Thursday, November 03, 2005

Egyptian blogger "detained"

Get it? Detained. Where have we heard that word? Seems to be a buzzword in the making that actually means unlawfully-but-lawfully in custody. Newspeak, anyone?

Baheyya is one of the smartest writers I have found, and she also happens to be Egyptian. Her commentary will hold up strong to anyone's. Today she points to the detention of a follow Egyptian blogger by the authorities.

On Wednesday October 26, Alexandrian blogger Abdel Karim Nabil Suleiman was taken from his home and detained by State Security agents (Amn al-Dawla). Bloggers who visited his family report that the family believes Abdel Karim's political opinions and writings for several outlets, including Copts United, are behind the arrest. Suleiman is a 21-year-old law student at al-Azhar University (Damanhour campus). He lives in the Muharram Bek neighborhood that witnessed rioting by 5,000 Muslims outside the Mar Girgis Church on Oct. 21, resulting in three deaths and more than 100 wounded. Security forces detained 100-some rioters but recently released many of them.

As is now well known, the crowds were protesting a play performed at the church two years ago that allegedly insults Islam. The play was recently circulated via CD/DVD by unknown parties, though theories abound as to who could be behind it. Stories point the finger at the Ikhwan, competition between rival NDP candidates, and long-festering social tensions. Observers disagree on whether the violence was election-related, but all agree that the government's purely security-centric approach to sectarian relations is blatantly inadequate.

Abdel Karim maintains a blog, but his family could not say whether this is relevant to the arrest. Abdel Karim's brother speculated that his arrest may be instigated by local "fundamentalists" with whom Abdel Karim apparently has tense relations. It remains to be seen whether he has been "preventively detained" for the usual 15-day chunks and whether he will be formally charged by State Security Prosecution. The first few days (sometimes weeks) of a detention are always the murkiest, with Amn al-Dawla deliberately keeping everyone in the dark to instill fear and confusion. The causes of Karim's detention thus remain entirely unclear. Did neighborhood toughs instigate the police to arrest him? Are security agents punishing Abdel Karim for his writings? Why did his family appear to be unconcerned with locating his whereabouts?

Given these and many more questions, it seems to me counterproductive to traffic in unsubstantiated theories and rumours, or to reflexively sensationalise this as an Iranian-style 'crackdown on bloggers,' or to bicker about whether Abdel Karim's views are "representative" or worth defending. This is basic: a person's views are never the issue when it comes to arbitrary and unlawful detention. The issue is security agents' behaviour, plain and simple. Therefore, I will not comment here on what I think of Abdel Karim's writings; what I or anyone else thinks is not relevant, with due respect. It is much more important now to monitor the situation closely and work to obtain concrete information from State Security, as Egypt's human rights groups have always done in these situations.

She is being overly gratious in her comments. From what I have read sectarian conflicts in Egypt can become downright savage. The word "extremist" might well be applied to both sides, with the Copts (one of the world's oldest identifiable Christian groups) engaging in vitriolic counter-attacks that can be as provocative as those of their Islamic opponents.

John Burgess mentioned this most recent conflict yesterday. He linked to an informative piece in Asharq Alawsat worth reading.

The antagonism has swelled so much that after the riots, President Hosni Mubarak made a rare acknowledgment of the tensions. On Saturday, he told a gathering of Muslim scholars they need to promote "a religious discourse that cuts away intrigues and backbiting among Muslims and Christians — to preserve Egypt's stability, social fabric and national unity."

"Teach young people that heaven's law prohibits spilling the blood of the innocent," he said. "Remind them always that religion is between them and God, and our nation is for everyone. Nobody has a monopoly on faith."
The Internet has played a role before in fomenting tensions between the two religious groups. In December last year, word spread through Christian Web sites about a wife of a priest being abducted by Muslims and forced to convert to Islam. That rumor triggered protests by thousands of Christians who clashed with security forces. The allegations were never verified.

Christian-Muslim tensions erupt violently at least once a year, usually over similar forced conversion allegations or Christian attempts to build or renovate churches in heavily populated Muslim areas. In 2000, 23 people, most of them Christians, were killed in the southern village of el-Kusheh in clashes sparked by an argument between a Muslim customer and a Coptic Christian shopkeeper.

But so far, government and religious officials have tended to keep contentious issues quiet and intervene only when the tensions turn violent.

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