Egyptian bloggers rally against military

Hundreds risk potential prosecution to voice criticisms of post-revolution military rule and slow pace of reforms.

    Kareem Amer was the first blogger to face trial in Egypt; such prosecutions have continued under the army [Evan Hill]

    Hundreds of Egyptians have staged an unprecedented show of online defiance against their country's military leadership, taking to their blogs to write at times scathing critiques of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that assumed power after longtime president Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February.

    The show of anger on Monday came ahead of a "million-man" protest that activists have called for Friday, one they hope will be the largest since the revolution and will demonstrate widespread public support for their call to put former government officials on trial and restrain the power of the armed forces.

    Criticising the military in any form is a dangerous act in Egypt and is sometimes considered a crime. Maikel Nabil, a pacifist who blogged against the army, was tried and sentenced to three years in prison by a military court in April. It was the first trial of a blogger since the revolution.

    But on Monday, the military appeared to strike a different tone.

    "This is freedom of expression, and we have no problem with it," a spokesman told Al Jazeera.

    The bloggers - the vast majority of whom published in Arabic, but a few in English - said they believed their sheer numbers, and their tone, would help spare them from arrest. By Monday afternoon, at least 203 blogs criticising the Council had been published, according to one widely cited count on Facebook.

    "I'm 10 per cent worried, but I specifically write in very sarcastic ways, and I never directly insult," said Amr Bassiouny, a research manager at a real estate investment and development firm. "So no matter what I say, all they can do is take me in for making fun of them."

    Mohamed Abdelfattah, a freelance journalist, said the point of the day was to blog collectively and mitigate the risk of being singled out.

    "The military council cannot silence hundreds of bloggers who are adamant at showing its violations and mistakes," he said. "We said we will all blog on May 23rd, and they can arrest us all if they want."

    The blogging campaign was mirrored by a continuous stream of commentary on Twitter, where a multitude of well-known activists and other users were making scores of remarks every minute with the "noSCAF" hashtag.

    "I am now, for the first time in my life, setting up a blog," wrote Noor Ayman, the son of once-jailed opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour. "This step is ignited by my dissatisfaction with the SCAF."

    The day of online activism also happened to coincide with the release of dozens of people who had been arrested by the army at a May 15 protest at the Israeli embassy and put before military trials. The majority of the prisoners were handed one-year suspended sentences.

    Mosaab Elshamy, one of the men arrested, wrote on Twitter about his mistreatment while in army custody, spurring more attention for the anti-military campaign. Soldiers allegedly used homosexual slurs to describe prisoners with long hair or beards, and everyone was routinely made to watch soldiers abuse newly arrived detainees.

    Near the end of their detention, an officer spoke with the group in an attempt to convince them of the military's good intentions. He said Egyptians were living in "turbulent times," that the country was on the verge of bankruptcy, and that it was "naive" to protest. At the end of their stay, Elshamy said, another officer told him that he would likely be under surveillance by military intelligence for years.

    "The sheer spite they had for us and for the revolution will never be forgotten," he wrote.

    Backwards from Mubarak

    Most of the bloggers on Monday focused on the need to achieve what they said were the revolution's twin goals: freedom and social justice. Military rule presents an obstacle to achieving those goals, and in some cases represents a step back from the Mubarak era, they wrote.

    "This post is simply a comparison between back then in the Mubarak days and now in the SCAF days," wrote Mostafa Sheshtawy, a 23-year-old graduate student in computer science. "Back then, in the Mubarak days, protesters used to be beaten up by the [Central Security Forces] and arrested, then tortured by them in the prisons. Now the army arrest the protesters, beat them up and torture them in their military prisons."

    Amira Mikhail, who helps run a student leadership scholarship programme at the American University in Cairo, quoted Vaclav Havel, the post-Communism president of Czechoslovakia, as she described the qualities she hoped to see in Egypt's new politicians.

    "[Havel] wrote of the 'higher responsibility' that is placed on politicians and leaders," Mikhail wrote. "When I hear these words from a man who at the time was leading his country through a transition to democracy, similar to that of Egypt's now, I ask myself if the men that lead my country now are also grounded in the same principles and values that guided Havel."

    Mikhail noted that 100 days had passed since Mubarak's ouster, and she had not seen evidence of Havel's "higher responsibility" in the army's conduct.

    "SCAF, a ruling military council, is making the mistake of functioning in the old manner of dictatorship, where instead the people need them to speak and lay things out transparently," she wrote.

    In the months since Mubarak stepped down, activists say the military has illegally arrested, imprisoned and tried as many as 10,000 civilians, without providing access to lawyers or family members. The army has been criticised for routinely breaking up demonstrations with violence, not bringing enough former regime officials to trial, and not moving quickly to transfer power to a civilian government.

    Mikhail and Amr Moneib, another blogger, described how any trust they might have had in the military's leadership had disappeared since the revolution.

    "The Egyptian army has long been seen as the saviour of this country ... Yet, we can't and we shouldn't forget that those officers who have implemented the [1952] coup d'etat ... sent us to 60 years of ultimate dictatorship," Moneib wrote. "Four months later and we can see that every single person who had his doubts was right and all those who handed their revolution on a silver plate to the SCAF were so naive that they almost lost us everything."

    The military has muffled freedoms of speech and assembly, made unilateral decisions about electoral laws, overseen "charade" trials of former regime officials, and failed to defend churches and protesters from damage and attack, he wrote.

    In Arabic, the same demands

    The hundreds who wrote their entries in Arabic expressed similar anger, though some tied the United States and the West into the army's conduct.

    "What we are doing now is not just fighting against the remnants of the regime, because in my opinion they are really only a tool for implementing the vision of those who do not want a truly democratic Egypt," wrote Mohamed Effat, an independent journalist who was briefly detained at the Israeli embassy protest. "Come and let's look at those who don't want want true democracy to begin in Egypt: Israel, America, and Europe, timidly."

    Those countries, Effat wrote, had provided enormous military aid to Egypt, filling the coffers of the army, which was loyal and close to Mubarak's regime. The army also continues to maintain its massive investments in the state, including factories, hotels, tourist resorts and agriculture, he said.

    The first step, Effat wrote, is to change the leadership of the Egyptian media and remove the "hypocrites" on television who opposed the revolution during its early days. He echoed calls for a large protest on Friday.

    Mona Seif, an activist who helps lead the No to Military Trials for Civilians campaign, appealed to anyone who had suffered from the armed forces:

    "If you know a relative or a friend or anyone who was beaten in a protest by the army ... If you were standing before a military court that should not try your case ... If you turned on Egyptian [state] television to Channel One and found a picture of your brother bearing marks of beating and torture and under that the word 'thug,' ... join us and monitor the military council, by writings, video, pictures, sound recording, blog entries, [and] notes on Facebook."

    Some bloggers appeared to have taken up the call. Tamer Saleh, an information technology worker in Alexandria, wrote that the "noSCAF" campaign had inspired him to write again, and his entry on Monday was his first in 2011.

    "Most Egyptians agree on one demand ... and we are all prepared to sacrifice ourselves for it. The demand is freedom and justice," he wrote. "Around 100 days after Mubarak's ouster, we have discovered that nothing we demanded has been achieved and also that the military council has sold to us the same package that we refused to buy from Mubarak."

    Maged Roland, a blogger who wrote in both Arabic and English and identified himself as a part-time mechanic employed in the tourism industry, wrote that he believed the military leadership was deliberately provoking fears of a security vacuum and economic breakdown to make the public feel they need them.

    This fall, when Ramadan arrives, those suffering from high food prices are likely to revolt again, he said. 

    A revolution online, and perhaps in the streets

    Though hundreds took to the Internet to criticise the Council, some activists wondered how much of the Egyptian public held the same opinions.

    "Sadly, I don't think it is that widespread," Mikhail said. From taxi drivers to her upper class colleagues, most tell her that the armed forces are the only power Egypt has left, and that without them, the country will become like Iraq and fall into anarchy.

    Bassiouny agreed, but said the situation had been similar before the revolution.

    "We're back to being a small base of educated aspiring Egyptians who want to create real change, and the rest just want to get along with their lives," he said.

    He anticipated that the turnout on Friday would be similar to those who protested on January 25, the first day of Egypt's uprising, but that the military and remnants of Mubarak's regime would send people to make trouble.

    Bassiouny said he did not think the new wave of protests would reach "critical mass," as happened during the revolution. The media does not back the anti-military movement, he said, and the army is "a much more dangerous animal than the police ever was".

    "When the [Central Security Forces] used to attack, we could stand up and fight them," he said. "But then what do you do against military soldiers? You run."

    Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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