The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Blogger With a Cause

Posted by vmsalama on June 25, 2006

An Egyptian activist discusses his incarceration and how the Internet can be used to unite anti-government protest.

By Vivian Salama

Newsweek International

June 25, 2006

By Vivian Salama

 June 25, 2006 -Leftist opposition blogger Alaa Abdel Fateh probably has—or had—the most striking appearance of all the 53 Egyptian political detainees released last week. The 24-year-old normally wears stylish glasses and his long, frizzy black hair is usually a mass of Einsteinian curls. Those are now gone, since the first order of business in prison was to shave the heads of those arrested—ostensibly to avoid lice and fleas.Abdel Fateh—one of among hundreds of left wing and Islamist protesters detained in recent months as part of the Egyptian government’s ongoing crackdown against dissidents—was not silent during his time in prison. He continued to write his blog, smuggling it out via his wife and featuring a “FREE ALAA” portrait on his site, www.manalaa.net, which recently became difficult to access. After his release, he spoke to Vivian Salama in Cairo about anti-government protests and how Egyptians are using blogs express their political views. Excerpts:

Vivian Salama: How are you feeling?
Alaa Abdel Fateh: I woke up today [June 23] to the news that four of my friends were arrested yesterday. I still don’t know why they were arrested.  Now I have a commitment to see that my colleagues get out and remain safe.  When I was released from prison they kept me at the police station. The night I spent in the police station was worse than the months before in the detention center. You are thrown with the petty criminals and the worst of the worst. I stayed eight hours getting punched around.

Who punched you?
It wasn’t the police. Treatment was bad from the other prisoners. They used to get hit a lot and so we got hit with them. It is so dangerous. There was a big crackdown in that neighborhood over the past few days so all the junkies were roaming around [in the station cells.]

Q: What now?
I plan to take part in protests immediately.

You’re not afraid?
We are always worried about our safety. Torture is not new here. This is their tactic against the most devoted nationalists who dream of democracy.  So much of the violence in prison is a reaction to the torture by police.  So many of the detainees take drugs so that they do not suffer so much when they are being beaten. The numbness eases the pain.

Your wife smuggled out some of your blogs. Wasn’t that dangerous?
It wasn’t dangerous sneaking it out.

But why do it?
First, I had to kill time especially in the first few days because they did not let us out [of the cell].  Second, I knew it would help the democracy campaigns.  Also I wanted to record what it is like to be in prison, I knew many people wanted to know.

Were they effective?
It definitely widened the movement.  So many of us were imprisoned.  A lot of people who weren’t with the movement before joined in.  The violence and clampdown against the protesters supporting the judges [who had rebelled after being forced to endorse last year’s fraudulent parliamentary elections] was a push for a lot of new supporters. Political talks really skyrocketed among intellectual communities that normally stay out of such matters. Of course the media attention helped as well. At the same time it also made people nervous to walk on the streets.  I don’t blame them but we need a period when the people regain confidence in the efforts being done by the various pro-democracy movements.

Did you have any idea how long you would be in prison?
We really had no idea who was deciding our fate when we were in there.  I learned a real lesson—half the people with me were [political] independents coming from places we never even heard of.  We’d see them at the protests but we never really knew them. We’d connect on the Internet but never really knew each other.  Not all of them are graduates, professional—the walks of life of those in the movement are so diverse that it was really moving to me. I want to establish a network through those people to reach even more people. I think the Internet is the best way.
Do you think the expansive outreach of blogging is somehow a threat to the regime?
I cannot say that blogging is threatening the regime yet, but it definitely has the potential.  Students, for example, are starting to learn how to blog on the Internet because this is the only way they can voice their opinions—to lift the weight of repression off their shoulders. The funny thing is, when I was being held by National Security, one of the guys wouldn’t stop talking to me about how much he loves my blog. Imagine that!

You’re a leftist; what was it like to be detained with hundreds of [Islamist] Muslim Brothers?
It was a really incredible thing for me—the solidarity we experienced with Muslim Brothers. This is on a personal level. It’s not just that it makes sense politically that we stand together. We were all arrested together supporting the same cause and this was an intense experience for me. I think it is essential that we build on this and we really work to get the parties and movements to join forces.

Also check out Christopher Dickey’s After Mubarak: Order or Chaos?

© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.


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