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Egypt jails blogger. (And thousands of other people.)

by the stormy present Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 06:54:02 AM EST

Yesterday, a court in Alexandria sentenced 23-year-old Egyptian blogger Abdulkareem Nabil Suleiman to four years in prison.  His crimes?  Insulting Islam got him three years.  Insulting the Egyptian president got him one.

This is really not as simple as it looks.  Yes, it's a free speech issue.  Yes, it's a freedom of religion issue.  Yes, it's more evidence that Egypt is not as "moderate" as our ("Western") governments (who give Egypt vast amounts of money) like to pretend it is.

But yes, there are thousands of other people in Egyptian prisons, held indefinitely on spurious charges and mysterious, scant or non-existant evience.  The fact that Kareem's case has garnered so much attention also says something about the double standards that so many in the so-called "West" apply to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

To wit:  when we talk about freedom of speech in the Middle East, a lot of people here could be forgiven for thinking we don't really mean it.

It's the first time anybody's been sentenced to prison in Egypt for blogging.  A number of bloggers were jailed last year, but they were arrested for taking part in protests and other offline activity; Kareem's the first one to go to jail purely for what he wrote online.

The case has sparked statements of outrage from the usual suspects.  The director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo) called it "a gloomy day for all the advocators of freedom of expression not only in Egypt but also in the whole world," and he's right.

Kareem (who blogged in Arabic under the name Kareem Amer) is a secularist, raised in a conservative Muslim family, who was apparently forced to become a law student at Al-Azhar, the high seat of Sunni Muslim learning and the oldest Islamic university in the world.  Al-Azhar does not get a lot of secular students, and it seems that his experience there radicalized him somewhat.

He wrote a lot of things that shocked people, especially his criticisms of Al-Azhar, Egypt's religious authorities, religious extremism, and Islam in general.  This story gets at some of that.  Honestly, I know people, secular Egyptians who proudly (in private) call themselves atheists, whose response to some of his posts went something like, "Holy crap, this guy is nuts."

But when he was arrested, the Egyptian blogosphere has really united behind Kareem, as have their compatriots in much of the rest of the Arab world.  Some of his most vocal supporters have been devout Muslims who disagree with what he wrote.  (Take that, all you people who say belief in Islam is incompatible with freedom of speech and self-criticism....)  There are "Free Kareem" banners on many Middle Eastern blogs, and 12 Cairo bloggers actually traveled up to Alex to attend his sentencing yesterday.

As a sign of how irrelevant our "Western" political categorizations have become in the Middle East, Kareem's case is just one of many issues that unite a Socialist like Hossam el-Hamalawy with a neocon like Sandmonkey.  (Both of whom might object to my categorizations of them, but whatever... I'm right.)

When you Google "free Kareem," the first site you get is freekareem.org, set up by a blogger in Bahrain.

But here's the thing.  The second site is Michelle Malkin's.  Which I won't link to.

Kareem, you see, has become a cause celebre in certain circles.  Those circles include Arab bloggers of all stripes, who have largely united in defense of Kareem even if they disagree with what he wrote or find it personally offensive.  (The woman who established freekareem.org is one of them.)

But those circles also include rabid (often but not always American) neocon Islam-haters.  These folks are not interested in Kareem so much because he's a jailed Egyptian blogger; they don't give a toss about who the Egyptian regime chooses to imprison when the security sweeps are targeting Bedouins or Muslim Brothers.  But throw a secularist critic of Islam in prison and they have a field day.

Look, I think Abu Aardvark (aka Marc Lynch, an American academic) said it a lot better than me:

Free the Egyptian blogger!  But...

It's nice to see everyone raising their voices to protest the sentencing of Egyptian blogger Abdel Karim Nabeel to four years in prison.  International criticism of escalating Egyptian repression can only be good, whether the criticism is official or NGO or public.   I add my voice to those who call for a revisiting of the verdict and for his release from prison.

At the same time, I can't help but note that Nabeel is far from the only political activist in Egyptian jails right now.  The Egyptian regime is engaging in an unprecedented crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.  Hundreds of its members have been arrested and referred to the notorious state security courts, their businesses closed down and their bank accounts frozen, without even a trace of due process.   Some Muslim Brothers are even bloggers, if that's what it takes to get people to care.  Because not many people seem to.

This selective outrage, where Westerners care about one anti-Islamist blogger but can't be bothered about equally arbitrary and illiberal repression of hundreds of Islamists, only reinforces general skepticism that this isn't really about freedom, human rights, or democracy. It's just like the American focus on the release of jailed liberal politician Ayman Nour as a litmus test for the Egyptian regime (one which it continues to fail, by the way, without seeming to suffer the slightest penalty).  I can not exaggerate how many times I hear from Arabs and Muslims that America's campaign against Hamas after it won fair elections and its blind eye to Mubarak's campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood proves once and for all the fundamental hypocrisy of its democracy talk.   I am not criticizing anyone for rallying to Nabeel's or Nour's defense.  They should.  But they should also see this as part of a comprehensive regime crackdown on Egyptian political opposition, with the attack on the Muslim Brotherhood the leading edge of the regime's anti-democratic backlash.   People who claim to care about Egyptian reform, democratization, and human rights should take a slightly wider view of the problem than the travails of one anti-Islamist blogger or one liberal politician.  

Yeah.  What he said.

I wanted to write about this yesterday but didn't have the time.  The delay worked to my advantage, though, cuz I was able to get better links today.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 06:10:46 AM EST
I was hoping you'd cover it.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 07:53:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Also, I want to point out this post on the Free Kareem site which has slipped far down enough on the page that you might not notice it.

You may be disgusted at what he said, even angered. That's okay, so are we! But we will defend with all our might his right to express such opinions, because it is his basic human right that none of you have the right to justify and take away.

Kareem is a good man. Some of us know him personally, and thus we know that he is harmless. If you want to express your dislike for Kareem, please go elsewhere. We have no time to put up with hate mail or disgusted rantings, but we will address the remarks of those who e-mailed us respectfully without insulting any of us or Kareem.

We are preparing a new section on the site to address Muslims who think that Kareem deserves imprisonment merely because of his stance against Islam. That is not the right mentality to have. We should not fear criticism, we should welcome and refute it respectfully. We love our religion and we do not like what Kareem had to say about it, and we also dislike the manner in which he said it in. But as Muslims, it is our duty to make sure that others understand that this isn't Islam. Islam did not put Kareem behind bars, the Egyptian government did. And Muslims should not approve of the fact that the Egyptian government, and a lot of Arab governments for that matter, are using Islam to hide behind their own faults.

If you truly want to help Kareem, don't target Islam. Target the Egyptian authorities, and the mentality that Kareem "deserves" this treatment merely for disagreeing with us and our beliefs.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 06:23:56 AM EST
Thanks for this, Stormy...I have read some other stuff this week about Egyptian blogs...sounds like this is an area where many more people are able to get politicaly involved.

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 06:53:00 AM EST
Hi Bob.  Yes, the blogs are a really giving people a voice here.  It's not clear how many people actually read them, but a few of the bloggers are really putting pressure on the government.  One guy in particular has been posting a lot of videos of police abuse, which have actually been picked up by local media and forced a response by the government.

And what puts me in total awe of his courage is the fact that he's posting these things under his own name.  He's had threats from state security, but he just posts those too.  It's truly amazing.

A lot of the human-rights types and political-activist types really hope the bloggers can become a force for change here, especially regarding the police-abuse issue because the video evidence (usually shot with cellphone cameras, often by the police themselves) makes it impossible to deny that it's happening, which was the standard response to such allegations before YouTube et al.

My sort of cynical response to their hopefulness is that yes, it will change police policy -- they're obviously going to ban cellphones in police stations.  Beyond that, I'm not optimistic that there'll be any immediate change.  But long-term is another question.  I think it may help change the political culture, if only a little and if only incrementally.  Now, people are used to not having a voice.  Blogs are changing that.

Something I didn't mention in the diary is that the government was actually always very proactive regarding the Internet before now.  There's free dialup Internet access for anyone who wants it, nationwide, and that sort of created a culture of free Internet access in general.  There's free wifi everywhere.  All of the trendy cafés and restauarants have free wifi.  The airport has free wifi.  Even McDonald's has free wifi, I'm not kidding.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 01:59:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Huh. Spend fifty years supporting authoritarian governments in the region, undermining any democratic movements, and then act all fucking surprised when they act like authoritarian governments. Idiots.


by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 07:49:42 AM EST
Most people's idea of freedom of speech is freedom of speech for people we like saying things we agree with. That's especially true of the lickspittles that have a voice in the current media climate and the clash of civilisations brigade.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 07:52:44 AM EST
A bit of political fiction, for whatever it's worth.

Let's say the Muslim Brotherhood topples the government. What would happen with women ? the Copts ? Do they speak clearly about those issues ?

by balbuz on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 08:20:24 AM EST
Thanks for your question.  It's a good one.  Some people do feel that their answers on Copts and women are vague, and some of their answers are inconsistent.  I think that reflects a difference of opinion within the Brotherhood's leadership, which includes both genuine moderates and genuine ultraconservatives.  But for the most part, they're pragmatists, and they're aware that there would be little public support for radical changes, whether they want them or not.

That said, the Ikhwan have laid out policies regarding both Copts and women that are relatively moderate in an Islamist context.  They seem at times to bend over backwards trying to assure people they have nothing to fear.  The question many (secular) people have is whether those publicly stated policies reflect what their real goals.  In other words, they say some reassuring things now, but nobody knows if they'd stick to those assurances if they actually got control of the state.  No way to find out, really.

To tell you the truth, the legal system here is already pretty conservative.  Shariah (Islamic Law) is already a major source of legislation.  I seriously doubt that the Ikhwan think they need to make a lot of modifications.

And for the record, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have no interest in "toppling" the government.  They have long since committed themselves to working within the democratic system -- a system they have, incidentally, been systematically prohibited from fully participating in.

They ran about 150 candidates in the last parliamentary election (running as independents because they're banned as a party) and won 88 seats.  (They would clearly have won more seats if it weren't for outright fraud and blatant voter intimidation.)  But there are 444 elected seats in parliament.  They easily could have fielded multiple candidates in every constitutency, but they didn't, they contested maybe a third of the seats.  My guess is that they didn't want a parliamentary majority for a number of reasons.... but getting into them would require another diary....

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 02:35:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for your answer. I didn't know - or forgot - they participated in elections. I was more seeing them as some kind of Front Islamiste du Salut, as in Algeria.
by balbuz on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 04:06:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I suspect the experience of the FIS is one of the reasons the Brotherhood has taken the approach to electoral democracy that it has.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 05:43:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That being...?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 05:44:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, that's sort of complicated, but part of it is probably that the Brotherhood is aware that "too much success" on their part could prompt the kind of response that an imminent FIS victory prompted in Algeria.  They know that this is a military/police state, and they would not be allowed to win an election outright, and they are not interested in the kind of crisis that denying them a victory outright would create.  (Or in ending up in the position that Hamas is in now.)  Like I said, they're pragmatists.

I also suspect they keep their rhetoric very democratic, very inclusive, talking about everyone having a voice, because they don't want to be accused (like the FIS) of "wanting free and fair elections -- once."

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 05:55:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sounds like the Communist Party of Italy between during the Cold War.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 06:13:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Never mind my previous comment.

I suppose the experience of Hamas is another data point justifying their approach.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 05:46:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 05:57:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Take that, all you people who say belief in Islam is incompatible with freedom of speech and self-criticism....

Glad you wrote that! Muslims will work things out for themselves, thanks to Kareems and those who are willing to defend Kareems even though they disagree with them.

Meanwhile, American-supported repression in Egypt is another matter...

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 12:23:35 PM EST
Thanks for the great diary on Kareem's case. As a side note that may be of interest, the Milan imam known as Abu Omar turned up at his trial to support him. Abu Omar is well known for having been kidnapped in Milan in 2003 in a joint CIA-Sismi operation.

Abu Omar apparently defied authorities who had told him to keep silent if he wanted to stay free. Abu Omar is generally depicted as a terrorist, based on published wiretaps and an international arrest warrant issued by the Milan procura. However, it seems his main crime has always been his opposition to the Mubarak regime.

His support for Kareem apppears to be grounded on a larger civil rights issue, as the two have very little in common.

From reports on the "trial" here in Italy, Kareem was not allowed to defend himself nor speak at his trial. His memorial was admitted but its doubtful the judges bothered to leaf through it.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 01:22:23 PM EST
I did hear that Abu Omar showed up at the trial, although it's not clear whether it was to support Kareem or to gain access to the international media that he knew would be there.  It was one of the stranger developments of the day.  He has apparently been ordered to keep his mouth shut (as have most of the other ex-detainees, both from Guantanamo and from Egypt's domestic prisons) but he doesn't seem inclined to do so.  He definitely had a message for the Italian public, and he said he wants to testify in the trial of the people accused of kidnapping him.

Kareem's trial doesn't sound like it was a terribly fair one.  It's hard to tell how things will go in the legal system here; the judiciary is considered the most independent branch of government, but it's still not very independent.  Everything depends on the judge hearing the individual case.  And a lot of the judges who are independent are Islamists, so the nature of the charges against Kareem made it unlikely that he was going to get a sympathetic hearing, even if he got an independent judge.

I understand that his lawyers introduced an issue of jurisdiction in the trial, arguing that because the blog servers were outside of Egypt, that the comments were actually not published in the country and therefore shouldn't be subject to Egyptian law.  It may be good grounds for appeal.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 02:46:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Abu Omar certainly tried to get attention. He had not appeared in public nor released direct statements from his undisclosed location since his release from prison.

So this is a first appearance in public since he was kidnapped in 2003. He did state he supported Kareem's cause and, as you say, launched his message that he wants to testify in Italy during the kidnapping trial.

He is blacklisted and cannot travel outside of Egypt at the moment. The last time he was freed, he spoke to his wife and friends about the kidnapping and was thrown back in prison for another two years. So he is taking a risk talking to the press.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 03:08:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd be very interested to hear what the Italian press has reported about his appearance at the trial.  He really seems to have caught everybody by surprise by showing up.  And yes, talking to the press was taking a major risk.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 03:14:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Repubblica and Corriere della Sera carried the story of Abu Omar's presence during the hearing of "Karim Amer's" case. Not much to add to what was said above about Abu Omar.

Abdul Karim Nabil Suleiman's case is well covered. I'd say Corriere did a better job. According to the reports, Karim got a five-minute trial; his lawyer, Rawda Ahmed, was not allowed to speak. Karim had  argued during previous interrogations that he was only expressing his personal opinions. The prosecutor wanted nine years but Karim was sentenced to four on three charges: insulting the president of the republic, inciting religious hatred and insulting Islam. An appeal will be filed but the lawyers only expressed hope in a reduction of the sentence.

Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch said that it was an opportunity for the regime to throw a bone to fundamentalists after arresting nearly 200 members of the Moslem Brotherhood.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 04:39:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Tom Porteous should know better than that.  "Throwing a bone to the Islamists" is just a lame excuse that the regime uses whenever it does something particularly illiberal.  They don't need to throw any bones to anyone.  This regime doesn't do anything it doesn't want to do.  They didn't fire the minister of culture after he made comments about the hijab being "backwards," even though there were large street protests demanding his head on a platter.  As I've explained before, it's a vicious circle -- half of the time they blame their crackdowns on "satisfying" the Islamists, the other half of the time they claim to be "reigning in" Islamic extremists.  They use the one to justify the other, but the result is always that they get what they want.

What they did with Kareem is not "throw bones" to anybody.  What they did was send a message to all the regime's critics regarding public criticism of the country's political and religious leaders, and because of Kareem's views on religion they could be sure that his conviction for insulting the president would be unopposed (by the Islamists and by many others) because it went along with a conviction for insulting Islam.

I'm told the final session of the trial was indeed about five minutes long, but in fairness that was not the whole trial.  There had been at least three earlier sessions.  I still don't view it as a fair trial, but it's also not accurate to say that the whole trial lasted only five minutes.

He was also sentenced only on two of the charges.  He got three years for insulting Islam and one year for insulting the president; he was not convicted on the third charge, which was something like disturbing the peace or disrupting public order.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 05:36:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the precision, especially your take on Porteous.

I reported what was written in the two Italian papers. Although the articles mention four previous interrogations, the final hearing was reported to be five minutes long.

The reported third charge of inciting religious hatred: I'm sure you're better informed on that. It supposedly stems from his articles on the the 2005 riots against a christian church in Alexandria. He also wrote on his blog that the university of Al Azhar is a "university of terrorism" where students are brainwashed into believing there's no place for differences in life and transformed into human beasts. Now that certainly can be construed as insulting Islam.

As for his 2005 articles he had already been arrested and released w/o charges for what he wrote at the time.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Sat Feb 24th, 2007 at 03:35:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The second site is Michelle Malkin's.

I knew another Michelle Malkin, back when the right-wing madwoman was barely known, but she was known enough to annoy the namesake I knew. So ever since the Japanese-American internment apologist become more widely known, I cringe every time I see her name...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Feb 24th, 2007 at 12:49:02 PM EST

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