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Detained in Egypt, but still tweeting

By Anees al-Qudaihi
BBC Arabic Service

Wael Abbas
Wael Abbas: concerned about police power

Being in police custody in Egypt is not noted for being open to the public gaze, so earlier this month thousands of user of the micro-blog service Twitter were surprised to read updates, or "tweets", from police cells.

Step by step the tweets gave an insight into what it is like to be in custody in Cairo.

The outspoken Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas and Palestinian journalist Laila El Haddad both shared the minute details of their experience of custody, in two separate incidents, with fellow Twitter users.

In about 40 tweets, Wael Abbas managed to inform his readers of his day-long experience in a Cairo city centre police station, where he had gone to complain about an alleged assault by two men, one of them a police officer, but ended up being arrested himself.

Abbas started his day by tweeting: "fyi (for your information), i'm currently under arrest, if u did not hear from me today then i was not released".

But using his mobile phone, he carried on blogging during his eight hours of custody.

The number of his page followers increased dramatically during the day (11 April), adding around 300 new followers, as his friends re-tweeted his messages, spreading them around to reach more readers.

By the end of the day, fellow activists, and a number of lawyers had arrived at the police station to offer their support.

Abbas wrote while moving between two stations: "Fellow bloggers, activists and lawyers are following us in their cars to the police station".

He told BBC that his was not a political case.

"But it goes in line with the issues that I raise in my blog on the abuse of police power against citizens" he added.

Wael Abbas's blogging was a dynamic, up-to-the-minute stream.

At nearly midnight he wrote "I'm free now and safe for the moment"

Stuck at Airport

Earlier this month the 31- year-old Palestinian female journalist Laila El Haddad was travelling from Washington DC to Cairo on the way to her home which is the Gaza strip

But the Egyptian authorities wouldn't allow her into the country.

In her message, she said "I was placed in a detention room with 17 others for 3 hours then taken to a room and asked if that's what I wanted for the foreseeable future".

Laila El Haddad

I was sick to my stomach and throwing up since 5am
Laila El Haddad

Laila and her two children, Yousuf and Noor, were denied entry into Egypt, as an officer put it, because Palestinians without permanent residency are not allowed in as long as the Rafah crossing point to Gaza is closed.

She and her family had to wait two days before being told that they would be deported back to the US via London despite not having valid British and US visas.

On her page, she said she was "waiting and waiting. This man has no answers and my file has disappeared or cast aside for the moment. (I am) running out of diapers".

She says that her favourite line from airport officials was "honestly, we did not get any sleep over your ordeal, we feel for you, really we do".

Laila and her children wondered why it was so difficult to go home.

She wrote "this must be a VERY high order because every call I have made has failed. I told them it's not my fault I have to go through Egypt to get to my home in Gaza".

At noon on Thursday she wrote a "quick tweet to let everyone know we were allowed back into the US - and that I am sick to my stomach and throwing up since 5am".

Restricted freedom

The internet has been part of Egyptian political life since the 2005 legislative elections, according to the group Reporters without Borders.

Such direct communication with members of the public causes discomfort among the ruling elites in countries that aren't used to transparency and such open and immediate sharing of information.

Reporters without Borders says that in January alone, 31 legal cases were launched against bloggers and journalists.

Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights, said 2008 had been the worst year for freedom of expression since Egypt was declared a republic in 1952.

But with the proliferating ways of communicating across the internet, the authorities may struggle to be able to contain the ever-present appetite for debate about their actions and their impact on ordinary people.



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