Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Coming of the Prisoners of Opinion

I won't forget in a hurry the sound of Manal Bahie al-Din's voice just after she heard the decision to free her husband, blogger and political activist Alaa Seif al-Islam. Alaa has been held at the State Security Prosecutor's pleasure since May 7, on the Kafka-esque charges of insulting the President, obstructing traffic and endangering public order. Manal's voice was pure joy, flowing uncontrollably after six weeks of being separated from her husband.

Part of the reason I shan't forget this is that I was able to hear it in the first place. Alaa, his mother Layla Soueif, his father Ahmad Seif, his wife Manal are all charming, accessible and, of course, fluent in English. Their story, over the past six weeks, has made it around the world, into newspapers, magazines and websites. They are a highly internationalised face of the Egyptian pro-reform movement - and in the eyes of the western media, a much more saleable story than the countless cases of Muslim Brotherhood activists carried away from their families in the night. Only the heaviest of crackdowns directed at Brotherhood members ever make it to any but the most dedicated foreign outlets. But this should not surprise us. The Brotherhood have always presented a very distinct 'other' that external diplomats and journalists find difficult to penetrate, and a great many do not try.

So now, we have a new situation. Alaa has become something of an international figure. He may or may not be comfortable with it. I do not know him personally, but knowing that he only recently left the comfort of cyberspace for the hot brutality of downtown demonstrations, I suspect that he will not. But regardless of whether or not he is ready to take it, the mantle of web-hero for the Egyptian reform movement (and identifiably westernised hero for the foreign media) is already being lowered onto him. In short, within six weeks he has become the perfect 'prisoner of opinion'.

Now, we don't necessarily know what those opinions are. We can make a fairly safe bet that they are at root anti-authoritarian. We know for a fact that they form a strong dislike for the government of Hosni Mubarak, Ahmad Nazif, et al. But aside from that, it's all a bit vague – or at least, it is reported as such because the restrictions of conventional media will reduce this and any other story to an essentially heroes and villains piece. In this case, that's probably accurate enough.

But regardless of what Alaa - or Youth for Change, or Kifaya, or Artists and Writers for Change or whatever – actually stand for, here we have a hero. The fact that he is a blogger - an identity boosted to popular comprehension by the likes of Salam Pax in Baghdad - is perfect. It's the ultimate representation of intellectual freedom (i.e. the internet) versus the ultimate representation of morally bankrupt, intellectually perverted semi-competent bureaucracy - The Egyptian government.

So, here is a real opportunity. An opportunity to use the political capital that six weeks in prison brings. An opportunity to use an education and a global perspective that so many who have tried to take on the Egyptian state have not had. An opportunity to lay bare the abuses and brutality of the security state. An opportunity to succinctly publicise the corruption and perfidy that is the so-called process of 'economic reform' - where imported neo-liberal ideologies are lining the pockets of the privileged few. An opportunity to tell the world from a first hand perspective what it is like to be a 'prisoner of opinion' in this country. And an opportunity to prove that the secular opposition in Egypt has more to offer than banners on the steps of syndicates and tales of cameraderie from the insides of dirty jails.

I look forward to his first, post-prison, blog.


Anonymous said...

Any chance of a link to his blog? or has it been taken down?

Anonymous said...

An opportunity to those abroad perhaps. But so far as meaningful change is concerned, is he really any more significant than an Ibrahim or a Nour?

Or, put another way, are they blogging down in Shubra?

jb said...

No, they are probably not blogging much in Shubra. Relatively speaking, of course, nobody blogs much in Egypt. It is a luxury of a tiny segment of the educated middle class. And that is not the point, neither is whether or not he is more 'significant' than Ibrahim or Nour. The point is that Alaa, and others like him, are in a position now to use their accumulated experiences to a) publicise the misdeeds of the regime and b) attempt to create a critical mass of individuals willing to defy the regime in pursuit of reform - should that be what they are really aiming for.

Snatch said...

Kaka. The “misdeeds” of the regime are common knowledge—and the more so among those who read liberal, Egyptian-based blogs.

And as for “critical mass,” please, there’s no need to get sarcastic. We’ve all seen the turn-out at these demos.

Secular, liberal political activism has no base in Egypt. Observers know it. The government knows it. So a member of the dwindling middle class got kicked into the news cycle briefly by some technically competent and media savvy friends…. So what?

Prisoners of the echo chamber is more like it.

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