Internet activists stage online day of protest against military council

The Twitter updates kept on coming, sometimes at a rate of ten a minute. “The sheer spite they had for us and for the revolution will never be forgotten,” tweeted Mosa’ab al-Shamy at around 12.30 pm.

Shortly afterwards, in response to a fellow user’s question, he added: “We were all humiliated during detention.” Elshamy was recently arrested during protests in front of the Israeli Embassy and released yesterday on probation. He tweeted his feelings on the military after his experience in detention.  

Legions of Twitter users followed suit. At 2:40 pm, Omnia Khalil tweeted, “We’re not satisfied with the military council.” Two minutes later, Gigi Ibrahim joined the debate by declaring that “revolution means restructuring of institutions” before adding that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was not capable of such reform.

And so it went on; a relentless tide of micro-tirades against the ruling military council. Elsewhere bloggers were joining the fray, each one responding to a recent online call for 23 May to become a day of internet insurrection against Egypt’s military rulers. Some online activists also set up a Facebook page on which to criticize the ruling military council.

By around 4 pm on Monday, one Twitter user, Evan Hill, pointed out that at least 160 bloggers had posted entries criticizing the military council.

Many of those taking part wanted to use the occasion to test the limits of freedom of speech, well aware of the long shadow that was cast over bloggers by the imprisonment of Michael Nabil last month after he wrote anti-military posts on his blog.

Others simply wanted to draw attention to abuses of power by the SCAF, which has hauled anywhere between 8,000 to 10,000 people in front of military courts since 11 February, according to human rights groups.

So it was that the author of the Mandoism blog, an anonymous writer calling himself an “internet mogul in the making”, asked why the military had been so sluggish in prosecuting Hosni Mubarak. “Reason and logic says that the delay in the investigation and trial means he had lots of time to adjust his papers.”

Another blogger, whose site goes by the portentous name Merchant of Pain started his post today by praising the actions of the military when they intervened early in the uprising to prevent a “massacre”.

But he finished his post by adding: “We must join hands and unite Muslims, Christians and other opponents for the home first, for the revolution and then for the community to reject the military junta, which is tantamount to Mubarak again.”

According to Mostafa Hussein, a doctor who writes a blog called Moftasa and who took part in today’s day of cyber activism, now is not the time to shy away from criticizing the ruling military council.

“If people get afraid of writing something then we’ll be going back several years to before uprising,” he said.

Hussein said that the case of Nabil was a concern for those worried about freedom of speech on the internet. But he added that bloggers he knew were not particularly frightened because, in his opinion, Nabil was a special case.

“It’s not well known that Michael Nabil had problems with the army before the revolution. Having a blogger taken from their home and subject to a military trial is horrible, but at the same time people have to remember that there were problems before.”

It is a point reinforced by Sherif Azer, assistant secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

Azer conducted research into cyber activism in Egypt for his masters degree, and said that the “Michael Nabil effect” is probably not having as much of an impact as the military council might have hoped.

“So far nothing drastic has happened,” he said. “Nobody is saying ‘I’m not going to blog’ because they want to avoid some kind of situation. Most people are still criticizing the army.”

According to Azer, the military is only “pretending” to be the guarantor of the Egyptian uprising and lacks “flexibility”.

“Through pressure on the military council we still have a chance to make them listen to our demands,” Azer said.

One of the major grievances of those who went online today was the SCAF’s prolific use of the military court system to process those arrested since Hosni Mubarak resigned.

Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights, said that although no exact figure for the total number of court cases exists, the number is likely to be between 8,000 and 10,000 people. Reasons for arrest have ranged from alleged attacks on policemen to public order related charges, and more than 50 percent of those seen by military courts have been released without going to jail.

Others have not been so lucky. Eid said that a request for precise figures was turned down by the military, but by collating information from lawyers he estimates that 25 percent of military court suspects have been put behind bars. For some it is only for a matter of weeks, but for others it is much longer. Many are still in jail, but with no facts or figures about them they have become ghosts in the judicial machine.

According to Eid, today’s cyber protesters should not be afraid of criticizing the army. “People have a right to criticize them, as the SCAF has a political role. But the army does not allow people to criticise them.”

Back in 2007, blogger Karim Amer became one of the first people to be jailed in Egypt for writings posted on the internet. He was arrested after publishing criticism of the country’s Al-Azhar religious authorities, and ended up serving three years in jail.

According to Sherif Azer, since Amer was imprisoned the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights has documented up to 20 cases per year of people being arrested on charges related to their internet activity. Most were released and no further action was taken, but the figure is a reflection of the dangers posed to bloggers who were operating under the noses of Mubarak’s secret policemen.

Perhaps that is the reason behind another target of today’s online ire – the perceived impotence of the mainstream press in criticizing the military.

“It’s a message to the mainstream media, who are showing a sense of not really challenging the military council,” Hussein, the blogger, said.

During the time of Mubarak, media stories criticizing the army in any way were utterly off limits. The limitations have eased somewhat since 25 January, but echoes of the old attitudes remain. Editors were sent orders from the SCAF not to publish negative stories about the military, and some journalists claim an element of self-censorship remains.

One reporter from an independent Arabic-language daily, who did not want to be named, said: “Before the revolution it was so difficult to write about the army. But it is also difficult now, as the army has sent our editor a message saying he should not print any articles, pictures or caricatures about them.”

In reality, plenty of articles about the army hit the news stands every day. Yet some analysts still sense a nervousness among certain editors particularly from state-run newspapers like Al-Ahram.

Samy Tayie, a professor of journalism at Cairo University, said: “All the national newspapers are quite conservative when it comes to the Higher Military Council. But otherwise the other newspapers talk quite freely.”

Even so, it is unlikely that mainstream media in Egypt would unload on the military council with the same venom of today’s bloggers and Twitter users.

Today’s online activism may have little effect compared to on-the-ground agitating. As one Twitter user, Sherief Farouk tweeted, “The SCAF doesn't care about blogs the real test would be the reaction if someone printed the posts & handed them out on the street.”

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