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Egypt bloggers fear state curbs

By Heba Saleh
BBC News, Cairo

Blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman (left) in custody
Soliman is the first blogger to be jailed for publishing his views online

A court in the port city of Alexandria has sentenced a young Egyptian blogger to four years' jail for contempt of religion, insulting the president and spreading false information.

Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman, 22, is the first Egyptian blogger to stand trial for views expressed on the internet.

The case against him was based on a complaint from al-Azhar University, where he studied law until he was expelled last year because of his critical writings about religion.

Mr Nabil had declared himself a secularist who does not fast during Ramadan and he criticised al-Azhar, the most prestigious institution of religious learning in the Sunni Muslim world.

He accused it of spreading radical ideas and suppressing freedom of thought.

Campaign

Mr Soliman's arrest in November provoked an outcry from the blogging community inside Egypt and internationally.

I've been subjected to harassment. I get unpleasant phone calls and threats. Officials have tried to destroy my reputation during their interviews on satellite television
Blogger Wael Abbas,
A "Free Kareem" campaign - using his blogging name Kareem Amer - was launched and human rights groups say he is a prisoner of conscience, held only for his opinions.

Many activists now consider that the outcome of Mr Soliman's trial is an indication of the shape of things to come for Egypt's small but increasingly outspoken online community.

In this country of 80 million people, there are some 6,000 active bloggers.

Only a tiny fraction of them deal with political and human rights issues.

But in the last two years, these bloggers have had an impact on the political debate which far surpasses their number.

Alarm

Last November, Egyptian bloggers posted on the internet chilling footage showing an Egyptian bus driver screaming as he being sodomised with a stick in a police station.

The images led to the arrest of two officers who are now standing trial.

Cairo Eid crowds: Bloggers say the picture shows a shop owner giving shelter to a woman who was assaulted
Blogs broke the harassment story which has scandalised Egyptians (Picture: misrdigital.com)
"I think the bloggers here have pushed at the limits of freedom of expression in a way that has alarmed the authorities," said Wael Abbas, whose website Misr Digital features several films of torture in police stations.

He and a fellow blogger broke a story last year about the sexual harassment of women on the streets of downtown Cairo by hordes of young men during a national holiday.

The interior ministry denied the incident happened. But the descriptions by the two bloggers who had been on the scene were picked up by the domestic and international press.

New platform

The story shocked Egyptians and earned Mr Abbas public criticism from security officials.

"I've been subjected to harassment. I get unpleasant phone calls and threats. Officials have tried to destroy my reputation during their interviews on satellite television.

"There have also been smear campaigns against me on the internet accusing me of being an atheist and of having renounced Islam."

Egyptian blogs also provide platforms for internet users to discuss political, social and religious issues freely.

The ability to contribute anonymously is valued in a country where many people are afraid to express political dissent and where there is strong pressure to conform to social and religious norms.

Bloggers also play an important role in Egypt's small pro-democracy movement. They advertise in advance the times and venues of political protests, and then post pictures and accounts of how the police dealt with the demonstrations.

Micro-activists

During elections in 2005, bloggers invited members of the public to report instances of fraud.

Screengrab of www.freekareem.org
The Kareem campaign blog is linked to by hundreds of other bloggers
"We've had a large impact in terms of political activism," said Alaa Abdel Fattah, a blogger who was detained last year for two months after his arrest at a demonstration.

"We've introduced the idea of micro-activism, which means that people don't have to dedicate their life to protest, but can choose what they want to take part in."

Last year, the international group Reporters without Borders added Egypt to its "enemies of the internet", a list of 13 countries which censor what their people can see online and harass those who publish views considered unacceptable by the state.

Egypt was added because of the arrest of bloggers during pro-democracy demonstrations. All were subsequently released.

Another reason cited by Reporters without Borders was police pressure on a Christian blogger from southern Egypt who eventually had to shut down her website.

The group says it is uneasy about a court ruling which gave the Egyptian government the right to shut down any internet site deemed a threat to national security.

"This could open the way to extensive online censorship," said Reporters Without Borders.



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