing to keep his tight rein on power while paying lip service to the kind of democratization that the Bush Administration claims to be spreading in the Middle East. Mubarak has argued that the mere fact that Egyptians are protesting is "evidence of democracy," but in recent weeks, harsh beatings of demonstrators and detentions of political dissidents have left little doubt about the Mubarak regime's lack of tolerance for any real opposition.

"Intimidation has reached a really serious level," Cairo-based Human Rights activist Fadi Al Qadi told TIME. "The record of the Egyptian security response towards peaceful demonstrators recently has been really awful. It is not legal, it is brutal, and it is a fundamental contradiction of the Egyptian government's promises of reform."

Al Qadi said Egypt's bloggers, many of whom are increasingly using the Web to mobilize and protest against the regime, may have become particular targets for arrest and abuse by state security forces because of their online activism — which has included posting pictures and videos that document human rights abuses.

Some are already paying a heavy price. In a statement issued from jail and posted in numerous blogs, blogger activist Mohammad Al Sharqawi said police brutally beat and sexually assaulted him when he was arrested leaving a protest last week. "The pain was terrible," Al Sharqawi wrote in the statement. "I was screaming asking him to stop so that I can catch my breath. He took down my underwear, and tore it to pieces, and kept on hitting me on different parts of my body asking me to bend down. I refused, but they forced me." Gamal Eid, Al Sharqawi's lawyer, said when he saw his client after the beating, his eye was swollen shut and his body covered in cuts and bruises. "This sexual assault is a new variety of torture being used against the activists," he said. "I haven't seen any beating this bad since 13 years ago, when the government was cracking down on Islamists."

While blogging has put some young activists in danger, it also has provided a venue for friends and family to agitate for their release and advertise their plight. When 23-year-old Ahmed El Droubi was beaten and arrested at a peaceful sit-in a month ago, his friends and fellow bloggers leapt into action. "They created a Web site called "Free Droubi" that posted information about protests and updates on El Droubi's condition in jail, including posts featuring messages from the prisoner himself. A month later, El Droubi was released, but he and his friends continue to use the Web to relay news about those activists who remain in prison, many of whom have been placed in solitary confinement after starting a hunger strike in solidarity with Al Sharqawi.

"The Web really helped raise awareness, not just about me, but about all the detainees," said El Droubi, a biology and political science graduate who lost his job as an environmental consultant after spending a month in jail. "It helps spread the word and bring international attention to the situation."

When he visited Al Sharqawi in prison after his beating, El Droubi was shocked how savagely he had appeared to be beaten. But while some of the other detainees seemed demoralized, El Droubi said the battered Al Sharqawi "was smiling and ready to go out and protest tomorrow, if he could. He canít wait." And as long as computer-savvy activists like Al Sharqawi, El Droubi and Abdel Fatah refuse to be intimidated, it will be hard for the Mubarak regime to pull the plug on the political opposition in Egypt.