The mood inside a packed fifth-floor room in a rundown apartment building in central Cairo on Wednesday was expectant and upbeat.
At least two dozen journalists and activists stood elbow to elbow with mobile phone cameras rolling as Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman, the first blogger ever imprisoned by the Egyptian state for his writings, made his first public remarks since being recently released from an unprecedented four-year sentence.
The soft-spoken Suleiman, who blogged under the name Kareem Amer, prompted ripples of friendly laughter as he spoke and even allowed himself an occasional smile.
But the story Suleiman told undermined the happiness of his release, depicting an Egyptian government and society where laws and customs still punish what would pass as free expression elsewhere.
The kind of treatment Suleiman received at the hands of an authoritarian regime that has maintained a stranglehold on civil society for 30 years is regrettably common and shows few signs of dissipating, with parliamentary elections on Sunday likely to refresh the People’s Assembly with a new batch of politicians unable and unwilling to take the reigns from Hosni Mubarak, the president.
Suleiman’s path toward becoming an online firebrand began, as he described it on Wednesday, with his upbringing in a conservative Muslim family that still holds to strict Salafi beliefs.
At a young age, his parents enrolled him in a primary school administered by Al-Azhar University, the Cairo-based seat of Sunni theology. He envisioned his future at Al-Azhar, where he was eventually expelled in 2006, as “life imprisonment”.
Suleiman’s restricted home environment prompted him to seek out unconventional literature, and he explored writers who addressed women’s rights in particular, such as the feminist Nawal el-Saadawi.
“When you’re suppressed for a long time, you explode,” he said.
Suleiman’s explosion took the form of blogging.
His online writings varied from the insulting – saying, after a clash between Muslims and Coptic Christians, that Muslims’ had revealed their “true face” of “barbarism and thievery and fanaticism” – to the thoughtful, as when he expounded on freedom in a post whose title, “There is no God but the human being,” spoofing Islam’s basic statement of belief, the shahada: “There is no God but God”.
“Being powerful does not mean that I am free to subjugate he who is less powerful than I am,” he wrote.
“For one of the most important principles of freedom is to not trespass on the limits of others’ freedoms this is so that freedom will be meaningful, and not be merely a justification for the actions of those who take advantage of their power to subdue others”.
Suleiman was arrested in November 2006, though he did not receive his sentence until the following March.
On Wednesday, he told of how he spent his first 65 days in a cell by himself, allowed only two visits.
His guards gave him government newspapers to read and made sure the television was turned to state programmes.
On one occasion, he was assaulted by a fellow inmate on the orders of a prison officer and suffered a broken tooth.
By the summer of 2008, guards had started limiting Suleiman’s visits, and after April 19, 2009, he was not allowed to see anyone from outside the Borg al-Arab prison in Alexandria, where he was serving his term.
“What kept me holding on is my belief that I didn’t do wrong, that it’s my right to express my opinion, that all what was happening to me was a violation of the law,” he said.
Suleiman’s release was set for November 5, but instead of being let go, guards took him to a State Security office in Alexandria, where he spent much of his time seated in a room, blindfolded, as two young officers shouted and screamed at him.
Suleiman’s ultimate freedom is a small bright spot on a deeply stained record of human rights abuse.
Egypt remains a frighteningly dangerous place to challenge the authorities through writing or blogging, or even to talk back to the police, as the stories of Khaled Said and Ahmed Shaaban illustrate.
As recently as last week, Yousef Shaaban (no relation to Ahmed), a writer for the online newspaper Al-Badil, was arrested while observing street protests in Alexandria.
He was, in a parallel to the Said case, absurdly charged with drug possession.
On Wednesday night in Cairo, dozens of activists sat on the steps of the journalists’ syndicate in protest at Shaaban’s detention, chanting slogans toward a line of riot police that nearly outnumbered them.
In the irony-heavy fashion of many Egyptian protests, the activists took the slogan of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, min aglik inta or “for you,” and turned it around, highlighting the regime’s many failures to look out for its people, as when a ferry taking Egyptians across the Red Sea in 2006 sunk, killing more than 1,000 people:
Six million unemployed, for you.
One million state security officers, for you.
Millions with hepatitis C, for you.
The ferry that drowned, for you.
On Thursday, activists said that the prosecutor’s office in Alexandria had ordered Shaaban released, said Sally Sami of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies – but that doesn’t mean life has gotten any easier for journalists.
Media outlets are not allowed to broadcast live from Egypt’s streets, and both photographs and video are forbidden inside or around polling places this year.
“Everyday the crackdown is becoming more obvious,” Sami said.