As I promised in my last article “Online Freedom for All: Some cases worth supporting”, I’m publishing here the translation of the interview I did with the jailed Egyptian blogger and journalist Abdel-Monem Mahmoud at the 3rd annual Al Jazeera Forum in Doha, Qatar, two weeks before Monem’s arrest. Monem has been arrested on 15 April 2007 after reporting on torture in a video and in an article he called “The Fourth Anniversary of the Torture of Detainee #25” (available in English) and after using blogs as campaigning tools against the transferring of civilians to military tribunals in his “Blogs Against Military Rulers” (also available in English)
In this interview Monem spoke about his experiences as Brother blogger and the history of the use of Internet by the Muslim Brotherhood and its young generation. He also explained why, as Brother, he is supporting his fellow jailed blogger, the secular Kareem Amer and how the blogging is challenging traditional media in Egypt.
On the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day, few bloggers and activists from around the world have launched the Free Monem campaign making available for the Anglophone audience what Monem was blogging about and what sort of a person Monem is. “ We cannot let the regime succeed in silencing him. We have to show the Egyptian regime that when you imprison a blogger, you don’t silence his voice, you AMPLIFY it!” they wrote in their email announcement.
Sami: Why has the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) moved onto the internet, bearing in mind that it is a grassroots movement that relies on direct contact with its audience? Is the MB following the example of the Kifaya Movement or is this change in internet presence due to the dynamism of the youth within the Brotherhood itself?
Monem: Let's first differentiate between the blogging movement and the internet movement. The Brothers started using the internet in 1999. We were the first group to do that. At that time, we were students in the University of Cairo and we published the first student website in Egypt “Gama3a Online” (University Online) and there was a lot of buzz about it. There were two webmasters who were students and I was one of the two others who were writing articles. Afterwards, there was a new group who created another website called “Egypt Facts” in 2000, which was a personal initiative where people could read news of the movement. That was the time of the elections of 2000. There were foreign reporters who told the MB's spokesman – who was at that time Ma'mun al-Hudaybi – that they saw his news on “Egypt Facts”. This group started promoting the website of the movement and they explained to older people that using the internet we could publish our news and reports, which was significant because we are deprived a voice in the traditional media. The Brothers continued using “Egypt Facts” until they decided to launch their official website “Ikhwan Online” in 2001. So our presence on the internet started a long time ago.
Concerning the blogging movement that started recently, some youth started writing on blogs especially after the success of the blog of Alaa and the blog of Al Wai Al Masri (The Egyptian Conscience hosted at misrdigital.com), even if they did not express their Brotherhood identity. For example, Amr Magdi had an old blog called “tark3atkeyboard” which expresses his personal opinions but not his intellectual affiliation.
I got out of jail after the incident of Soor related to the Brothers. I found out that I could tell about my six-month experience in jail, which was not really “news” that I can publish as a professional report. When I thought about how to publish, I thought about a blog. I am proud of belonging to the Brotherhood movement as an idea before it became an organization. I decided to write on my blog “Ana Ikhwan” (I am a Brother), as Abd Al-Monem Mahmoud, the person who belongs to the idea of Brotherhood. This is how I wanted to present myself to people who would read the blog.
Sami: What was the feedback of the blog's readers? Did people react positively towards this new youth trend in the Muslim Brotherhood?
Monem: When the blog was published, people became aware of it gradually. I got two kinds of feedback. An internal feedback from the young Brothers who appreciated that young people were expressing the identity of the organization, especially given that the security forces impose a low media profile on the organization. After “Ana-Ikhwan”, there were many other blogs “Ibn Akh” (son of a Brother) , ” Chabab Al Ikhwan” (Brotherhood Youth) and a girl who published “Bint mn El Ikhwan” (Daughter from the Brotherhood), also “Ikhwangi” (Muslim Brother) and “Ikhwani” (Muslim Brother). And these are all names related to the idea of Brothers. Recently, I also discovered that there is someone who published “Ana Ikhwan” like mine but without a dash. Someone else published “Muslim Brotherhood” in English.
The idea was welcome for youth. These people express that they are from the Brotherhood – whether they are college students, graduates or professionals – and they want to share their identity with readers. There was even feedback from the youth of “Kifaya” and people from Egyptian secular groups.
I think that the comments are a kind of discourse and conversation that should be emphasized more than the articles themselves. We were engaged in conversations through comments. There were great comments about people liking the idea or people who were surprised that someone from the Brotherhood published.
Sami: What is the relationship between the bloggers of the Brotherhood and the Egyptian blog aggregator “Manal and Alaa's bit bucket“? Is there a common ground that gathers the bloggers in Egypt towards the reform movement?
Monem: I found out that my blog was added to the “Manal and Alaa's bit bucket” aggregator and we were communicating by email. After the incidents of Al Azhar and the military trials, there was a group of the Brothers who created blogs and we called this group of blogs “Blogs Against Military Rulers” and I wrote a report about it on my blog. Alaa told me that he would add these blogs to the aggregator and that their last releases would appear as “Latest News,” to express solidarity with their issue. Another solidarity action is that Alaa sent me an email saying that he is sorry that he is busy and that he did something for his professor “Dr. Issam Hashish” –who is from the Muslim Brotherhood.
One important common point among us is that we live in an authoritarian country and we claim freedom and reform as Egyptians, and then come our intellectual affiliations.
Sami: Do you think there is an injustice in the media coverage of Brotherhood blogsphere? For example, when foreign media sources mention the Egyptian blogs, they usually talk about the “liberals”. The campaign to free the blogger Kareem Amer, the support he has on the internet and in the streets of numerous western cities. Do you think there is some kind of double standard or bias behind the limited coverage of the Brotherhood's bloggers and persecuted members (by traditional media) even though their stories are being covered by the Egyptian blogs ?
Monem: If you look at what happened to Kareem and what happened to the Brothers, with regards to the amount of media coverage they both received, there is no balance. There are forty people who were unfairly sent to illegitimate trials, and on the other side there is one person who unfairly sent to an illegitimate trial. There is a non-equivalence even if the blogs on Kareem are from people who have the same affiliations as him or from people who show solidarity with him. If we see that there are forty people who were sent to military tribunals, and there are hundreds who are in preventive detention waiting to be sentences or freed, we find no balance. But no one disagrees about the fact that the majority of bloggers published banners and badges, started exchanging the news of the Brothers and the children of the Brothers who created a movement called “Children for Freedom“. Let's say that all forty are facing an unfair trial and they are on an equal footing in the sense that they face an authoritative system that does not distinguish between Islamist voices and secularist voices. It's a system that's interested only in preserving its power and ready to jail anyone even if it's a voice that used to be one of its own or even a national party member.
Sami: What's your personal opinion as a blogger on the sentencing of Kareem Amer because of his writings and what some may think of as criticism to the Islamic religion? Do you support him? Do you support his freedom of expression even when though he has gone beyond the boundaries that the religious and political authority in Egypt set?
Monem: First, I disagree with Kareem Amer in what he has written. But what I can't disagree with is that the person who persecuted Kareem is not someone who cares about religion. Second, let's say that Kareem is a 22 years old man, who is still learning how to express his ideas, just like me. So it is nonsense to persecute me just because I expressed my opinion, be it right or wrong. There should be discussion, not oppression. Kareem Amer, is a young man who is only 22 years old. He is still trying to build his ideas and make sense out of them. Life is all about learning and finding the path towards knowing and learning more.
I do not think that jail is the appropriate reaction to Kareem's discourse. There are a number of ways to solve the situation. Jail is not among them. When one party is behind the bars and the other one is sitting free and judging that prisoner, this is not a form of discussion. Only discussion can solve this problem and not so much a trial.
We are all young, and there is still a level of maturity to achieve and this was not taken into account. By no means, does this deserve harsh punishment. Opinions are to be discussed. How can we jail someone whose claim is not even a strong one? It was about what he personally believed in.
Sami: Do you expect to see the Egyptian regime blocking access to the Muslim Brotherhood's blogs and the new tools it is using, just as the regime has fought the organization since its first steps?
Monem: Firstly, the Egyptian authorities are blocking access to the Muslim Brotherhood website. It is very common and we are regularly changing the IP address and the URL to keep the web site running. However, up until today there has been no blocking of any blogs, neither the liberals nor the Brothers.
However, it is important to mention that the Egyptian authorities are not targeting bloggers per se. They are more likely to be against activists who recently have been using blogs as political tools. People like: Alaa, Sharkawy, Karim Al-Shaer, they are the type of activists who are being politically persecuted. Hence, the authorities do not persecute bloggers but rather the activists among them, and it is important to make this distinction.
Still, the next period represents a turning point in the media. Traditional media will fail when faced with these sources of new information technologies. In my opinion, they will not be able to keep up. Television will find it hard to cover stories. Let's take the example of the incident of the rape of the bus driver by police. No newspaper or TV channel could cover that. What Malek wrote and what Wael Abbas broadcast were largely responsible for awareness of that event.
The blog is a free technology, which means that it is out there for anyone to use. It does not mean it is labeled as Muslim Brotherhood only. Anyone can use as they wish, whether you are a Brother, secularist, a leftists…. This means it is designed to be used at any time, at any moment, and in any way, as long as it is being used for development and improvement. After all, this totalitarian regime is the problem behind what is happening and not so much the means to correcting the situation.