Commentary

Freedom for an Egyptian Blogger and Freethinker

Abdelkareem Nabil Suleiman, an Egyptian college student and blogger, will be sentenced on February 22 in Cairo. His alleged crime is expressing his own personal opinion on issues of education, women’s rights, and government reform. As punishment, he could spend the next 15 years in prison. This is a travesty that should not be allowed to happen.

The adoption of new technology in the Arab world is in full gear. With the absence of free press and media outlets, citizens are now turning to external media outlets such as CNN, BBC, and Al-Jazeera to obtain less filtered news, and to the Internet as a venue to express and share their thoughts. In his Weblog, Abdelkareem voiced a rather sharp criticism of Al-Azhar University, its archaic and rigid curriculum that entices and fosters religious extremism, and the Egyptian government. He was subsequently expelled from the institution.

This was, however, only the beginning of his problems. In November last year, he was ordered to appear before a public prosecutor on charges of “spreading information disruptive of public order,” “incitement to hate Muslims,” and “insulting the president.” Since then, he has been detained “pending investigation” of the case and the detention has been renewed four times. He has not had consistent access to legal counsel or to family members.

Although we feel the opinions he expressed were strongly worded and he could have chosen less aggressive and contentious words, Abdelkareem raises legitimate issues and concerns of paramount importance to the Egyptian society. For example, the rigid academic curricula at Egyptian (and other Arab) colleges are in need of overhauling at the very least. Universities, such as Al-Azhar, lack a commitment to critical thinking and have failed to help their students integrate in the modern globalizing world.

Egypt is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media.” The exceptions allowed are narrowly drawn and require a showing of “necessity” before restrictions can be imposed; the posting of opinions on a student’s personal blog hardly qualifies as a threat to national security, to the reputation of the president, or to public order. Abdelkareem is not a threat to Egypt, but this prosecution is.

Dissenting views ought not to be punished, but rather debated. We feel that the Egyptian authorities should clear this tragic mistake and release Abdelkareem immediately. Outraged by how this case has unfolded, the international community has used the Internet, Abdelkareem’s favorite means of communication, to galvanize orchestrated support through a Web site (www.freekareem.org). On February 15, bloggers and human rights activists gathered around the world to call on the Egyptian authorities to respect freedom of speech. We echo and encourage this call.

We strongly feel that sending Abdelkareem to jail will not solve Egypt’s problems but rather will help create a larger wedge of mistrust between the government and its people. This will force bloggers to go underground, publishing their blogs under assumed names.

Policies of restricting free expression are doomed to fail. What the government of Egypt must do is to accept and embrace new technology like the Internet and use it as a source of constructive dialogue that will advance discussion on topics of importance to the Egyptian people. Issues like transparency, educational reform, personal liberties, and the role of women must be debated, advanced, and resolved. Egypt will greatly benefit from having thousands of bloggers debating and exchanging ideas in cyberspace.

The government of Egypt must reach out to people like Abdelkareem because they are a much-needed source of reform on all levels. Citizens should be free to express their personal opinions without fear of being imprisoned or killed. The mind and the parachute have one thing in common. They only work when they are open.

Raja M. Kamal is associate dean for resource development at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago. Tom G. Palmer is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and director of the Byrne Project on Middle East Liberty. Palmer has also blogged about the Soliman incident at the Cato Institute blog, Cato@Liberty.