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Where’s the international movement to Free Monem?

My friend Marc Lynch offered a challenging and provocative post ten days ago about “selective indignation”. He pointed out that Kareem Amer Soliman – a blogger sentenced to four years in prison for his online writings about the Egyptian government and about Islam – was receiving a great deal of attention in the global blogosphere, including a well-organized campaign to lobby for his release. Marc has argued that support for a blogger whose views happen to align with western critiques of Islam and failure to lobby for the free speech rights of other Egyptian activists sends a complex and contradictory message from the northern blogosphere to bloggers in the Middle East. Are we advocating for free speech, or for speech we’re inclined to agree with?

Marc’s question got an interesting test when blogger Adb al-Monem Mahmoud was arrested by Egyptian security forces. Monem is one of the key figures behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s embrace of blogging, including their English-language website, Ikhwanweb. Marc, Alaa and other friends believe that Monem is being held because his profile is rising in the international media and because the Brotherhood is beginning to use blogs very effectively as an organizing tool.

It’s really worth listening to Alaa Adbel Fateh, focus of the Free Alaa campaign last year, as he writes about Monem. Alaa’s an organizer of Kefaya, and his politics are far, far to the left of Monem’s. But the two have appeared together to highlight the problems of police brutality against activists in Egypt, and the two share a deep passion for the way technology can help enable social change. In a post titled “Free Monem”, Alaa writes:

When I got arrested back in May 2006, thousands of people across the globe joined in an international campaign of solidarity asking for my release. I’m forever grateful to every single person who participated in that campaign, while it did not actually result in my immediate release it ensured I wasn’t tortured or maltreated in prison and it helped the cause of freedom and democracy in Egypt by bringing it to the attention of millions through blogs and main stream media.

and today I ask you to show the same solidarity for my friend and fellow blogger Abdol Monem Mahmoud. while we blong to different political ideologies we shared the same vision and in fact Monem did more for the cause of democracy in Egypt that I would ever hope to achieve.

Unfortunately, we’ve not yet seen this international outpouring of support for Monem’s release. Marc points out that the only two English blogs that seem to be covering Monem’s arrest are his site and Global Voices, where our amazing Middle East and advocacy teams have been covering the story at length. There’s a strong campaign for his release, but the campaign is almost entirely in Arabic and is primarily drawing regional support, not global support.

Amira al-Hussani, our Middle East editor, and Sami ben Gharbia, our advocacy director have both been concerned with the question of what bloggers in trouble do and don’t get coverage in the international blogosphere. Amira tracks the conversation in several Egyptian blogs to show that there’s mutual support between Monem and Kareem’s supporters, and that Monem explicitly showed support for Kareem’s cause some weeks ago, saying:

I disagree with Abdul Kareem Amer’s views. However, I do not disagree, at all, that this security practice is unjust towards a youth in the prime of his life. Punishing him, or punishing others having their opinions, will not succeed in changing their ideas.

Sami, who is currently translating an interview he did with Monem at the Al Jazeera forum in Doha shortly before Monem’s arrest, looks at the disparity in blogosphere coverage on a variety of bloggers who’ve been imprisoned, threatened or otherwise silenced. It’s an amazing overview of cases that deserve the support and attention of the international blogosphere.

Egyptian security forces announced today that they’d be extending Monem’s detention at least 15 more days – we can expect this detention to continue, especially in the absence of international attention and pressure. I’ve been speaking about Monem’s situation in every talk I’ve given the past two weeks, arguing that we’re at a critical juncture in blogging, where activists are discovering the power of the medium and governments are looking for ways to silence these activists. Anyone who wants the blogosphere to remain a space useful for advocates needs to stand up and advocate for everyone who is being persecuted for exercising their rights to free speech online.

Free Monem. Free Kareem. The right to free speech, online and offline, is an absolute. If we care about defending these rights, we have to speak up for everyone whose rights are violated and threatened, especially those we don’t always agree with…

13 thoughts on “Where’s the international movement to Free Monem?”

  1. Free speech does have to be protected for everyone. Absolutely.

    It might help the level of enthusiasm, though, if Monem’s commitment to free speech and democracy were more widely known. The assumption among many of us liberals in the “global North” is that fundamentalists (of any stripe) would turn off those freedoms if they had their way. So it becomes hard to feel the same gut-level sympathy. It’s hard to get over the feeling that there’s a lot of irony in using freedom to broadcast a message that would kill it.

    So, for instance, it came as a complete surprise to me that Monem had worked hard for democracy in Egypt. The essence of (well-meaning) stereotypes is that you don’t even realize you have them until contrary information comes in. I obviously need to hear more about what he’s done, about what the Muslim Brotherhood actually hopes to achieve, about their commitment to human rights (for everyone!), and about the whole nine yards, in fact.

    I’m not saying that support for his rights should or can be contingent on his views. Only that it would be easier for me if I felt that the live and let live attitude went both ways!

  2. Thanks, Quixote – that’s a really excellent way of framing some of the issues in this situation. I was very heartened to see Monem’s comments in support of Karim, which reaffirm his commitment to free speech in my view, and to see Alaa’s strong support for Monem, despite their political differences. It’s my sense that the Brotherhood is badly misunderstood in the US – I’m relying heavily on Marc Lynch and his blog for increased understanding of the movement and its goals, and would very much point you to his blog for more background.

  3. I get to speak with the fresh, mostly Islamist, bloggers who are doing most of the campaigning work for Monem in Arabic–It seems that the rest of us feel pressured and burned out to different degrees. Just like with Alaa’s, this campaign will not probably get Monem out, and may actually extend his detention (Monem is being referred to State Security prosecution. Who knows where this will end?). The campaign can make it more costly for the regime to physically hurt Monem, and will raise his profile in the future, again like with Alaa, but this as far as it goes, probably.

    Monem is a Brother, and an extraordinary one at that. He helped portray Brotherhood detainees referred now military tribunals as individuals, in contrast with image of the faceless people in a diabolic organisation we usually get, even here in Egypt. He also helped other Brotherhood members, young men and women, to come out individually as bloggers. I am sure a good number in the Brotherhood mirror Kareem. They want to live in a Saudi like Kareem would probably prefer Tunisia (Background: I worked for Kareem’s cause since 2005 and am still surprised that the few people realise his is hate speech according to Western standards).

    The Brotherhood is a huge organisation and cannot be homogenous. There must be so many Monems in there, certainly more than the Alaas I know. In two weeks, and building on what we learned from Kareem’s and Alaa’s, we already have AI, HRW, CPJ, RSF, GVO, and the first Saudi blogger I have seen campaigning in Arabic for freeing a fellow blogger. What we are still to see are the world-wide individual initiatives that organically came to be http://freealaa.blogspot.com

  4. Thanks for writing, Amr. I’ve gotten some reactions to this post from friends in non-Arab nations who’d like to work on behalf of Monem, but want to understand the Brotherhood and Monem’s politics better. It would be great if you could push some of our readers to resources in English to help them understand the Brotherhood and Monem’s situation better.

  5. Just had an e-mail exchange with Esra’a, the Director of Free Kareem, and she offered to help the Free Monem campaign and they refused her help

    “We offered our help to one of the campaign’s leaders. They didn’t take it. It was a generous offer, something we were willing to do despite the fact that we are extremely busy with the Free Kareem campaign” – Esra’a via e-mail today

    This is strange, considering that Monem himself spoke out in support of Kareem.

  6. Thank you Ethan for raising this subject,

    To be honest, I’m really disappointed about the “we” and “they” attitude that is prevailing in the discussion, especially when the argument of “the Muslim brotherhood” is being used by some persons to justify a kind of understandable non-support of Monem case.

    I would like to point out that it is neither about the Muslim brotherhood nor about the ideology of Monen, it is all about:

    – his right to free speech;
    – our ability, as activists, to support all persecuted bloggers

    I’m really afraid that the Egyptian regime, with the arrest of Kareem and now of Monem has succeeded in dividing, not only the Egyptian bloggers, but also the global blogsphere. The campaign to free Kareem and to free Monem are the two sides of the same coin, if we succeed to prove that in our way of supporting both of them we will prevail, if not, the whole idea of a solidarity-based bloggers community will be harmed forever.

  7. Perhaps part of the problem is campaigning for the release of a specific person. Whether it’s Kareem or Monem, the real issue is political harassment, human rights and free expression. When you tie it to one person, the message gets diluted.

    For what it’s worth, I put up a post in Monem’s defence at http://jovialfellow.blogspot.com/2007/04/free-monem.html. One of the points I made was that if MB’s are starting to understand why we have liberal democracy, this is a good thing and we should support them to encourage and cement these values. Liberal democracy is not all about pornography and blasphemy, you know.

    Also, if it helps, I wrote a 4th year undergrad essay last year about the Muslim Brotherhood which has a very substantial bibliography of material in English, and discusses the issues such as the difference between procedural democracy and liberal human rights. You can read it at http://yoyo.its.monash.edu.au/%7Ebaker/Kerr-EgyptianMB.pdf

  8. Ethan,

    Thought you might find this article interesting – Comrades and Brothers (http://www.merip.org/mer/mer242/hamalawy.html) – which gives a good analysis of why leftists and Muslim Brotherhood activists are working quite close now.

    I attended the Cairo Conference against Imperialism, and there were at least two tracks where this topic got discussed to enable further co-operation between political Islamists and leftsist.

    For more info on Egypt and bloggers I would suggest you read Sandmonkey, Arabawy and Arabist.net.

  9. I’m late in reading this post.

    I’m actually surprised by the level of solidarity monem got, while it’s no where close to Kareem or me it’s still more than I expected and it might be a bit early to judge.

    I’m appaled though at the questions about Monem’s politics, I don’t remember anyone asking about Kareem’s politics? not only did he write what many would consider pure hate speech he actually wrote several comments attacking bloggers who where campaining for the release of other political prisoners because he disagreed with their politics.

    Kareem to most of us was a perfect example of the need to defend someone you despise. and Kareem was no activist, as a blogger he was totally irrelevant and mostly oblivious to anything happening in Egypt.

    Monem is actually a very easy person to defend, his politics are almost perfect. he is an influntial activist and he is being picked on by the state because he threaten’s that state. but still I can’t see why his politics should be questioned when kareem’s wasn’t (my politics where never questioned either yet I got this massive campaign, to this day most journalists I talk to think I’m a pro US liberal for some reason).

    but fine, it’s still a good opportunity for people to learn about the Muslim Brotherhood.

    as for Esraa I think she understands very well how local activists need to keep their distance sometimes, I think people should stop picking on her and the rest of the freekareem folks, it’s very difficult to run one campaign let alone two, they did show their solidarity and are doing their best.

  10. Dear all,
    I am really thrilled to see these kinds of healthy, constructive and fine debates taking place. I command all of you for your courage and your commitment to democracy and free speech. You are an outstanding group of activists who really can, and will, make a difference in this volatile world. Although I have not had the pleasure of meeting any of you personally, but sure I did meet you through your excellent writings, your progressive ideas and your passionate defense of human rights and dignity.

    As the entire Middle East is a witnessing a period of social and political transformation; the Muslim Brotherhood is also evolving in its discourse and ideology. Anyone who has dealt with the Brothers will realize that a new, vibrant, promising, progressive generation is on the make. I have no doubt that the MB today is different than it was just 10 years ago.

    The arrest of Karim Soliman and Abdel Monem Mahmoud was unfortunate and bad for freedom, but if anything, it actually became the driving force behind the merge of all pro-democracy forces we are seeing today, thanks to the sincere work and determination of people like you.

    We had a dream that all freedom supporters across the political and ideological spectrum would join forces in their long fight against tyranny and authoritiansim plaguing our part of the world. Today, I can tell you that our dream came true. We have people form the far left, right and center who are working together to defend the common good, which is freedom, democracy, and human rights. However, the struggle is just beginning and it is far from over. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to get the word out and encourage others join our freedom campaign.

    I could not agree less with “quixnote” that we, Islamists, have not been able to effectively and unambiguously communicate our genuine commitment to democracy and free speech, and that is probably one of the reasons that there are some out there who might be still reluctant to defend Monem whose campaign has not received the same level of international support that Karim enjoyed. However, to further elaborate on this, I would entertain three important facts,

    1-The lack of apparent enthusiasm to defend Monem on the part of Western government officials despite the increasing public awareness of his case by NGOs and internet activists, does not really surprise us. The West’s double standard approach in dealing with Islamists when it comes to democracy has been evident, as if Islamists are not entitled to same standards of human rights as seculars or liberals do. Governments have never been fair to the MB and we don’t rely much on their support. The West’s strategy of pick and choose from among democracy and freedom values has cost it its credibility as an effective and reliable partner to many reformists in the Middle East

    2-You have to realize the magnitude of oppression and injustice the MB has suffered at the hands of brutal regimes throughout its history. Before the internet, we were deprived of all avenues to communicate with our own people in Egypt, let alone the outside world. We mainly relied on our grassroots branches to convey our message to the public. Our members are on the run, and many of our leaders are being tried by military courts even after they were acquitted several times by civil courts. Our newspapers are closed down, we are blocked from accessing national TV, our assets have been frozen and businesses shut down. Even most recently two of our elected parliament members were arrested for meeting with citizens in their constituencies to debate issues being discussed in Parliament. On the international level, we are facing a relentless smear campaign of misinformation and deception organized by powerful lobbies and special interest groups to ensure that we do not receive any sympathy worldwide for our cause. Even Ikhwanweb, our only English window to the outside world, has been repeatedly blocked by Egyptian authorities and closely monitored overseas. In a world post 911, you can call anyone a terrorist and the gates of hell will open loose.

    3-Having said that, I must also admit that some conservative Muslims, whether MBs or not, who not do not share the same tolerant and open minded approach when dealing with issues of freedom of expression or democracy. Quiet frankly, some MB members even objected when the movement called for Karim’s release due to the highly offensive nature of his remarks on Islam and the prophet Mohamed (Peace be Upon Him), in addition to that Karim himself hated the MB and criticized those who spoke up against government crackdown on its members. However, one of the main reasons the MB has been able to remain intact as an organization and withstand the continuous attempts to crush it by totalitarian regimes; is its ability to allow for different opinions to exist within its ranks, and for people to freely express their views, and at the end of the day, we are all still Brothers. Indeed, I believe the brand of democracy the MB is practicing is a lot better than what some Western governments are trying to promote for the region.

    Monem was not an extremist and certainly not a terrorist. He never insulted a president or defamed a religion. He is not even imprisoned simply because he is a member of the MB, an illegal organization according to Egyptian law. Monem has been put away because he is a liberal minded member of the MB. He is a true reformist and freedom fighter who was able to reach out to others and change the taboo that depicted the Brothers as fundamental conservatives who are living in the dark ages, and who would not shake women’s hands.

    The Muslim Brotherhood believes in modern societies based on democracy and freedom for all. The society we are aspiring to is built on family values, accountability and honesty. All citizens have equal rights with no discrimination based on sex, religion or race. These values are embraced by any modern societies as well as all religions, including Islam. We believe in right of others to exist and we are not waging global jihad to apply Sharia laws, and we certainly not going to throw Israel into the sea, as they want you to make believe. Women are integral part of our society and they are entitled to same rights and have the same duties as men. They go to schools, work and wear what they choose to wear.
    Finally, I would like to conclude by reiterating the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood stance regarding Karim Soliman which Monem eloquently expressed in his blog. On January 28, we released a statement on our website (www.Ikhwanweb.com) condemning the arrest and sentencing of Karim. We clearly stated that although we totally reject Karim’s attack on religion, but we thought arresting him and throwing him in jail is not the right way to handle his case. We believe that individuals have the right express their opinions freely but we believe that freedom of expression does not include insulting religions or sacred symbols. We called then for Karim’s immediate release. Today, I repeat the Muslim Brotherhood’s call for Karim’s freedom, as well as all political prisoners and prisoners of conscious.

    Free Monem, Free Karim, Free Egypt!

    Khaled Salam, Editor
    Ikhwanweb, NY

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