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DISPATCH FROM CAIRO

A blog as national conscience

An Egyptian risks his life to document police abuse and repression.

February 08, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — It was not the most comforting of e-mails: "May God honor my sword by slaying Wael Abbas."

Cyberspace can be a messy, dangerous place, especially if you're Abbas, who with keyboard, digital camera and a bit of cunning has become one of Egypt's most popular bloggers. His posts, often with scratchy video, catalog police torture, political oppression, labor strikes, sexual harassment and radical Islam. He's been vilified and threatened, but has managed to stay out of jail, operating in an uncensored realm beyond the independent and state-controlled media.

"What matters to me is publicizing violations against human rights. I don't care about scandals or private lives. I care about abuses," said Abbas, 33, who outlined his mission while repeatedly checking his cellphone, which had a soft, if disconcerting, Bee Gees song as ring-tone.

"I try to avoid being arrested. There are activists who want to get arrested to add to their resume. I don't need to get arrested to prove that I'm authentic or a patriot."

His target is what he says has gone wrong with Egypt during the 26-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. The country, a strong U.S. ally, is plagued by a high unemployment rate, soaring inflation and disparate opposition groups that have been largely muted by security forces and Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Egypt's stature as the Arab world's leading voice has slipped, and Abbas has become a ubiquitous chronicler of national anxiety.

"I'm trying to enlighten people to what's going on," he said. "The most disturbing thing is that people won't revolt. They are worried about their jobs and their kids. They work as donkeys and don't demand a better life."

Abbas' most dramatic blog posts are videos, some shot with cellphone cameras, depicting police brutality, which has long been a concern in this country of 80 million people. In 2007, Abbas gained international attention when he posted images of police officers sodomizing a bus driver with a stick. The driver had committed no crime, and the courts, forced to react to irrefutable evidence and public anger, sentenced two police officers each to three years in prison.

Recent videos posted by Abbas and other bloggers have found their way into the mainstream media and forced the Interior Ministry and the courts to more swiftly investigate officers accused of torture and abuse.

Such charges often were dismissed or led to light prison sentences and received little public scrutiny. But increasingly, cases are coming to trial, such as one this month in which three Alexandria officers were found guilty of abusing a suspect by forcing him to march down a busy street wearing women's underwear.

"Egyptians knew about this kind of torture," Abbas said. "But it's the first time they are seeing it. These videos have created a state of shock and disbelief. . . . The number of reported abuse cases is growing, and the number of officers convicted is growing."

He criticized the United States for supporting the Mubarak government with about $2 billion a year in military and economic aid.

"The U.S. should stop aiding Egypt, because it's paying for military and police forces that are suppressing the Egyptian people with pepper spray and tear gas," he said.

Blogging in the Middle East can be as liberating as it perilous. With autocratic governments wielding security and intelligence forces, freedom of expression on human rights and politics is often safest when whispered. Even Egypt's robust independent news media is constantly the target of lawsuits and intimidation. Bloggers, once considered by censors as harmless computer nerds tapping out missives in a vacuum, have become a larger threat in a region rapt for unfiltered information.

"There's a blogger in Morocco posting police videos. In Saudi Arabia, bloggers are tackling taboo issues such as religious freedom and the rights of women," said Abbas, adding that bloggers in many Middle East countries, including Egypt, have been imprisoned. "But bloggers don't have a lot of support in the region. The power is in the hands of the regimes."

Dressed in jeans, a leather jacket and a hooded sweat shirt, Abbas sat the other day in a Cairo cafe. He said he was inspired years ago by the rebellious music of Ice-T, who much to Abbas' chagrin now plays a cop on a TV show.

Abbas is streetwise but is as low-key as his website -- misrdigital.blogspirit.com -- is loudly defiant. His ring-tone is not "Staying Alive," but the softer, "More than a Woman."

He has been detained by police several times; once he was held for six hours and never questioned. Abbas has not faced the charges that force many writers and journalists into court: defaming the president or spreading false rumors.

When asked why he thinks he hasn't been indicted, Abbas said, "That's the million-dollar question. I've been lucky."

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