Photo courtesy of the International Center for Journalists.
In a 2007 interview with Al Jazeera English, Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas, known for posting videos of police brutality and government corruption on his blog Misr Digital (Egyptian Awareness), spoke about one of his principal fears as he faces his country’s authoritarian regime.
“I’m afraid of someone filing a lawsuit against me…This is my main concern now,” he said.
Abbas’s fear has unfortunately come true. The activist, who has been honored with awards by the International Center for Journalists, CNN, and the BBC, was recently sentenced to six months in prison for “building WAN networks”—“whatever the hell that means,” Abbas wrote on his Facebook and Twitter pages. He spoke last week with the Center about the sentence as well as his blog and his hope for Egypt’s future.
It would have been easy to look away from the injustices you document. What made you personally decide to stand up?
I feel a responsibility to discuss issues that nobody else will. [The reason why I post] is a mixture of this feeling and of wanting to make my country better. The people also have trust in me, and I don’t want to disappoint them. I feel good about letting people know what’s going on, even if nothing changes and the government denies it.
And maybe I’m not brave – I’m just rash! I don’t know, but I believe in something, I’m unstoppable, and I don’t yield to intimidation or harrassment. I’m stubborn by nature.
How did your blog gain attention?
It gained an audience because the subjects I post about [such as torture in police stations] don’t get enough attention from the traditional media. And people respond to my blog because I have video documentation. I received half a million hits in one day for the story I did in 2005 that exposed that the ruling party hired prostitutes to sexually harass female demonstrators during the presidential referendum.
What kinds of punishment have you had to endure from the government because of your blog? What brought about your six-month prison sentence?
In the last five years a lot of things happened, including rumors that I am a homosexual, that I have a criminal record, and that I converted to Christianity. My blog has been attacked electronically, and my laptop has been confiscated at the Cairo airport. Recently, I filed a complaint against a police officer for punching out my front tooth—he was never charged. He filed the lawsuit against me to punish me, and I was sentenced to six months in prison. I’m out on bail and am appealing the verdict.
What responsibility would you say Egyptians have once they see your proof of police brutality and government corruption?
I believe [their awareness of these things] will result in a gradual change. Without knowledge, people won’t care because they don’t know. If they want to have a better future for their children, if they want their children to have a better country, they shouldn’t be afraid of the intimidation and should take matters in their own hands.
What benefits would you say the Internet has given journalists in playing “democracy’s watchdog”?
Since the media is highly controlled by the Egyptian security forces, people in the media are always afraid and censor themselves, whereas the Internet provides a means of transmitting controversial information. But it is only a means to spread the word. People used to use graffiti and spray on walls, for instance.
Could you speak a bit about the Egyptian government and those that oppose it? Is there hope for an opposition, either Islamist or secular?
The Islamist opposition is not as courageous and tends to cut deals with the government. The other kinds of opposition are fighting with each other and are not working on organizing themselves. Plus, we have the emergency law, so we don’t have the right of assembly. [The emergency law, in place since 1981, prohibits gatherings of more than five people and limits other civil liberties]. Without permission from the government, you can’t even start an NGO. If we can overcome these obstacles that are hindering the media and political parties, then change can happen. Awareness is a start.
What is your take on Obama’s approach to Egypt and the Arab world – particularly in terms of the idea of “freedom?”
The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration, is being very friendly to the dictators in the region, especially in the case of Egypt. In fact, this has gotten worse since Obama came to power, and it’s a horrible decision on the part of the Administration. Aid to Egypt from the United States (second only to what Israel gets) is going to the government, the military, and government-monitored organizations, not to the Egyptian people.
Wael’s blog can be accessed here.