By PAUL SCHEMM
2009-02-11 10:37 PM
Egypt is increasingly sensitive to criticism about its response to Israel's Gaza offensive and appears to be cracking down on a new generation of activists.
The arrests over Gaza are the latest chapter in what has been a wider government crackdown on bloggers and independent activists over the past year.
With most traditional avenues of political dissent closed, bloggers have gained prominence in recent years, exposing government corruption and police brutality. Security agencies have struck back, and more than half a dozen are either in jail or out on bail with cases pending.
The government has also targeted the country's main opposition movement, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which has born the brunt of the government's sensitivity over the Gaza situation. Police have jailed 800 of its members over the last two months, usually for attempting to bring aid to the embattled Palestinians.
Philip Rizk, a graduate student at the American University in Cairo, and a passionate blogger about the plight of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, was held for five days by Egypt's plainclothes security men after marching with 15 others through the countryside outside Cairo carrying pro-Palestinian banners.
State Security never said why he was detained, but Rizk's blog about the situation in Gaza was critical of the Egyptian government's refusal to open its border crossing with Gaza during Israel's the three-week offensive to stop Hamas rocket fire.
Rizk, a graduate of Wheaton College near Chicago, also spent two years in Gaza and produced a documentary there about daily life in the impoverished strip.
Popular anger in Egypt over the Gaza war has been running high due to pervasive media images of Palestinian suffering during the Israeli assault in which 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died. Many feel that Egypt could have done more to support the Palestinians.
Egyptian military tribunals convicted two young activists, Ahmed Douma and Ahmed Kamal, of illegally crossing into Gaza and blogging about the war there and sentenced them to a year in prison. Grizzled opposition politician Magdi Hussein, 58, received two years imprisonment on Wednesday for a similar offense.
On Friday, 22-year-old blogger Diaeddin Gad was also arrested by police at his home north of Cairo and remains in custody after criticizing Egyptian policy on Gaza in his blog, "Voice of Anger," according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. A number of others are also believed to be in custody for similar activism.
According to Ahmed Droubi, a 26-year-old environmental consultant who was present when Rizk was arrested, the regime overreacted to the small, peaceful march on Friday because they did not expect it.
"I think they were shocked, there was something they didn't hear about, suddenly they just found these 15 people walking in the middle of nowhere," he said, describing the six-mile (10-kilometer) march through the countryside north of Cairo.
Every member of the march was questioned and had their information taken down by officers, and many later received visits at their homes or workplaces from plainclothes security men.
"I haven't slept at home in three days," said Travis Randall, 26, of Boulder, Colorado, who took part in the march. He said lawyers recommended he wait until the furor over the whole affair had calmed down before returning home. "They believe it's an intimidation thing."
Unlike many people in State Security custody, Rizk was not physically tortured, according to Droubi who spoke to him after his release. "There was no physical mistreatment, he was interrogated for hours upon hours though."
Egyptian security use such techniques to intimidate young activists and squelch opposition at an early age, explained Aida Seif el-Dawla, a psychologist and veteran political activist working at the Al-Nadim Center for victims of torture.
"The mere fact that you are being held incommunicado is itself a form of psychological torture," she said, explaining that despite the small size of many of the protests, the youth of the activists is considered dangerous by the regime.
"The whole regime is aging and the potential of young people appearing here and there and taking the initiative is threatening, like for example the 6 April group," she said. She was referring to a group that began on the social networking site Facebook calling for an anti-government strike in 2008. The Facebook site attracted tens of thousands of members.
The 27-year-old woman who co-founded the group was arrested and held by security for 18 days. She was released after promising never to engage in political activity again.
Online media has also played a major role in the campaign to release Rizk. Within hours of his detention a Facebook group with thousands of members had been founded, as well as a Web page dedicated to the campaign. Small but spirited rallies were held for his release around Cairo and in Europe and the U.S.
"I think direct action was the key to getting him released. I think also the media coverage was central in organizing that _ and Facebook of course," said Adrienne Pine, a professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo who organized rallies for his release.