08 May, 2007

Farewell from the Sandmonkey-Egyptian Blogger

A popular Egyptian blogger known for his withering criticisms of the government has given up writing after becoming the latest victim of a state crackdown on dissent.

The blogger, known as Sandmonkey, signed off last week, writing that he had noticed state security agents on his street and heard clicking noises on his phone. "There has been too much heat around me lately," he wrote.

In recent months, the Egyptian regime has jailed several bloggers, ending a period in which it had taken a more relaxed attitude towards internal critics. Human rights activists claim the about-turn follows the US administration's decision to relax pressure on Middle Eastern governments to enact democratic reforms.

During Sandmonkey's three years on the internet, his was one of the most widely read Egyptian blogs, popular especially among Western readers for his unconventional opinions about his country and the Middle East. "Cynical, snarky, pro-US, secular, libertarian, disgruntled" was how he described himself.

He is a 26-year-old American-educated investment banker, and his mother is a member of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party.

In February, Abdel Kareem Nabil, 22, a former student at Egypt's Islamic Al Azhar University, was jailed for four years for insulting Islam and Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, on his blog.

Last month, another popular and outspoken blogger from the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel Monem Mahmoud, was thrown into Egypt's notorious Tora prison, where he remains today.

On his blog, Mahmoud claimed he was tortured in an Egyptian prison in 2003. He had encouraged scores of other Muslim brothers to become bloggers and used the internet to organise anti-government protests.

Bloggers are not the only targets of the regime crackdown. More than 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood activists have been arrested in the past year, according to Human Rights Watch.

And on Wednesday, an Egyptian court jailed an al-Jazeera television journalist for six months for allegedly fabricating torture scenes for a documentary.

"We are in the midst of a broadening crackdown against a host of fundamental rights here," said Human Rights Watch's Egypt researcher, Elijah Zarwan.

The country's well-educated and internet-savvy opposition has seized on the internet to rally against the government, running blogs and websites to organise protests and publish anti-regime material free of censorship.

Initial ambivalence on the part of government security agents changed in November, said Mr Zarwan, when a cellular phone video appeared on dozens of Egyptian blogs showing two police officers apparently sodomising a detainee with a rod. A public outcry ensued and the officers are being tried for torture.

Hossam Hamalawy, who writes a Cairo-based blog called 3Arabawy, said that, despite the crackdown, the bloggers are growing bolder.

"Some people are intimidated but overall it's producing the opposite effect," he said. "It is radicalising the blogosphere even more. We have bloggers joining every day."




The Next Step

It has came to my attention that the reasons of my quitting were not clear for some people, which is probably due to the fact that I didn't exactly elaborate on why I did what I did or what it means. This is an effort to remedy that. This is not me coming back to blogging though: this wasn't me crying wolf or a publicity stunt, so fans and haters, don't raise your hopes up or don't get disappointed, respectively. This is a clarification, more than anything.

1. While it is true that I am currently in the States , it doesn't mean that I have "escaped" Egypt or have no intention of going back. On the contrary, come next week I will be gracing the Cairo International Airport with my fabulous presence again. I have no intention of letting those goons get me out of Egypt so easily; If I am to leave it will be on my terms, and not theirs. Me traveling to the US right after shutting down the blog was purely coincidental: the trip was planned for months in advance and the decision to shut down the blog was more of a spur of the moment decision. In retrospect, it probably would've been better and smarter- or at least less rumor inducing- to do this after I came back from the States, but alas, what's done is done. However , to make it clear once and for all, I maybe down, but I am not out.

2. I have stated two reasons for quitting, and the majority of the people took the first one and ignored the second one, even though for me the second one was one of the major reasons for doing what I did. The truth of the matter is, the secuirty situation and intimidation aside, this was a protest, my way of telling the Egyptian blogosphere that we need to focus. That we now have the media attention, the people's admiration or at least interest, and the "zeitgeist' is ours if you will, so it's time we use it wisely. Blogs actually allowed the world to listen to us, so now that we have this tool, the question is : what do we have to say exactly? It's personally depressing to see that very few, handful really, from those who command the attention, have anything to contribute to the debate, and even those are censoring themselves now. I am not saying that we should take ourselves too seriously, or start going on ego trips over our importance and role and believe that we are leaders and influential, but there are things to be done that we can easily do. At the end of the day, a blogger is purveyor of information: we can supply people with the information and the lessons they need to affect change and reform. Just think about it: None of the things we are demanding or calling for are exactly new. There has been countless civil rights movement, democracy movements, nonviolent activism movements, very successful ones, all over history and all over the world. We should learn from them. We should provide their lessons to the public, think about how to apply their strategies to our situation, and see which things that they did are applicable to our situation and which aren't. We are not inventing anything new here: the knowledge is available and many amongst us know it already. Maybe it's time to share it.

And even if you do feel disheartened about the apathy or the lack of interest or activism on the part of the average Mo in Egypt, well that too needs to be examined and worked on. Let's face it, the average Egyptian is scared of political reform, and shies away from religious reform, so how do you get them involved? Well, there is still social reform, and they have shown keen interest in that. Take the anti-sexual harassment protest for example: For the first time ever you have had a protest that included foreigners, AUC students, regular University students, Hijabis, liberals, alongside your run-of-the-mill activist. Finally, something we could all agree on: Let's capitalize on that. The question becomes: Why did the campaign stop? Why didn't it go forward? We should've. If you draw the people in using social reform, than sooner or later they will become interested and active in political and religious reform as well, because it is all connected. That's an example of how to reel them in. And it can be done, easily. But do we do it? Nope! Some of us were too busy picking up cute AUC girls at the protest instead. It's shameful. It's time for us to stop being distracted about such things and focus: All of those people could've been mobilized , and instead the opportunity got wasted. We shouldn't allow this to happen again.

3. That being said and thus out of way, I am not saying that first reason is irrelevant either: Our security situation is dire, and not only in Egypt, but rather all across the middle-east. Bloggers have been intimidated by the authorities in Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Bahrain, just to name a few. It seems like the period of hope and reform that the bloggers of those countries have pushed for and represented in the past 2 years is now coming to an end, with the authorities more and more focused and intent on shutting us up, using everything from intimidation to imprisonment. And we have no defenders, no one to protect us, or champion our causes or lobby for our rights and safety. There used to be the Committee to Protect Bloggers, but that went defunct due to lack of funding, media-pressure- only strategy and too large of a scope: To champion the causes of every single persecuted blogger all over the world takes incredible time and effort. Not to mention they relied heavily on the media, and the media is selective of which stories to publish and which don't, and even when they do mention it, there is heavy doubt on how effective the media is as a pressure tool against repressive regimes. But it's the only tool we had, and god bless them for trying in the cases in which they did. God knows that without the media and the pressure they applied, Alaa probably would've stayed a lot longer in jail. So don't get me wrong Media, it's not that I am ungrateful, thanks for all you have done, but it's starting to be not enough, and the Abdel Karim case has proven that so far.

So what now? What's the solution? Well, here is what I am proposing...read more

Rantings of a Sandmonkey-"The Next Step"

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