Blogger Wael Abbas: Exposing Corruption in Egypt

 

Blogger Wael Abbas uses the internet to publicize human rights abuses and police brutality in Egypt. He has become well-known for posting videos documenting torture at police stations. His work publicizing one such video led to an unprecedented trial resulting in convictions and jail sentences for the crime's perpetrators.

Vision and Motivation

In the three decades between 1981 and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, President Hosni Mubarak kept a tight grip on Egypt. As the years passed, according to Human Rights Watch, Mubarak grew to "epitomize the authoritarian Arab ruler, presiding over a system in which opponents are muzzled and imprisoned, and where torture is widespread." [1] In this context, the internet was one of the few means Egyptians had to express themselves.

Kifaya protestIn late 2004, frustration at the Mubarak regime was reaching a peak; the government was preparing to hold presidential elections, yet everyone knew that Mubarak would "win" another term. New grassroots civic movements, such as Kifaya, the Egyptian Movement for Change, formed and began holding protests against Mubarak. However, the Egyptian media did not dare cover these events, so the public was kept largely unaware of the growing civic mobilization.

According to Wael Abbas, "That's when we bloggers decided to take matters into our own hands. We believed in the people's right to know." [2] Frustrated at the press' passivity in addressing Egypt's pressing social and political issues, he founded the blog Egyptian Awareness, filling it with his own photos and videos of the protests. Unlike most Egyptian bloggers, he limited his commentary to simple captions of pictures, since he believes "You can write a book and it can all be lies, but one picture can tell the whole story truthfully."[3]

Abbas wanted to give Egyptians only information, without attempting to lead them in a particular ideological direction. Rejecting the country's existing political movements and their efforts to manipulate Egyptians, Abbas believes that "the citizen needs awareness; he needs to know everything about everyone, because in the end he is the one who will have to decide who is good and who is bad."[4]

Goals and Objectives

Wael Abbas. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy.Throughout his blogging career, Abbas has kept his goals in mind: "My mission is to reach people [and] mobilize them. It is to acquaint people with their rights. I want the uneducated Egyptians to know that it is not acceptable for anyone to slap him on [the back of his neck, as police have done with suspects]. If I can do that, then that's good enough."[5]

On his blog, Abbas has raised awareness about government repression of political protests, sexual harassment in Cairo, election fraud, the assault and torture of political dissidents, and gruesome incidents of police brutality. Through it all, he says, "All I wanted was for my country to change, to become more democratic, and to recognize the basic rights of its citizens. So I focused my work on making people aware of what was going on and helping them understand their rights."[6]

Abbas envisions a democratic Egypt where civil liberties and rights are respected. "I am a regular Egyptian who wants my country to be better," he says. "I want to see the transfer of power, democracy, freedom, and freedom of opinion and expression."[7] An opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood, he acknowledges the possibility of their coming to power in a truly democratic Egypt, and says, "That's why I believe in working on two levels — advocating democracy while enlightening the people so that they make the right choice when the time comes for real democratic elections. That's why I called my blog Egyptian Awareness."[8]

Leadership

While Abbas has become a leader of Egypt's blogosphere, he has not always had such civic ambitions. While completing his BA in English at Ain Shams University in the early 1990s, he was never politically active on campus. It was only after the birth of the internet that Abbas began his career as a civic activist. He began by writing for a group blog titled Voice of the People, whose writers used the internet to discuss Egypt's political, religious, and social issues. In 2004, he launched Egyptian Awareness under the tagline "At the whim of its owner who doesn't work for anyone."[9]

During his blogging career, Abbas has worked hard to maintain credibility. As such, he emphasizes his independence, explaining, "I do not belong to any party or ideology…There are some Marxist ideas that I think are good, there are some Islamic ideas that I think are good, and there are some liberal ideas that I think are good."[10] Abbas relies heavily on raw documentary evidence, advising others to "always try to support what you're saying with pictures and videos…multimedia, it gives you more legitimacy."[11]

Furthermore, much of his credibility is based on his journalistic integrity and commitment to transparency; for example, when he was accused of being a criminal, he responded by posting a copy of his criminal record on his blog for all to see. [12]

Abbas disclaims any efforts to provide solutions for the problems around which he attempts to raise awareness. Explaining his approach, Abbas expresses admiration for Charles Dickens, because he raised awareness about societal problems in Britain, and while he never proposed solutions, through his writings he laid the groundwork for others to reform society.[13] "I don't have answers," Abbas says. "I can only point out the problem…for people to solve it."[14]

Civic Environment

While the Mubarak regime allowed some latitude to activists and dissidents, thus enabling the country's bloggers to take the lead in the Arab political blogosphere, Egypt was nonetheless named as one of the top ten "worst countries to be a blogger" by the Committee to Protect Journalists.[15] Authorities did not block many websites, but they did engage in widespread intimidation, harassment, and detention of bloggers. Because of this repressive environment (see Freedom House's report on internet freedom in Egypt), Abbas has said, "I feel threatened all the time."[16]

According to Abbas, his blog has been continually hacked and was once attacked so severely that it remained offline for three days.[17] However, the Egyptian regime did not completely block websites; instead, he says, "they have other ways that they attack blogs, [like] report[ing] them to the hosts, saying they have a lot of inappropriate material. They did that with my YouTube account [which was shut down for a week in 2007], my Facebook account, my email — they've shut down my email several times."[18]

Abbas's experience with state repression began in 2006 during a wave of arrests of Egyptian internet activists; Abbas heard that he was wanted, collected his digital records, and fled to Alexandria, returning to Cairo a week later when his lawyers told him it was safe.[19] As he began to attract worldwide attention through his blogging, he also attracted the Egyptian government's attention. The regime resorted to character assassination, as government-aligned forces began spreading false rumors that were calculated to damage Abbas's credibility among Egyptians. A high-ranking government official went on satellite TV to say Abbas had a criminal past; a state-aligned newspaper accused him of publishing lies and "sick fantasies"; and internet rumors spread of his having converted to Christianity or being homosexual.[20]

Security forces continually tapped Abbas's phones and made increasingly menacing phone calls to him, threatening to frame him and adding, "Forget about the law. We are the law. The day you fall into our hands, you'll scream for help and you'll cry."[21] State security harassed Abbas on numerous occasions; in 2009, he was detained twice at the Cairo airport, and in the second incident, he was held for ten hours and his laptop was illegally confiscated.[22] In April of that year, a police officer and his brother broke into Abbas's home, assaulting both him and his mother and knocking out one of his teeth.[23] Abbas filed an official complaint, but it was not investigated due to "insufficient evidence," despite extensive medical and photographical documentation of Abbas' injuries.[24] Then in December, while Abbas was out of the country, plainclothes police forced their way into Abbas's family home while refusing to provide a warrant or identification.[25]

As the Interior Ministry escalated its harassment of Abbas, it began to file manufactured charges against him. In November 2009, he was sentenced to six months of jail and a 500-pound fine for "tampering with an internet cable."[26] While he was cleared of the charges on appeal in February 2010, the next month he received the same sentence, this time for "providing a telecommunications service to the public without permission."[27]

Despite the ongoing harassment he faces, Abbas remains undaunted in his commitment to raising Egyptians' awareness of human rights abuses. Abbas refuses to blog anonymously to protect himself; he uses his own name in order to "encourage people to join us. I want them to know who we are, and that we are here…in Egypt, and we are not afraid."[28]

Message and Audience

When Abbas founded his blog, he wanted to reach the youth of Egypt with his message that abuses of Egyptians' human rights are unacceptable. Abbas describes his original target audience as "the youth who can't live a decent life" in Egypt.[29] Because he wanted to attract young Egyptians without much education or interest in politics, he chose to write his blog in colloquial Arabic, as opposed to the formal version of Arabic that is taught in schools, thus making his blog more accessible to Egyptians without a high level of education.

As he says, "I try to talk to them in their own knowledge...and tell them that first we understand them, and second that we are interested in having a conversation with you. Don't make them feel intimidated, don't make them think that you are an elitist."[30] Abbas is known for his extremely informal, and frequently profane, style of writing, and explains that this is "actually what provokes people to interact, and understand, and absorb what I'm telling them."[31]

Abbas's first major blogging success came on May 25, 2005, the day of a referendum on Egypt's constitution. That morning, plainclothes police and paid thugs beat and sexually assaulted journalist and peaceful protestors.[32] Abbas was able to take pictures of these events, and even interviewed one of the thugs, who described how he'd been paid by state security forces and bussed in from the slums along with others in order to disrupt the protests.[33] After Abbas published everything on his blog, he received half a million site visits in just two days; the story spread to traditional news outlets, and local newspapers wrote about the scandal for months.[34]

In late 2006, Abbas publicized two stories that quickly became two of the biggest scandals of the year. The first incident took place in late October, on Eid el-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. After finding that a movie showing was sold out at a downtown Cairo theater, mobs of hundreds of men attacked the box office; they then surrounded women in the area, groping their bodies, ripping off their clothes, and chasing those who tried to escape.[35] Meanwhile, policemen stood by and watched, not even attempting to intervene; indeed, when some onlookers asked them to do something, the police merely responded, "What do you want us to do? It's Eid. Happy Eid to you too!"[36]

Abbas was in the neighborhood at the time and took pictures of the mob and of the policemen standing by; he then posted the photos on his blog along with his eyewitness account of what had happened. Other bloggers also posted about the "sexual frenzy" that had occurred, while the traditional media ignored it and police stations refused to accept reports from women who had been attacked.

However, three days later on the private TV channel Dream's program "10 pm," a blogger told the program's host all about the Eid sexual assaults, breaking the story to the Egyptian public. The next night, the show aired a special report on the incident, including an interview with one of the eyewitness bloggers and using some of the photos Abbas had taken.

Protest against sexual harassment. Photo by Nora Younis.After that, it was impossible to cover up the story; it spread across Egypt and the Middle East, and eventually the rest of the world. Egyptians debated what had happened and why, government critics attacked the police's negligence, and women held demonstrations against sexual harassment. The independent newspaper Al Masry Al Youm took the lead in covering the story, forcing the state-run press to cover it as well, albeit with denials from the Ministry of Interior. A national dialogue on sexual harassment, a topic that had always been taboo in Egyptian society, had been launched, largely thanks to Abbas and his fellow bloggers.

Aside from his coverage of the Eid sexual assaults, Abbas had become known for his work publicizing police brutality by posting videos showing police beating and torturing suspects. The most notorious of these videos was one he posted in November 2006 — a gruesome video that would send shockwaves through Egyptian society.

In January 2006, Emad El-Kebir, a 21-year-old minibus driver, had been detained at a Giza police station for attempting to save his cousin from being beaten by plainclothes policemen.[37] At the station, policemen brutally tortured and sexually assaulted El-Kebir while videotaping the attack with a mobile phone. After El-Kebir was released, he found that the video had been distributed among his fellow minibus drivers, partly to humiliate him further and partly to intimidate the other drivers into paying the "fines" the police regularly extort from them.[38]

After obtaining the video from fellow Egyptian blogger Mohamed Khaled, Abbas posted it on Egyptian Awareness. Abbas followed the story for months as it was investigated by the independent press; when two of the policemen were arrested, he hailed it as a "great success for the bloggers and popular press," but emphasized that "this is just the beginning…and those [arrested] are only the ones who have been discovered; torture is ongoing, of both political [dissidents] and criminals."[39]

Emad El-Kebir celebrates the sentencing of his attackers.Abbas greeted the men's sentencing to three years in prison with "great delight," and has said that this experience exemplifies his approach to blogging.[40] Because of his work to raise awareness about El-Kebir's case, Abbas says, police torture, which used to be accepted apathetically, became less acceptable "because people are talking about it…The problem is not totally solved, but the people became aware…they became more used to exposing that kind of torture."[41]

As El-Kebir's lawyer, Nasr Amin, said, "Thousands of torture complaints have been brought to prosecutors…but they came to nothing. The bloggers managed to upset things."[42]

While Abbas originally focused on reaching Egyptian youth, as time went on, he began attracting a wider audience. Abbas explains proudly, "I found out that people of all ages are visiting and interacting with my blog."[43] Today, Egyptian Awareness receives over a million hits per month, with 62 percent of those readers coming from within Egypt.[44]

Along with his blog, Abbas uses social sites such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to communicate with supporters. When he and his mother were attacked by policemen in 2009, he used his cell phone to post running Twitter updates on his status, even from the police station he reported the crime at. His followers spread the news to blogs and then to traditional media outlets, both local and international, which publicized the state's harassment of Abbas.[45]

Outreach Activities

Through his blogging, Abbas has achieved victories he could not have dreamed of at the start; he has won Human Rights Watch's 2008 Hellman Hammett Award, been named CNN's 2007 Middle East Person of the Year, and became the first blogger to receive the International Committee for Journalists' Knight International Journalism Award, in 2007.

Abbas is often considered Egypt's most influential political blogger, and as such he has a greater impact on news coverage in the country than many would have thought possible.[46] While it is true that only a small percentage of Egyptians have internet access, Abbas's influence is not limited to only those who read his blog. Rather, his writings have had a ripple effect, influencing the print media and satellite TV to cover the stories he reports.

Regardless of the difficulties he has faced, Abbas has no regrets about his blogging career: "At least I have the respect of the people, and people know that I am doing something that is good…that might result in change in the end."[47]

Video & Multimedia

Amos, Deborah. "Blogging and Tweeting, Egyptians Push for Change." NPR Morning Edition. 26 Aug. 2010.
"Egyptian Blogger Wael Abbas." BBC HardTalk. 13 Jan. 2010.
"Listening Post: Egyptian Blogosphere – Wael Abbas." Al Jazeera English. 9 Oct. 2009.
"Report on User-Generated Content in the Middle East." CNN. 3 Nov. 2007.

 


Footnotes

[1] Malinowski, Tom. "The Mubarak Test." Human Rights Watch, 13 May 2009.
[2] Abbas, Wael. "Help Our Fight For Real Democracy." The Washington Post 27 May 2007.
[3] Ibid.
[4] El-Katatney, Ethar. "Wael Abbas Interview." Egypt Today 29:7 (July 2008).
[5] El-Jesri, Manal. "Free For All." Egypt Today 28:2 (Feb. 2007).
[6] Abbas, Wael. "Acceptance speech at ICFJ award dinner." YouTube, 19 Dec. 2007.
[7] El-Jesri.
[8] Abbas. "Help Our Fight For Real Democracy."
[9] El-Katetney.
[10] El-Jesri.
[11] Arya, Sarika and Meredith Morrison. "(Actually) In Conversation with: Wael Abbas." The Yale Journal of Human Rights blog, 23 July 2009.
[12] El-Katatney.
[13] Arya and Morrison.
[14] Ibid.
[15] "10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger." Committee to Protect Journalists. 30 April 2009.
[16] "NOW Transcript – Show 314." PBS. 6 April 2007.
[17] El-Katatney.
[18] Arya and Morrison.
[19] Shadid, Anthony. "Egypt shuts door on dissent as U.S. officials back away." The Washington Post. 19 March 2007.
[20] Abbas, Wael. "Big Brothers." Slate. 14 May 2007. IRIN. "Egypt: Sexual harassment laws weak, say activists." Reuters AlertNet. 9 Nov. 2006.
[21] Sherif, Ahmad. "Egyptian police intimidation of Wael Abbas (video)." Ahmad Sherif Project blog, 2 July 2007.
[22] Abdel Dayem, Mohamed. "Middle East Bloggers: The Street Leads Online." Committee to Protect Journalists, 14 Oct. 2009.
[23] Atef, Noha. "Egypt: A Blogger Attacked in His House." Global Voices Advocacy, 9 April 2009.
[24] Atef, Noha. "Egypt: Blogger Wael Abbas Sentenced to Jail. Another Still in Prison Despite Judicial Release Order." Global Voices Advocacy, 23 Jan. 2010.
[25] Amer, Pakinam. "Police raid home of prominent blogger." Al Masry Al Youm English. 13 Dec. 2009.
[26] "Protests over case against Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas." BBC News. 12 March 2010.
[27] Ibid.
[28] "Listening Post: Egyptian Blogosphere – Wael Abbas." Al Jazeera English. 9 Oct. 2009.
[29] Al Tamimi, Jumana. "Egyptian blogger first to win award." Gulfnews. 30 Aug. 2007.
[30] Arya and Morrison.
[31] Ibid.
[32] McGrath, Cam. "Rights-Egypt: Bloggers Name and Shame Torturers." Inter-Press Service 21 Dec. 2009.
[33] Abbas. "Help Our Fight For Real Democracy."
[34] Ibid.
[35] Abdelhadi, Magdi. "Cairo street crowds target women." BBC News. 1 Nov. 2006.
[36] "The Eid sexual harassment incident." Rantings of a Sandmonkey blog. 30 Oct. 2006.
[37] El-Hamalawy, Hossam. "Victim of police rape video identified." Arabist blog. 9 Dec. 2006.
[38] Nkrumah, Gamal. "El-Kebir vindicated." Al-Ahram Weekly 870 (8-14 Nov. 2007).
[39] Abbas, Wael. "El Qabd Ala Dubbat El Taazib." El Wa'i El Masry, 25 Nov. 2006.
[40] Abbas, Wael. "Ya Reitni Kunt Maahom Fi Natq El Hokm Ala Islam Nabih." El Wa'i El Masry, 7 Nov. 2007.
[41] Arya and Morrison.
[42] Witness. "Egyptian Internet Torture Video Shakes Police Sense of Impunity." The Hub, 7 Nov. 2007.
[43] Al Tamimi.
[44] El-Katatney.
[45] PeaceWork. "Egyptian Activist Twitters to Freedom: Wael Abbas Used Cell Phone from Custody to Mobilize Support." PeaceWork Magazine 395 (May 2009).
[46] Isherwood, Tom. "A new direction or more of the same?" Arab Media & Society 6 (Fall 2008).
[47] "Egyptian Blogger Wael Abbas." BBC HardTalk. 13 Jan. 2010.

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