In Egypt, Alaa Abd El Fattah is an icon. An icon of the revolution, yes, but he's also an icon because of something far more sinister: He has been arrested or investigated under every Egyptian head of state in his lifetime.
Before the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, free speech was the domain of bloggers, who took advantage of the country’s relatively open internet to kick off what would become a phenomenon. Abd El Fattah was at the forefront of the movement, founding — with his wife, Manal Hassan — one of the region’s first blog aggregators. By the mid-2000s, Egypt’s bloggers numbered in the thousands.
One early observer called the Arab blogosphere “young, technologically oriented, and politically unengaged.” But political disillusionment isn’t the same as civic disengagement; despite an overwhelming distrust of the political process among prominent bloggers, blogging gave rise to movements across the region, from anti-censorship efforts in Tunisia to anti-torture campaigns in Egypt.
Though reluctant to censor the internet, Mubarak’s government clearly saw the threat posed by this emerging community and sought to limit its reach. In 2006, Abd El Fattah became one of the first bloggers in the country to see the inside of a jail cell when he was arrested during a peaceful protest calling for an independent judiciary. Rather than deter him, his 45 days in prison spurred his activism onward. “There's no going back now,” Hassan told reporters after the announcement of her husband's release.
The US is promoting human rights principles with one hand, and enabling human rights abuses with the other.
The Mubarak regime’s silencing tactics were subtle compared to those of subsequent governments. Dozens of young political activists have been rounded up for violating a draconian anti-protest law, and at least 65 journalists have been detained since former president Mohamed Morsi was ousted last summer. The charges levied against both protesters and journalists have been notably severe.
Abd El Fattah’s latest sentence — handed down June 11, only days after new president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was sworn in — is excessive by any measure. Along with 24 co-defendants, Abd El Fattah was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of attacking a police officer and protesting the government’s ban on unsanctioned protests, as well as rioting and “disturbing public order.” In an Orwellian twist, Abd El Fattah and two of his co-defendants were sentenced in absentia because they were standing outside of the courthouse at the time, awaiting permission to enter.
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These heavy-handed tactics employed by the interim military regime and assumed to continue under Sisi are not unique to Egypt. Halfway around the world, Vietnamese blogger and activist Le Quoc Quan is serving a prison sentence for tax evasion. Before Quan’s December 2012 arrest, he’d endured years of harassment and physical attacks for his activism. A lawyer, he was disbarred in 2007 on suspicion of engaging in “activities to overthrow the regime.” Like Abd El Fattah, Quan’s only real “crime” seems to be his willingness to raise his voice against a corrupt regime.
In Ethiopia, six bloggers — members of a collective known as Zone 9 — await trial. Arrested almost two months ago, the bloggers have not been formally charged, though they’ve been accused of “working with foreign organizations that claim to be human rights activists and agreeing in idea and receiving finance to incite public violence through social media.”
For some Ethiopians, the delay in charging the bloggers is a bitter indication of the injustice of the system.
The Ethiopian government’s campaign to silence dissent has seen more than 100 people sentenced under the country’s sweeping Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Among them are two award-winning journalists — Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu — sentenced to 18 and 14 years respectively (Alemu’s sentence was later reduced to 5 years).
Despite broad international support — Amnesty International has designated Nega a prisoner of conscience, “detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression” — both journalists remain behind bars.
Around the world, the story repeats. In Kuwait, China, Morocco, the UAE, and elsewhere, bloggers have become targets of governments intent on quashing dissent, their voices often silenced by the blunt force of absurd charges.
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The internal factors that have led to each country’s crackdown on speech differ, but they all share one important characteristic: amity with the United States. Egypt and Ethiopia, in particular, have played key support roles in America’s global “war on terror.”
Despite decades of dictatorship, the US considers Egypt a key ally in the Middle East, with US assistance to the country playing “a central role in Egypt’s economic and military development.” The US has provided military aid in the range of $1.3 billion to Egypt every year since 1979 despite serious human rights abuses.
Ethiopia was an early member of the United States’ “coalition of the willing” and receives military training funds from the US. In 2007, the US even allowed the Ethiopian government to make a secret arms purchase from North Korea, circumventing the long-standing sanctions against the regime. The CIA is also reported to have set up and used extraordinary rendition “black sites” in the country.
At the same time, the Department of State has espoused a campaign of internet freedom, funding tools and programs worldwide that enable people to circumvent censorship and protect themselves against digital surveillance — people like Abd El Fattah and Nega. When compared to what's spent on military aid, however, the program’s $8 million budget (in 2013) seems paltry.
In other words, the US is promoting human rights principles with one hand, and enabling human rights abuses with the other. For Abd El Fattah, Nega, Alemu, and every other imprisoned blogger, this isn’t mere rhetoric. The United States’ ongoing support of their governments, despite documented human rights abuses, has real impact on their treatment and on their futures.
Photo via Flickr