Alaa: Arrest of blogger mobilises opposition to Egypt’s military rulers

Prolific Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah was detained on Sunday after refusing to be interrogated by a military investigator, insisting on his right to be tried before a civil court. Rasha Abdulla reports

Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah (@alaa) was jailed on 30 October for 15 days pending investigation after refusing to be interrogated by a military investigator on charges related to the now infamous Maspiro events, in which over 20 people died and many more were injured after a brutal crackdown on a Christian-majority demonstration.

Alaa was called in for investigation last week. He was active in the aftermath of the event, having spent two days at the morgue alongside other activists in solidarity with victims’ families, while trying to convince them to agree to autopsies and ensure the reports of said autopsies were correctly documented. He detailed the experience in a piece for Al Shorouk newspaper (a translation of which can be found here), in which he reminded everyone that solidarity is the solution to Egypt’s problems. Alaa has been detained before,  in 2006 he spent 45 days in jail, a piece he wrote from behind bars was published today entitled “A Return to Mubarak’s Jails.”

Alaa was in San Francisco when he was asked to report last week. His father, veteran human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El Islam Abdel Fattah, appeared in court and asked for the case to be postponed. Alaa returned to Cairo on Saturday afternoon and appeared in court on Sunday morning. The military prosecutor filed five charges against him including demonstrating, inciting to demonstrate, assaulting military personnel, destroying public property, and stealing military weapons. Alaa, whose sister Mona Seif (@monasosh) is one of the founders of the No to Military Trials for Civilians campaign refused to recognise the authority of an civic judge. He pointed out that the army is facing law suits accusing it as a defendant in the same case, which constitutes a clear conflict of interest. As a result he was detained, pending further military investigation.

Alaa has been active on the blogging scene in Egypt since 2004, when he and his wife Manal Hassan (@manal) started the award-winner blog and aggregator Manal and Alaa’s Bit Bucket. Both bloggers fought the Mubarak regime online and offline, breaking cases of corruption and police brutality that were later picked up by the traditional media.

Many believe Alaa’s detention is a warning to other bloggers and political activists, a ratcheting up of the series of violations against free expression committed by Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). The violations include summons sent to journalists Rasha Azab (@rashapress) and her editor, Adel Hammouda, over Azab’s coverage of a meeting between the No to Military Trials group and SCAF in which allegations that SCAF subjected female demonstrators to virginity tests were discussed. Later, when journalist and blogger Hossam El Hamalawy discussed SCAF on a popular Egyptian talk show, he and his show host, Reem Magued, were both called in before the military prosecutor. That visit was later described by the prosecutor as “a chat.” Other bloggers that have been interrogated and/or detained including Asmaa Mahfouz, Loai Nagati, and Maikel Nabil, who has been on a hunger strike since 22 August.

A military court sentenced Maikel Nabil to three years for “insulting the military & spreading false reports aiming to disturb public security.” The charges relate to a May blog entitled “The army and the people are not one hand,” in which he listed the army’s alleged wrongdoings, including the virginity tests claim. Maikel, who has a heart condition, was tried 12 days after being arrested on 28 March.

Other free expression violations have been committed on the satellite television front. In recent months, army police forces have raided the offices of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr several times, as well as 25TV channel. Al Jazeera Mubasher has since been banned from broadcasting from Egypt, accused of incomplete licensing procedures. Most recently, popular television host Yosri Fouda chose to indefinitely suspend his highly-viewed political talk show because he felt he was under pressure to not report things as he sees them and did not want to force himself through “self-censorship.” He told the BBC that he did not want to “take the narrative of the army” and would rather step back in protest of the military rulers’ attempts to “stifle free expression.”

The No to Military Trials campaign, which has been actively lobbying on behalf of all military detainees, has published a press release condemning Alaa’s arrest in the strongest possible words, and asking for his immediate release, together with the other 12,000 victims of military trials in Egypt, who should at least be retried before a civil court. The group called upon Egyptians to refuse to cooperate with military interrogation and to support the cause of No to Military Trials for Civilians. You can read the press release in its entirety here. A press conference by the group is scheduled for tomorrow, 3 November, at 2pm Cairo time.

Rasha Abdulla is an associate professor at the Journalism and Mass Communication Department of the American University in Cairo. An advocate for freedom of expression, Abdulla has published several books and writings on Internet use and digital activism in Egypt and throughout the Arab World. You can follow her on Twitter:@RashaAbdulla