2011-02-07 UPDATE Google Executive Wael Ghonim in Tahrir Square & the Mubarak Regime's Repression of Bloggers

Google Executive Wael Ghonim
For many in Tahrir Square, his presence was why they had come out February 8. Ghonim, who was released on February 7 by authorities, played a key role in organization demonstrations against the regime before being arrested in late January.

He was seized in the Egyptian capital when he was with tens of thousands of protesters in the Square. Al Jazeera reported Ghonim was "picked up by three plainclothes men on the street, pushed into a car and taken off for interrogation by state security members."

Ghonim has tried to minimize his role in the revolution. He said after his release, "Please don't make me a hero. I'm not a hero. I have been asleep for 12 days." 

But, for a revolution that might not be as far along as it is if it did not have social media, it is no surprise that an "explosive response from supporters, bloggers and pro-democracy activists on the internet" happened on February 7.

On stage, Ghonim declared, "I've observed that we are all brothers. Yesterday, I met with the minister of interior. He was addressing me as an equal. He said, I got your message. You are the youth of Facebook. You are the youth of Egypt."

There is no doubt that many would have come out to the square today regardless of Ghonim's release. But, the techno-revolutionary has caught the attention of news media and his appearance on State TV after being released has touched many Egyptians, leading them to want to join the movement for real democracy in Egypt.

The spark Ghonim is providing really is not surprising. Many Egyptians who are part of the revolution were initially moved to action when Khaled Said, a blogger, was beaten to death by police in an internet café in Alexandria in June of 2010.
Bloggers are and have, when they are most effective at stirring people to political or social action, been treated as enemies of the state by police or security forces in Egypts. They have been explicitly targeted by the Mubarak regime.

A cable that was appropriately released on the same day of Ghonim’s release details an incident involving the arrest and detention of a group of thirty activists and bloggers on the morning of January 15, 2010. 10CAIRO99 notes the group was on the way to “Naga Hamadi to visit the families of those killed in the January 6 sectarian shootings.” The families were Coptic Christians.

The group was released the day after and the cable indicates U.S. officials played a role in ensuring the group was released.

Politicians Osama Ghazali Harb of the liberal Democratic Front Party, Kifaya leader Georg Ishaaq and Cairo University professor and opposition leader Mohamed Abul Ghar were among those arrested. Al-Masry Al-Youm covered the incident reporting that when arrested the group had “cell phones and identification cards taken away from them.” It also reported that “Abdel Salam, Mohamed Khaled known by his alias 'Demagh Mak' and human rights activist Paula Abdo -- himself an eyewitness to some of the clashes that occured earlier in Naga Hammadi following the shooting” were among the group detained.

Abbas is quoted in the cable saying “police beat and lightly injured" blogger Ahmed Bedawi during the arrests “for no apparent reason.”

Abbas has been a target ever since he began to post videos of police torture. He was arrested and released by the Egyptian Army on February 4. That day he tweeted that he “was being stopped [at] every single checkpoint” and “we are getting arrested every five minutes now for looking like foreigners and having a camera and a laptop.”

The week of his arrest, a November 2008 cable, 08CAIRO2371, which was covered nicely by Foreign Policy, was believed to show how US diplomats had worked to get Abbas’ YouTube account reinstated by Google. Although his name is redacted in the cable, CNET said it thought the redacted name was Abbas’:

Prominent Egyptian blogger XXXXXXXXXXXXX, contacted us November 17 to report that YouTube removed from his website two videos exposing police abuses -- one of Sinai bedouin allegedly shot by police and thrown in a garbage dump during the past week's violence (ref A), and the other of a woman being tortured in a police station. XXXXXXXXXXXXX told us that YouTube is also preventing XXXXXXXXXXXX from posting new videos, and asked us for assistance in urging YouTube to re-post his removed videos and reinstate his access to uploading new material. XXXXXXXXXXXXX said XXXXXXXXXXXXXX has tried to contact Google, but has not received a response.

In December 2007, DRL and Embassy Cairo worked to convince Google to restore XXXXXXXXXXXXX' YouTube access after a similar incident. We believe that a similar Department intervention with Google representatives could help in restoring XXXXXXXXXXXXX' access again. XXXXXXXXXXXXis an influential blogger and human rights activist, and we want to do everything we can to assist him in exposing police abuse. XXXXXXXXXXXXX' post of a video showing two policemen sodomizing a bus driver was used as the main evidence to convict the officers in November 2007 (ref C).

The most interesting part of 08CAIRO2371 is perhaps this section:

(SBU) The group included bloggers, journalists, activists from secular opposition parties such as El-Ghad and the Democratic Front Party and movements such as "Kifaya" and "April 6. A lawyer for the group confirmed that a French activist was among the detainees. Some of the detainees are participants in Freedom House's "New Generation" program which provides training for young activists. One member of the group departed for Washington January 18 to participate in a Project on Middle East Democracy program. Contacts confirmed that activist and El-Ghad party member Israa Abdel Fattah was also part of the group. (Note: Abdel Fattah was the subject of headlines in April 2008 when she was arrested and detained for 17 days after her call for an April 6 general strike on Facebook attracted almost 70,000 members (ref B). Following her release, she renounced her activities in a television interview, and has remained out of public view until now. End note.)

The “New Generation” program is “supported by funds from the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).” It has provided Egyptian fellows the opportunity to work with Americans and “hone” skills so they can become “social and political reformers.”

The program is essentially a pro-democracy initiative, the kind of initiative that Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed was behind the “green revolution” which almost prevented him from staying in power after a possibly fraudulent election.

The Mubarak regime is no doubt aware of human rights organizations and initiatives supported by the US to promote political and social reform within Egypt. The toleration of such US programs probably takes place because of the billions of dollars in military aid that Mubarak receives annually—about $1.3 billion annually. [See 10CAIRO64 shows Egypt’s State of Emergency laws make it possible for the Egypt government to “place restrictions on personal freedom of assembly, movement, residence, traffic in specific areas at specific times,” “arrest suspects or individuals threatening public security and order,” conduct “arrests and searches without implementation of the law of criminal procedures” and authorize “surveillance of personal messages and confiscation of publications." The laws are why the government has been able to shut down blogs or websites like it did last week as state police beat and arrested Sandmonkey, a blogger known in right wing blog circles in the US as someone who has assured conservatives the Muslim Brotherhood is not behind the uprising. (And that is why one of the protesters in Tahrir Square's demands is an end to the Emergency laws.)

Bloggers are inseparable from the revolution. Their persecution lays bare and calls attention to all the brutality and human rights abuses the Mubarak regime has committed. When they speak out on their blogs or websites and are targeted, they show how authoritarian and undemocratic Egyptian society happens to be. And, they and anyone effectively using social media to organize and push the revolution in Egypt along is guaranteed from this point forward to become a bigger nightmare for the Mubarak regime if the regime beats, arrests, detains and/or imprisons a blogger.

Photo credit: Dream TV interview with Wael Ghonim after his release on February 7.

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