How Free Is Egyptian Freedom of Speech?

Police here have been busy for the past few days breaking up boisterous protests of constitutional referendums taking place today, but there is one group of protesters they've not been able to quiet down -- the bloggers.

Alaa Fattah, 26, is a political activist and government critic who can reach millions of people through his Web site. And bloggers like Fattah have the Egyptian government running scared.

Fattah has been using his laptop computer and the Web to directly challenge the Egyptian government and President Hosni Mubarak, known for violating human rights and silencing his political opponents.

Tucked away in the corner of an Internet café in Cairo, his computer open in front of him, Fattah insists this is about pushing for democratic reforms in Egypt.

"Today by living in Egypt, you are risking a lot. Police brutality has reached a level where it is not a normal pattern," he said. "It is completely random, and police officers [are] never questioned."

By using YouTube, Bluetooth and their blogs, bloggers send out videos they have obtained of Egyptian police torturing prisoners to an international -- and infinite -- audience. The bloggers are also exposing bribery, corruption and criticizing the human rights violations of President Mubarak's government. Hundreds of blogs are springing up in Egypt with the sole purpose of confronting the record of the Egyptian government.

Larry Pintak, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, says the bloggers are having a ripple effect, changing the rules for Egypt's state-controlled media.

"So if I am a journalist and I have an interesting story," he said, "and I cannot get it in my paper, I will get in trouble, I tip a blogger, he reports it then I can report that the blogger reported that this happened!"

Fattah admits all these blogs are having an effect.

"We are definitely affecting our generation's willingness to participate and get engaged and take the risks of these kinds of things," he said. "I think we have a very big impact."

Many of these young activists started blogging two years ago, when the mood, they say, was different in Egypt. In the spring of 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke at the American University in Cairo, promising democratic reforms in the Middle East.

"A hopeful future is within the reach of every Egyptian citizen -- and every man and woman in the Middle East," she said then. "The choice is yours to make. But you are not alone. All free nations are your allies. So together, let us choose liberty and democracy -- for our nations, for our children, and for our shared future."

Since then, critics say Mubarak's regime has only gotten more extreme. Today, Mubarak is proposing massive constitutional changes, allowing him personally to dissolve parliament and abolishing any need for the judiciary branch of the government to have oversight on elections.

Mubarak is a key ally of the United Stated and has been desperately needed by the Bush administration to help calm Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Rice had a much more somber tone on her way to Egypt this past weekend when discussing Mubarak's regime.

"The hope was that this would be a process that gave voice to all Egyptians. I think there's some danger that that hope is not going to be met," she said.

Now the Egyptian Government is targeting the bloggers. Fattah has already spent time in jail, including a short stint in solitary confinement, for participating in pro-democracy rally in Cairo. Fattah says he is sure his phone is tapped, his e-mail is read and his Web site watched carefully by Egyptian security officials.

Just this month, 21-year-old Abdel Kareem Soliman was sentenced to four years in prison for blogging. He criticized Mubarak on his blog for cracking down on his opponents. It is the first time an Egyptian court has jailed someone for publishing their opinions on the Internet. Human rights groups say it sets a dangerous precedent. Amnesty International called the ruling "yet another slap in the face of freedom for expression in Egypt."

Fattah knows he could be arrested again, but he is willing to risk it.

"If I am active, at least if something happens to me it will be for a reason. I will know it is happening for a reason, I cannot imagine what it would be like to face tortures or prison, or anything like that for no reason at all."

Fattah's Web site.

Rice Speech at American University in Cairo.