04 May 2007
'The least we can do is insult the President'

By Mona Eltahawy

Abdel Kareem Nabil, the 22-year-old Egyptian blogger sentenced to three years in jail for insulting Islam and an additional year behind bars for insulting President Hosni Mubarak, was not born when that president came to power.

It is at once sadly pathetic and oddly gratifying that the regime of Mubarak - who has ruled Egypt for 25 years - felt it necessary to convict a young man "armed" only with a keyboard and access to the internet. Frightening as his conviction might be, surely it is a victory for the brigade of the young and determined who populate the Egyptian blogosphere and who like Nabil have known no other leader than Mubarak.

Bloggers in Egypt have for months now irritated Mubarak's regime with the audacity of those who know they have not simply youth on their side but the ability to shame a regime that has plenty to hide. Some of those bloggers combine their online activism with good old fashioned street protests which last year got many of them thrown in jail for weeks on that chestnut of a charge - insulting the president. But that just boosted their legitimacy as the young ones who took on the aging ruler and made many of them household names in Egypt.

The Mubarak regime would love nothing more than to shut down all blogs and throw their writers in jail. But it knows those bloggers' ability to galvanize headlines as well as public outrage. A reminder of just such an ability occured on 3 March when two police officers who beat up and sodomized a bus driver at a police station appeared before a judge. Their trial has been adjourned until May 6. Those officers were arrested late last year after an outcry over a video they had made of the torture appeared on blogs and websites. The blogs forced the issue into the headlines and the regime was forced to respond. Whether the officers will be convicted of anything remains to be seen.

But why has Mubarak's regime slammed its wrath on Nabil in particular?


Nabil has been outspoken not only in his criticism of the regime but also about both Islam and al-Azhar, the bastion of Sunni Muslim thought. There is nothing that Nabil could have said about either Islam or Mubarak that should ever warrant such a trial, conviction or sentencing. But in Mubarak's Egypt, the regime knew putting this young man on trial and accusing him of insulting Islam would earn it cheap public opinion points.

His ordeal bears the tedious hallmarks of a regime that has spent a quarter of a century quashing vibrancy and vitality out of a country that has always prided itself in an abundance of both. Not only does it wield a sledgehammer to intimidate anyone who dares oppose Mubarak's rule but it is a regime that has perversely co-opted Islam to such an extent that it has reduced the religion to a muscle flexing competition with the Muslim Brotherhood over just who is the most Muslim of them all.

One cannot forget that at this time last year Egypt was spearheading the campaign of manufactured outrage against the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that appeared in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. Now as then, flying the flag for Muslim anger and insult was the Egyptian regime's lazy way of burnishing its Islamic credentials at a time when domestic Islamists in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood were stronger than they have been in years.

The ultimate irony of course is that the Muslim Brotherhood are the largest opposition bloc in Parliament precisely because that's exactly what Mubarak wants. Although technically outlawed, the Muslim Brotherhood were allowed to openly contest parliamentary election at the end of 2005. Those elections turned violently wrong when the Brotherhood began to win a few too many seats for the Egyptian regime's comfort. The 88 seats they managed to capture are the perfect bogeyman that the regime waves in the face of a compliantly fearful U.S. administration.

And it did not take long for Mubarak to return to business as usual with the Muslim Brotherhood, in other words: imprisoning large groups of them just to clarify that he wasn't seriously reconsidering their role in Egyptian society or anything.

That cynical use and abuse of religious credentials that Mubarak's regime has spent 25 years perfecting has not only left Egyptians feeling stuck between a rock - Mubarak - and a hard place - the Muslim Brotherhood - but laid the groundwork for what can only be described as religious hysteria. With almost daily appearances on Egyptian television by one religious scholar or another, a conservative state-sanctioned Islam has become the altar upon which the Mubarak regime has pushed Egyptians to worship. Is it any wonder Nabil's own parents seem to have disowned him because of the State's allegations that he had insulted Islam?

The majority of Egyptians did not bother to vote in those parliamentary elections that the Brotherhood were allowed to contest - a clear sign that they reject the false choice that was given them between a dictator who uses religion to bolster his rule and an Islamist movement which uses politics to find a way to rule. But the damage was done long ago and now the mere suggestion that someone has dared to question what the State and its clerics tell us is Islam leads very easily to Nabil's travails.

But when a regime's religious camouflage is so obvious, it must expect to be held up to its own standards. If that same State is such an eager defender of Islam (and surely Islam, which has thrived for more than 1,400 years, doesn't need defending) then let us count the ways it honours and abides by it.

What is it if not an insult to the social justice at the heart of Islam that systematic torture infects police stations and jails around Egypt? Surely it is an affront to that same Islam that while Mubarak, his family and their inner sanctum of cronies benefit from the meager growth in the Egyptian economy they so proudly point to, so many Egyptians cannot afford to buy meat or have to juggle two or three jobs to weave the most basic of lives.

What kind of Islam does the Mubarak regime defend when a bus driver can be dragged to a police station, sodomized with a stick as police officers capture the torture on mobile phone camera and then send it to the driver's co-workers to make sure the humiliation and intimidation is recorded for posterity?

Enter the bloggers. They make those connections and they text message, they blog and they post on YouTube that the emperor is naked. They also out maneuver that same naked emperor and his henchmen by manipulating and subverting a technology that is daily leveling the playing field of information.

Nabil's conviction might be a tired regime's warning to the bloggers that jail always awaits them but it is highly unlikely they will be cowed. Alaa Abdel Fattah, who runs Manal and Alaa's Bit Bucket with his wife and activist Manal Bahey El Deen, was one of the blogger activists who spent 40 days in jail last year. When I met him in Cairo in November he told me that before his detention he always wondered what jail would be like and now he knows. So that's a bogeyman deflated, in other words. He still blogs. He's still outspoken. After Nabil's conviction Alaa summed up the farce of it all by telling the Associated Press:

"We (the Egyptian people) are enduring oppression, poverty and torture, so the least we can do is insult the president."

Mubarak does not own Egypt and he does not own Islam. The bloggers will continue to remind him. And they cannot be silenced. Not just because they know how to hopscotch over blocked IP addresses but because it is impossible to silence youth. It will always find a way to have the last say.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab and Muslim issues. She lived in Saudi Arabia and Israel and is currently based in New York. This article first appeared on http://www.saudidebate.com on 1 March 2007. Her website is at http://www.monaeltahawy.com