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EGYPT: Cyberspace and beatings?

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Their technology is beyond placards and clenched fists; their strategies are sketched out in cyberspace, they communicate in acronyms and SMS’s. But Egypt’s bloggers and Facebook activists receive the same harsh treatment by police as the country’s less -technically savvy dissidents: interrogation rooms and alleged beatings.

Ahmed Maher has accused police of torturing him after he was arrested for using his Facebook network to rally support for a nationwide strike against low wages, inflation and the failures of President Hosni Mubarak’s 26-year-old regime. Maher told Human Rights Watch that he was blindfolded and handcuffed and taken to a police station on May 7.

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He claims he was stripped to his underwear, kicked and beaten. He said a blow to his head damaged his hearing. Human Rights Watch reported that the ordeal lasted about 12 hours and that Maher, a civil engineer, was released by alleged assailants who “applied lotion to his back between beatings in an apparent attempt to reduce bruising.”

Maher’s tale follows the three-week imprisonment of Isra Abdel Fattah, who was charged with inciting unrest after spreading the word for a national strike on Facebook. Bloggers were once regarded by police as curious nerds clicking away in obscurity. But with 64,000 Facebook members, Egypt has grown increasingly concerned over Internet dissidents.

The Mubarak government, which receives about $2 billion a year in U.S. aid, is under increasing pressure as prices rise for potatoes, bread and gas. Opposition groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have been weakened by arrests. It appears the authorities are taking a similar tack with bloggers. The government has not commented on Maher’s allegations, but police have stepped up Internet surveillance.

What happens next? Cyberspace activism is a new, sexy wrinkle in the push against the government. But two recent nationwide protests called for by Facebook networks largely failed. One wonders if young bloggers -– many of them viewed as elite-- can rouse a country where about 45% of the population lives on $2 a day or less.

Most Egyptians are too busy figuring out how to survive; they are not concerned with seeking inspiration through Bluetooth. No galvanizing protest voice has risen from the street or cyberspace. But anger against the Mubarak regime is widening, and the bloggers have opened a new battlefield.

—Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Facebook activist Isra Abdel Fattah. Credit (AFP)


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