[Wael Abbas. Photo (c) by ICJF]
I restart the SAP Global Survey on Culture, Business and Social Media on a day that started with reports on the murder of an Iraqi blogger. It is an ironic coincidence that I begin with
Wael Abbas, the Egyptian blogger who is among the most prominent at-risk bloggers. He recently received the Knight Foundation Award for Journalistic Excellence for his relentless exposure of Egyptian acts of police brutality, harassment to women and government corruption. According to the Knight Foundation, Wael, the first blogger to receive the award has "raised the standards of media excellence" in his country. He has also raised the wrath of those in power and that is because he has shown compelling evidence that at least some of those who hold power in Egypt are prone to abuse it.
Wael started blogging a few years back just as something to do. But in 2005, his focus zeroed in on government impropriety and he has posted pictures and over 800 videos of women being groped and harassed, a ballot box being stuffed and other abuses, but mostly, peristently and relentlessly, he has provided abundant and compelling evidence of police abuse. He has posted 100s of videos showing police slapping around uncharged detainees in police stations and on the streets. In one highly disturbing clip an young man is sodomized with a stick by several laughing police officers. In another a woman, charged with murder is hanging from a pole like a pig over an open fire, while police batter her.
His evidence has been picked up by traditional Egyptian media who had long ignored complaints that police abuse in their country was widespread. Al Jazeera has broadcast interviews with Wael and shown his clips across Arab countries. More recently Reuters, BBC, AP, CNN and most major media networks in the West have covered Wael and shown his video evidence. An English Literature major in college, who is proficient in English, Wael writes mostly in a slangy Egyptian directed toward young Egyptians. Accommodating increased Western interests, he recently began inserting key English phrases. But mostly, he uses the powerful universal language of visual content with sufficient abundance to disprove police counter claims that such abuses are rare.
"Police beating people--often people who are never charged with anything--happens all the time. Anyone in Egypt who has ever visited a police station has heard the cries of people being beaten. People who are brought into a station for routine questioning, routinely show up back in their neighborhoods with bruises and no one needs to ask what happened. I think the world should know this is happening."
He doubts the recent Western attention on him will protect him from an ongoing barrage of threats, detentions and beatings by police who regularly remind him that "they can do whatever they wish to me." More important he says is that the West understand how one of their closest Arab states allies routinely treats its citizens. Egyot sits on the UN Council for Human Rights, Wael points out. "This is an allegedly democratic government." Unrelated to Wael are long-standing reports that US intelligence agencies have turned suspected terrorists over to Egypt, to perform acts of torture might be detected in the US.
The point is that Egypt seems to be far from the safest places to dedicated your time, as Wael has done, to reveal what the government would rather keep quiet. Earlier this year, for example, Abdel Kareem Soloman, a blogging law student began serving four years in prison for criticizing Islam and president Hosni Mubarak. Will the soft-spoken Wael be next. He has been detained and slapped around and verbally abused. Police have threatened him, followed him, made threats regarding his family and otherwise made clear they think they have authority to do whatever they wish with him. In genral, the government, according to Wael, sees exposing their abuses as a crime, and considers trouble makers like Wael as ingrates to the Mubarak government.
He remains undeterred.
Says, Wael, "Bloggers are ordinary people. We are not terrorists. We should be treated as ordinary citizens and ordinary citizens should be treated with respect. The Blogosphere is the last free voice."
Suppressing, Wael's work and ability to communicate has had some help from Western resources. Two weeks after he received his Knight Award at the Ronald Reagan Center, YouTube took down all 181 of his video posts. They say they did it because people complained about the graphic content. After numerous complaints, YouTube restored 177 of the clips, saying that Wael needed to make the contextual use of violent images clearer. Few observers believed that was the real reason. Each of the posts have warnings that the clip shows police brutality, or similar comments. "How could the context be clearer than that" he asks. It is a rhetorical question.
At about the same time, Yahoo, without warning or explanation, blocked Wael's email. It was subsequently restored without explanation after press and bloggers pointed to it. YouTube's parent Google have some history of collaborating with governments attempting to suppress citizen rights. According to Isaac Mao, Google voluntarily deleted such "offensive phrases" as "Tiananmen Square" and "human rights," on its Chinese version, without ever receiving such a request from the government. Yahoo played a historically unsavory role in fingering Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist, sentenced to 10 years in a Chinese prison after Yahoo steered authorities to him. "Perhaps YouTube prefers I posts skateboarding dogs," Wael wonders.
In fact, skateboarding dogs may pass muster at YouTube, but they might cause him a good deal of trouble in his home country, where Wael confirmed the ascending influence of the Islamic Brotherhood, which argues that life today should be lived precisely as it was during the 6th century life of the religion's primary prophet, Muhammad. The Brotherhood also maintains that showing images of either the Prophet Muhammed or naked animals is blasphemous and should be harshly punished. The Islamic Brotherhood, which has been connected to the Al Qaida, Taliban, assassination of a Dutch movie director, the Iranian Republic, the Cole incident to name a few also believes that all non Muslems should be converted or killed.
More relevant to human rights, according to multiple sources, is the Brotherhood's determined suppression of women. They are considered a prime reason for the reported increase in female genital mutilation and the return to the Burka, a caged framework of cloth that covers every inch of a woman.
The Burka is not required by Egyptian law, but it is being seen everywhere and fewer women dare walk the streets of Egypt uncovered, a common practice just a few years ago. Wael says the Burka is a form of intimidation, not religious fervor. He told me that women often wear wear tight jeans, lipstick and heels under the Burka to avoid intimidation, beating or harassment on the street, sometimes by police," Wael said.
Wael was recently laid off as a correspondent by a German news service for reasons related to his blog. He barely gets by as a freelance journalist. He's 33 and financially is forced to live at home with his family. He cannot afford to take a wife. All thing considered, why not just move to a Western country where economic and personal freedom are more easily attainable? "I have this problem. I love my country," he told me.