Unwanted Attention

Newsweek Jun 10, 2007 8:00 PM EDT

In the two years since he started writing political commentary on his Web site, Syrian blogger Ammar Abdulhamid has called President Bashar Assad a thug, a dictator, Mr. Bean, the village idiot and Fredo Corleone—the bumbling mob-family brother from “The Godfather.” A 41-year-old novelist and the son of Syria’s most-celebrated screen actress, Abdulhamid wants Assad’s regime replaced by an elected government. Like hundreds of other dissidents in the Arab world, he began blogging with bluntness during a brief window of liberalization that opened after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But geography sets him apart: Abdulhamid writes from his home outside Washington, D.C., having been forced into exile by the Syrian government in 2005. In recent months, he has watched as regimes from Tunisia to Iran jailed bloggers and intimidated others into ditching their keyboards. Now he’s working with another Arab blogger to establish a group to protect the dissenters. “If the regimes are allowed to shut us out of the blogosphere, we have nothing left,” he tells NEWSWEEK.

Press censorship and intimidation are hardly new in the Middle East. But until recently, bloggers were too marginal to gag. Only about 10 percent of Arabs have access to the Internet, compared with the huge penetration of satellite TV, which beams Al-Jazeera and other networks to hundreds of millions of homes. “Governments in the region didn’t take the blogger phenomenon seriously,” says Elijah Zarwan, the Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch. The harassment began when a handful of bloggers focused on corruption and brutality in their own countries, sometimes linking to incriminating photos and videos. By the time regimes took notice, the pressure to liberalize coming from Washington had waned, a result of the crisis the Bush administration faced in Iraq. Last year Al-Jazeera aired a documentary on opposition bloggers in the Arab world that caused their readership to soar. So did the attention they got from security police.

An Egyptian writer whose nom de blog is Sandmonkey (sandmonkey.org) felt particularly threatened. His site describes him as “an extremely cynical, snarky, pro-U.S., secular, libertarian,” and his entries since December 2004 have included some of the most caustic remarks about the regime of Hosni Mubarak ever printed by an Egyptian. Last November, he and others linked to a 39-second video that showed an Egyptian bus driver allegedly getting sodomized by officers in a Cairo police station; two officers from the precinct are now on trial for torture, which is almost unheard-of in Egypt. When other bloggers were jailed—one was sentenced recently to four years—Sandmonkey launched campaigns for their release. Earlier this year Sandmonkey (he keeps his real name secret) started hearing suspicious clicks on his phone and noticing plainclothes policemen lurking in his neighborhood. “They would ask my doorman about me,” he tells NEWSWEEK. Worried about his own possible arrest, Sandmonkey discontinued his blog six weeks ago, writing in his last entry: “I grew bolder and more reckless at a time where everybody else started being more cautious … Stupid Monkey. Stupid!”
Since then, Sandmonkey and Abdulhamid have met with government and nongovernment figures in Washington to gather support for a committee to protect Arab bloggers. Tentatively named the Voice Initiative, it would spring to action whenever bloggers face state harassment, mobilizing political pressure in Western capitals and providing legal support. Funding is still uncertain: “Where you get the money can be a very delicate issue,” Sandmonkey says. The group would need enough muscle, he says, to make regimes think before jailing bloggers. For Abdulhamid, it was apparently pedigree that kept him out of prison. “I think they were afraid of the public reaction, given how famous my mother is in Syria,” he says. Other high-profile bloggers may not want to count on that kind of leniency.