The Global Network for a free media
Mohamed Khaled, aka ‘Demagh Mak’
Mohamed Khaled, aka ‘Demagh Mak’, is photo coordinator for the Egyptian daily Al Masri Al Youm newspaper. He has been a blogger and human rights activist since 2006, focusing on police abuses committed against citizens, as well as human rights violations and corruption in Egypt. He contributed to the unveiling of incidents of alleged police torture in Egyptian police stations. His blog is: www.demaghmak.blogspot.com.
In 1981, President Sadat was assassinated, a state of emergency was declared and President Mubarak took power due to his position as Vice-President of the Republic. And now, 28 years later, the state of emergency is still in place and is renewed without change, which has turned Egypt into an oppressive police state. The security apparatus, whose main duty should be to serve and protect the people, has become a tool for protecting the ruling class alone while neglecting its original duty.
During demonstrations in the past – if there were any demonstrations at all – nobody could cross the red line that had forever been in place: criticising the Egyptian ruler, whether he was a king or a president. This red line frightened everyone to death, so the most that demonstrators could do was criticise the government or ministers or, on occasion, the prime minister.
This was not so long ago, but then the Internet spawned a communications revolution the likes of which has never before been seen on our planet. The expression “global village” became an undisputed reality.
The Internet in Egypt has brought great benefits beyond mere scientific and technological advancement, namely the stimulation of political activity for the first time in two decades of total stagnation in every sphere of life since President Mubarak came to power.
This stagnation continued on the Egyptian street until a new generation of youth appeared and found in the Internet a long sought-after means of expressing their feelings of oppression and subjugation, caused by government policies that have resulted in many being unemployed or forced to work for less-than-survival wages.
Egyptian blogs appeared and spread rapidly; the youth found these to be the only outlets for self-expression available to them, as most of the Egyptian media is owned by the government. Besides, corruption has made it impossible to find a media job without connections and even if you could, the scissors of the censor and state security would not allow you to express your opinions freely.
And so young Egyptians emerged from everywhere, blogging about the personal or social problems they face in their lives and criticising government policies. They crossed the red line and vehemently criticised the President like never before, and when they started to organise protests and demonstrations, they shouted their criticism out loud in the streets of Egypt.
People started to read what these young people were writing, especially as the Internet made it easy for all to follow this youth movement that was calling them to action to save their country and liberate it from the despotic rule and corruption of the last 28 years. Indeed, people found that they could trust the news and articles from this new source more than the government-controlled media, which always paints a rosy picture of what is happening in the country and distorts all the news to conceal from the people what is really going on.
Government-controlled media censorship became blatantly apparent to the people with the 2006 sexual harassment story: bloggers revealed an incident in the streets of Cairo city center in which hundreds of young men harassed women. The bloggers supported their reports with pictures taken from their mobile phones. The absence of security was clear for all to see.
The bloggers’ main concern was for this news to reach the public, as well as for the government to investigate and punish those responsible for the terrible security failure that was to blame for this incident.
Instead, all the government newspapers came out and denied the news, and the Assistant Minister of the Interior launched an unprecedented attack on bloggers in a discussion program, accusing them of harming Egypt’s reputation abroad and spreading false rumors. He completely ignored the terrible security failure his ministry was responsible for in terms of safeguarding thousands of people who had gathered together in one place.
Far from acknowledging the incidents of harassment that now occur every year at the same time and in the same place, without any serious measures being taken by the Ministry of the Interior, the government-controlled media and Ministry of Foreign Affairs allow the government to hide the real problem from the public and only provide the people with the information that they see fit.
The same reaction from the government-controlled media was repeated with the story of Emad al-Kabeer, a minibus driver who police allegedly tortured in a police station by sticking a baton up his rectum. The incident was filmed on a mobile phone camera.
When the video was discovered and first posted on the Internet, it reverberated around the world until the matter came before the courts. The government-controlled media claimed the video was a fake and accused me of fabrication, and a large number of government-sponsored television soap operas then appeared to glorify the police and the role they play in providing security for the nation. Finally, the officer and his subordinate who tortured Emad were sentenced to three years in prison.
Overall, there is now a situation in which a government that only wanted the public to know what the government wanted it to know found itself facing a technological revolution in which the bloggers had broken the government’s monopoly on information and news.
There were now two options:
The first was to block the websites, but this would not have been a wise option because it would have destroyed Egypt’s reputation around the world and revealed it to be a state that closes down websites. It would have been very costly and it would also have been easy for any blogger to open a new blog if shut down, as blogs are free and available to all.
The second option, which the Egyptian government is very good at, was oppression and brutality, especially with the continued declaration of a state of emergency, which allows it to do what it wants whenever it wants to.
Indeed, the government started to implement this approach with the arrest of Kareem Amer on charges of insulting the President of the Republic and disrespecting Islam. He was sentenced to four years in prison in a step that was and still is seen as a pre-emptive strike to destroy bloggers and scare those thinking of blogging. However, the move backfired on the government after bloggers launched a huge campaign to support Kareem Amer. This turned into a global campaign which damaged the Egyptian government’s reputation around the world, as its oppression of Internet freedoms became known - precisely the outcome it was trying to avoid.
The situation persisted until the Egyptian security apparatus started kidnapping bloggers and torturing them for weeks. After discovering their location, the police would issue warrants for their arrest under emergency laws and hold them on average for between four and six months before releasing them. The abuses have continued in this way with the primary aim, in my opinion, of scaring young people who are thinking of launching a blog through which to express their opinions before they even start. It has now become difficult for the authorities to arrest or kidnap the better known and more popular bloggers due to their fame both in Egypt and abroad. But it is still a difficult situation for all concerned, as all our means of communication are under constant surveillance, from mobile phones to e-mail and even normal meetings in public places. We are also restricted in terms of travel and returning to Egypt and we have our laptops, memory sticks and cameras confiscated and not returned. We then receive news that they have been given to an officer as a gift and we are advised to forget about the prospect of ever seeing them again.
The government has begun issuing laws to restrict Internet freedoms, starting with a law to ban pornographic websites. The underlying objective is to ban critical blogs, since the government has been given the freedom to block websites that threaten public decency or contain offensive language - floating definitions that can be interpreted in a thousand different ways. They all lead, in the end, to the banning of websites that stand in opposition to the corrupt ruling establishment in Egypt.
The Egyptian government is not working to impose order through its laws as much as to assert its control and give itself room to abuse the freedoms that have been afforded by a constitution that lies forgotten in the drawers of its desks.
I can say that the emergency law that has been in place in Egypt during the Mubarak era has become a burden not only on bloggers, but on all sectors of society, all of which have personally experienced the power that this law affords police officers. Policemen have gone so far beyond the articles of the emergency law itself in exploiting this power that they have come to believe that they are gods ruling over slaves.
I was with my brother in our village in the Nile Delta when a policeman stopped me for no reason. When I went over to him, he started to pull me by my clothes, so I asked him to treat me with respect. Suddenly, he and his force of nine men began assaulting me, without even asking my name and before I could talk to him. He then handcuffed me and beat me and my brother violently, before putting us in the police car and explaining why he had done this. He told me, “I’m going to make you […] kiss the boots of any policeman you see.” It was clear that he was surprised when I asked him to treat me with respect, as I should have shown him absolute deference, no matter how much he insulted me.
Even though this attitude has nothing to do with the fact that I am a blogger, it confirmed to me the dreadful extent of corruption in the police, whose main aim has become to safeguard the ruler and his men instead of protecting the people.
Until now, the international community has remained distant from the problem faced by bloggers not only in Egypt, but everywhere in the third world. The situation is bad for us all and especially in countries like Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Jordan, in fact, all the Arab nations, together with Burma, Korea, Vietnam and China, where freedoms are absolutely oppressed, without restrictions.
If the international community is constantly calling for and demanding democracy in our countries, then the first and foremost expression of democracy is the freedom of opinion and speech provided for in all constitutions and international human rights conventions. If people are powerless to express their opinions, they will not be able to secure any of their human rights, and yet the Western governments continue their support for our oppressive governments with billions of dollars each year. There is no pressure on them to expand our freedoms and secure our rights in nations whose bones have been broken with the oppression of their people. There are no strong indications of what is happening in our country in the international media, which focuses on issues in which governments have a shared interest rather than on the oppression of peoples.