Egyptian bloggers have received a fair mount of press attention lately for their calls for greater democracy under Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country for the past quarter-century and now appears to be seeking to turn power over to his son. “Judges allied with the government have filed lawsuits against more than 50 bloggers, accusing them of blackmail and of defaming Egypt and demanding that their blogs be shut down,” Wael Abbas, one of the better known bloggers, wrote in a piece that ran Sunday in the Washington Post.“Meanwhile, security officials appear on television to claim that the bloggers are violating media and communications laws.”
One Egyptian blogger you don’t hear much about in the American press (though he was mentioned by Abbas), is Abd al-Menim Mahmoud. Mahmoud was jailed in April for being a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition party. American media outlets often express outrage over Mubarak’s jailing of secular opposition figures, but they hardly notice when he locks up Islamic activists, who make up the great majority of political prisoners in Egypt. “At a time when Islamists are a force at the ballot box, does Egypt, a peaceful, moderate oasis amid regional turmoil, really need more democracy?” Roger Cohen of the New York Times asked in an article last November. “No,” was his answer; he called on Mubarak to take only the most cautious steps toward reform, and suggested he release from prison some pro-Western oppositionists, but expressed no concerns about the wholesale jailing of Brotherhood members.
The Brotherhood has its share of Islamic hardliners, but it renounced violence decades ago and has pledged to support democracy. During a trip to Egypt last fall I met Mahmoud, a twenty-something law school graduate and movement organizer who represents a younger, more progressive wing of the movement. He’d already been arrested twice by then—both times for his participation in a group of students that opposed the war in Iraq—and on his blog has written about being tortured at the notorious Tora prison. “[H]e and others were forced to stand for 14 hours straight (those that fell over were beaten and then propped back up),” said an article in the Christian Science Monitor, the only major outlet that appears to have covered his most recent arrest. “When he removed his blindfold in solitary confinement, he wrote, he was beaten. Then he was forced to keep the blindfold on for 13 days straight as punishment.”
Because of his past troubles with security forces, Mahmoud asked to meet me in a public place, picking Groppi’s, a well-known cafe in downtown Cairo. There’s a general idea in the U.S. that Islamic movements are comprised of society’s rabble, the poor, uneducated and backwards. That’s generally untrue in much of the region and entirely untrue in Egypt. The Brotherhood has plenty of poor followers but the movement’s backbone is middle class professionals—doctors, lawyers, engineers, and students. Mahmoud came busting into the café wearing jeans and a dress shirt, dropped two cell phones on the table, and placed a shoulder bag with a laptop on the floor by his chair. “We believe in democracy, freedom of speech, and a free press, and it’s not just chit-chat,” he told me. “When the government arrested journalists, it was the Brotherhood that went to court with them. Assam al-Arian defended the judges and he’s paying the price for it.” He was referring to a senior Brotherhood official who was jailed after defending judges that had protested parliamentary election abuses in 2005.
Mahmoud said the Brotherhood was not a conservative movement, and described it as being open towards different cultures and ideologies. “There’s a lot I appreciate about liberalism, there are points I agree with,” he said. “What I reject is not liberalism as a political ideology, but Western foreign policy.” He described Iranian and Saudi forms of rule as “fiascos,” and said he opposed any laws that would force women to wear a veil. “When Saudi women arrive at the airport here, they immediately change into fashionable clothes,” he said as we sipped coffee. “I want to reach people’s hearts, but if they change is up to them.”
If Mahmoud would just drop his affiliation with the Brotherhood he’d surely fare better in the American press. He’d soon be offered an op-ed in the Washington Post and Roger Cohen might even be moved to politely ask the Mubarak regime to release him from prison.