At 8 p.m. on October 21, approximately 60 Egyptian policemen surrounded the Nour Center in the Bab el-Shairia neighborhood of downtown Cairo. This event was to be the founding conference of Poets Against Succession, a subgroup of Egyptians Against Succession, a campaign launched one week prior by Ayman Nour, a leading opposition figure, to prevent the transfer of power from President Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal. Though both father and son officially deny the rumors, there is widespread speculation that the president is "grooming" his son for leadership after three long decades in power.
Police stormed the hall and arrested Ahmed Abdul Jawad, an assistant to Nour, who had spent the last four years in prison on spurious charges. In fact, the reason Nour was silenced was his relatively successful run for the presidency of Egypt in 2005. He challenged Mubarak's regime and was stripped of his freedom because of it. After police confiscated Nour's laptop and detained his assistant, the conference continued in a show of defiance, with only two poets remaining.
Minutes after the arrest, one of Egypt's leading bloggers frantically contacted me, seeking help. She was en route to the conference when she heard the news. Having been repeatedly harassed by the security forces, she requested that I keep her name anonymous, but hoped that I could spread word of the crackdown. "The Egyptian regime wants to send a message to all activists and opposition that they will not tolerate anything that annoys Mubarak junior," she said.
The regime is taking a more sophisticated approach this time around, she added. "When Dr. Nour held the founding conference of the larger campaign on October 14, the security did not show up at all, which is completely unusual. But now we know why. They will not hit the bigger group directly, but will hit the subgroups instead. It is clear that the security forces are trying to swat down these campaigns."
Authoritarianism is always dirty business, but its implementation can often be refined, even sophisticated, as my Egyptian friend observed.
CONSIDER EGYPT'S latest stunt as the host of the UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum. Human rights groups rightly pointed out the absurdity of having one of the Middle East's worst Internet oppressors - a distinction not without stiff competition - posing as a friend of open communication. Once again the fox is guarding the henhouse and the world remains utterly indifferent. Rather than being condemned by the UN, Egypt is bestowed with the honor and esteem of hosting such a forum.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian regime showed its true face again this month when the official telecom body threatened legal action against those who text "inappropriate words." What exactly constitutes "inappropriate words" is anyone's guess, but young Egyptians are not exactly emboldened when student bloggers such as Kareem Amer are sentenced to years in prison for criticizing Mubarak. Under the guise of moral concern, the regime implements one of the most immoral of actions - the suppression of liberty.
But few things are as resilient as the human soul; it is incredibly difficult to crush. As in all unfree societies, a brave few fight back with a vengeance. For example, two weeks ago 28-year-old Egyptian blogger Hani Nazeer commenced a hunger strike to gain back his freedom. Nazeer is a Coptic blogger who authors the "Love Cherries" blog; he has been held without charge for over a year. Nazeer's family members have also been detained. As is so typical of tyrannical regimes, an unlucky few are made examples of to intimidate the rest. The idea is not to silence every blogger, but rather to instill just enough fear in society so that people censor themselves.
Intimidating Arab Internet activists will not be easy. Out of a core group of approximately 35,000 active Arab blogs, Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society observed that Egypt has the largest and most active blogosphere. Though a good number of bloggers promote Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood agendas, Egypt also has a very active secular and pro-democracy Internet discourse. Nearly half of Egyptian bloggers are women. It can safely be said that the fate of Arab bloggers and the fate of the Arab world are one and the same. Empower them and the region will prosper; suppress them and the region will continue to languish.
The writer is coordinator for democracy programs at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies and director of Cyberdissidents.org. This article was first published by the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, at the Shalem Center, www.adelsoninstitute.org.