In mid-June 2005, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice delivered a speech at the American University in Cairo. She said that her country’s pursuit of Middle East “stability” had led to a democracy deficit in the region. “Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people,” she said.
Rice’s ambitious rhetoric appeared to signal a significant shift in US foreign policy. Two years later, however, it is clear that nothing has changed – except for greater cynicism towards Washington’s true goals.
The rise of the Egyptian blogosphere is just one of the ways in which dissidents in the US-backed dictatorship are struggling for rights on their own. Not reliant on foreign handouts – in fact, I was constantly told while there that receiving US financial assistance was unthinkable – this disparate group of neo-con, liberal and radical political bloggers are united around one issue above all others: campaigning against police brutality and torture.
Hosni Mubarak’s regime initially ignored the political writings of bloggers, but in the last years his state security forces have changed their attitude. Imprisonment and torture are not uncommon for politically active Egyptians, especially if they are members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood (just last week one of its bloggers was released after spending 45 days in jail).
Cairo-based Human Rights Watch researcher Elijah Zarwan told me that the regime’s attitude towards the internet was “schizophrenic”. On the one hand embracing the technology for economic gain, but also increasingly suspicious of internal dissent posted online.
After speaking to bloggers, opposition figures and activists in Egypt over the last weeks, it became clear that Mubarak was steadily cracking down on any voices that challenged his decades-long rule. It bemused and angered many that the western media regularly referred to Egypt as a “moderate” Middle East country, when freedom of speech and association were routinely stifled.
The Brotherhood is the country’s largest opposition party and although it contests elections, its members are often arrested, intimidated and jailed. Human rights groups have documented this continuous abuse, though there has been a deafening silence from western political and media elites.
The reason for this is clear. The Brotherhood is often viewed as a fundamentalist Islamist party, closely aligned with al-Qaida, Hamas and Hizbullah. For many in the west, any party that espouses political Islam is suspect and anti-democratic. Although the Brotherhood’s current slogan in Egypt states, “Islam is the answer”, a group spokesman told me that he rejected the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in Afghanistan. “I’d rather live in the US than under the Taliban, or in Pakistan or Iran,” he said. He thought Turkey had the secular/religious mix about right.
The Brotherhood has launched many blogs for family members of imprisoned activists. They write about the personal toll of missing a father, husband or brother and the conditions in the prisons themselves. It is yet another way to convince the public that only the Brotherhood is giving a voice to the marginalised.
Female bloggers are also fighting for public recognition in a society that still sets strict boundaries for gender relations. Activist, translator and blogger Dalia Ziada told me that one of the primary aims for her site was to campaign against the still-widely practised procedure of female circumcision. Other female bloggers said that their gender wasn’t necessarily the reason they started blogging, but it soon became unavoidable to discuss the issues widely ignored by the male-dominated blogosphere.
The blogging community in Egypt is still relatively small – and around 50% of the population remains illiterate – but its influence over the last years on both the domestic and international front has been impressive. For example, the ability to post video images online of police torture has forced authorities on the defensive, though the practice continues in police stations across the country.
In a recent article for the Washington Post, journalist and blogger Wael Abbas made a plea on behalf of his fellow Egyptians:
How much is enough to make Americans question why their money goes to support this government? We Egyptians want a fair struggle for our freedom. We’ll never have it as long as Mubarak and his corrupt regime are propped up by US aid. All we ask is: Give us a fighting chance.