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By Dalia Ziada & Jese Sage : BIO| 11 Dec 2020
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In a cramped jail cell in Alexandria, Egypt, sits a soft-spoken 22-year-old student. Kareem Amer was remanded to over a month in prison for allegedly "defaming the President of Egypt" and "highlighting inappropriate aspects that harm the reputation of Egypt." Where did Amer commit these supposed felonies? On his weblog.

If the Alexandria prosecutors' standards of censorship were applied in the US, thousands of Americans would be behind bars. The Egyptian authorities' decision to jail an obscure student for his blogposts reveals a larger struggle for free speech playing out between dissident bloggers and state prosecutors across the Middle East.

For decades, the region's dictators maintained a monopoly on public information. Newspapers, radio stations, and national television broadcasts were nearly all owned by the state. These regime-controlled media outlets toed the government line, maligned political opponents, and blocked critical voices. By inverting the watchdog role of the press - where journalists expose, investigate, and question - what should be a critical independent institution was instead transformed into a mouthpiece for government propaganda.

The advent of blogs in the past few years, however, has reshaped the playing field. While some regimes (like Algeria) may still own the main printing presses and control the national supply of ink, any citizen can access free blogging services. Now an individual's voice - even that of a random student at Al-Azhar University, like Kareem Amer - can reach audiences around the globe.

Regimes accustomed to control have struggled to respond. In Tunisia, web publisher Zouhair Yahyaoui was dragged from an Internet café by security forces and tortured into revealing his site's password after he posted a quiz mocking President Zinedine Ben Ali. In Bahrain, the Information Ministry blocked the blog of entrepreneur Mahmoud Al-Yousif for covering a political scandal. In Iran, authorities arrested student Mojtaba Saminejad after he condemned the arrest of several fellow bloggers and "insulted the Supreme Leader."

Protecting free speech in the Middle East hinges on the fate of young activists like Kareem Amer. Raised in a strict Islamic household, Amer was placed in Al-Azhar's religious school system at the age of six and watched as his sisters were forced to quit school and wear the niqab (the full-body black veil). After 18 years in the rigid world of the Al Azhar system, Amer evidently felt trapped. Rather than embrace the religious establishment, he became a critic of discrimination against women and non-Muslims.

Blogging became Amer's outlet - and his downfall. When Al-Azhar officials discovered a blogpost criticizing extremist professors, Amer was expelled and his case referred to the public prosecutor.

Although a human rights lawyer accompanied Amer to his interrogation, prosecutors made clear they were indicting Amer for his beliefs. "Do you fast on Ramadan?" they demanded. "Do you pray?" They even insisted he reveal his opinions on the Darfur crisis. Amer would not retract his blogposts, so prosecutors threw him in jail - and laughed at the human rights attorney present, openly mocking the concept of standing up for individual rights.

Only a few years ago, the arrest of a student at Al-Azhar would have been met with silence and indifference from the outside world. But today, hundreds of fellow bloggers and readers from around the world have raised the alarm. Over 1,500 have sent letters to the Egyptian government and the State Department demanding Amer's release. The technology that has empowered unknown students in closed societies to speak to the world also gives readers everywhere the ability to rally together to protect free expression.

It also enabled Amer to smuggle blogposts out from his Alexandria cell. "A person using his brain and expressing his ideas freely," he observed, "is more dangerous in our country than someone who destroys others' property or deals drugs."

Amer's arrest - for writing on a website few people have ever read - comes as the future of the Middle East hangs in the balance. While recent years have witnessed a surge in young voices challenging the status quo, powerful forces are trying to close down that window of greater liberty. In the campaign to hold Egyptian authorities accountable for criminalizing free speech, much more than the fate of one young blogger is at stake.

Dalia Ziada is a staffer at the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Jesse Sage directs the HAMSA project of the American Islamic Congress.

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