In Egypt, twenty-five members of the opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, were sentenced to jail by a military court on Tuesday. Among those sentenced was the group’s second most senior member. In the weeks ahead of Egypt’s municipal vote earlier this month, hundreds of members of the group were arrested. The verdicts come on the heels of food riots in Egypt in response to skyrocketing prices for food staples such as bread, rice, pasta. We speak with Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist, blogger and activist. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In Egypt, twenty-five members of the opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, were sentenced to jail by a military court Tuesday. Among those sentenced was the group’s second most senior member. The verdicts concluded a yearlong trial during which Egyptian authorities detained hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters all over the country in successive security sweeps. The Brotherhood is the most powerful opposition group in Egypt but is still considered illegal. It controls a fifth of the seats in the Egyptian parliament and would likely control more under free elections.
In the weeks ahead of Egypt’s municipal vote earlier this month, hundreds of members of the group were arrested. Those sentenced Tuesday have been in custody since December 2006. Before the verdict, police set up checkpoints on the road leading to the court. They searched vehicles, chased away reporters and family members of the defendants. More than thirty people were arrested. The verdicts come on the heels of food riots in Egypt in response to skyrocketing prices for food staples like rice, pasta and, most of all, aish, Egyptian Arabic for “bread” and “life.”
Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist, blogger and activist. He blogs at arabawy.org. He is currently a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley School of journalism. He joins me here in the Stanford University studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: I’m honored. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: First of all, talk about the Muslim Brotherhood and what is happening. Talk about the security crackdown.
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: Yeah. The government basically went in by the fall of 2006 and rounded up more than forty of the senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they fabricated like bogus charges against them, mainly using the excuse that some of the Muslim Brotherhood student activists staged a demonstration on the campus of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where they were wearing hooded masks and they performed martial arts, which wasn’t the first time that they would do so. But the government claims that this was an armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is bogus.
And they went in, rounded up the students from their dormitories and then went after their leaders, accusing them of financing a terror organization and money laundering. And, you know, when you see the students when they were rounded up, and then you look at like the so-called evidence that the police had handed in — these were like kitchen knives, taken, you know, from their kitchens, forks, like metal bars that exist in any dormitory — but the background for this is that Mubarak, who is grooming his son Gamal for succession, wants basically to eliminate any sort of impediments in front of him, and that would include the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest Islamist organized and moderate group we have.
AMY GOODMAN: And how popular is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: The Muslim Brotherhood is mainly popular among the middle-class professionals and the lower middle classes and some members of the elite, but they do not enjoy support among the working class in Egypt and neither the peasantry.
AMY GOODMAN: What is it like to blog in Egypt? How much information can you get out? And how long are you here in the United States?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: I’m here in the United States ’til this summer, and then I should be flying back home. And as for the blogging scene, I mean, Egypt enjoys one of the strongest blogospheres in the Arab world, basically because most of the bloggers are not your IT nerds that — that’s like the stereotype of bloggers here — but they are street activists. And in a country where there was heavy and still there is heavy censorship from the government on the press, and the so-called independent press is still moving within specific redlines like put by the regime, blogs have become now the main news source, independent news source for journalists and also for the public.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the bloggers who have been arrested?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: You had a big number, actually, of bloggers who have been rounded up on the 6th and the 7th of April and also on the 5th, because the opposition had called for a general strike on the 6th of April. And many of the bloggers were rounded up, because they were involved in leafleting and in distributing propaganda like in the streets and calling for the strike. So they were rounded up, because there were activists.
Right now, two of the most prominent like activists we have in Egypt —- one is called Kareem el-Beheiri, who is a factory worker from the Nile Delta town of Mahalla, has been rounded up on the 7th of April, and right now we don’t know where is he kept, in which prison. The other blogger, who’s also a good friend of mine, and he’s currently in detention at El-Marg Prison, is called Mohamed Sharqawi. He’s a leftwing blogger, and the same blogger, two years ago, was actually raped by the police in custody, which caused a huge scandal both in Egypt -—
AMY GOODMAN: That was — wasn’t there a phone video of that taken?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: No, that’s another, actually, video of a bus driver in Giza who was sodomized by the police, and the police was actually the ones who took that video and distributed it among his colleagues to shame him, so they said. I mean, you could hear like all sorts of slurs and insults and these quotes like, you know, I mean, in the video. But the other abuse instance was not caught. However, Mohamed Sharqawi had the courage to step forward and talk about what happened, which happened to many other activists, but they didn’t have the courage to speak about.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was the response?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: The response, of course, there was no interrogation by — there was no investigation by the government. The government denied all claims, because in most, if not virtually all, torture cases, usually police officers are acquitted.
AMY GOODMAN: What was he writing about?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: Mohamed Sharqawi was — I mean, back then, when he was like, I mean, detained two years ago, he was blogging about the movement Kefaya, which is Arabic for "enough," and it’s like the anti-Mubarak movement, in addition to writing his own personal thoughts, you know, I mean, on the blog.
AMY GOODMAN: How is it that the Muslim Brotherhood is illegal, considered so by the Egyptian government, but it has a fifth of the seats in the parliament?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: Well, according to Egyptian law — and I think this might have even been something that we inherited from the time of the British occupation in Egypt before 1952 — is that any political group based on class or religion are banned, meaning that if you’re a communist and you want to establish a party calling for working class power, you cannot. If you’re an Islamist and you want to establish a group based on religion, you cannot. That’s according to the law. Of course, it’s an unjust law, and it’s against civil liberties. But still, the Muslim Brotherhood, they do run in elections as independents. They don’t necessarily run under the banner of Muslim Brotherhood. That’s why it’s like a legal maneuver, basically.
AMY GOODMAN: And the amount of aid Egypt receives from the United States?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: We are the second largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel. We receive something that amounts to $2 billion a year, $1.3 billion out of which goes to the military.
AMY GOODMAN: Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal, do you think he will take power?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: Well, that’s, I think, what daddy wants. I think that’s what the Egyptian elite would like to see. I think that’s also what the White House would like to see. But as we say in Egypt, you cannot make a sweet drink out of a rotten fish. And the Mubaraks’ family is a rotten fish. We don’t care if the eighty-year-old Mubarak is ruling or his son, who’s like in the beginning of his forties, is ruling. It’s a corrupt regime, and we do not want anyone from that Mubaraks’ royal family to continue ruling Egypt.
AMY GOODMAN: The protest being planned for Hosni Mubarak’s eightieth birthday in May?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: Well, some bloggers are now calling for a general strike on the 4th of May. Whether that general strike is going to happen or not, I mean, I have huge doubts about it, but what I can assure you is that there will be protests.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the food prices rising? We’re seeing riots, protests all over the world. What about Egypt?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: Well, in Egypt, as you were just mentioning earlier, I mean, we call bread “aish,” which is Arabic also for “living,” because a great percentage of the Egyptian household’s food basket depends on bread. And with rising food prices around the world, especially with macaroni, pasta and rice, people are even shifting more and more towards breads. But that’s causing a huge crisis, because basically, I mean, on the one hand, prices of bread are skyrocketing. Secondly, bread is disappearing. And in two months’ time, we have up to now, Amy, fifteen people who were killed in the so-called bread queues. I mean, we have now bread queues that would trigger some people’s memories here about the Great Depression.
AMY GOODMAN: These are bread lines to get bread.
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: Bread lines, exactly. Fifteen people were killed. And it’s like the French Revolution, basically, where people cannot find bread, so they are like killing one another, or now they are rioting against the state.
AMY GOODMAN: And what’s the state’s reaction?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: The state’s reaction was killing two young men in the city of Mahalla on the 6th and the 7th of April. Hundreds of people have been rounded up, not only activists, but also ordinary citizens. Many of them were abused in police custody at Mahalla’s so-called first police station, including children as young as eight-year-olds.
AMY GOODMAN: How much power does the US have putting pressure on Egypt? Does it put pressure at all around the treatment of dissidents, given the amount of money it gives, the second highest recipient of US aid, foreign aid?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: Well, if the — the US government is sending terror suspects to Egypt to get interrogated under torture. I mean, we do not really expect the US government to intervene in order to alleviate, you know, I mean, the plight of the Egyptian detainees. And actually, the Egyptian activist community does not want anything from the White House, because we do not expect anything good coming from the White House. But what we look for is support from the labor unions here in the US, from human rights groups. And on Friday, we’re actually mobilizing for a protest in front of the consulate, the Egyptian consulate in San Francisco. And I hope as many people here in the Bay Area will show up for it.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what do you think the future holds for Egypt?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: I think that the Mubarak’s reign is over. I mean, we’ve seen pictures that — of the Mahalla rioters bringing down Mubarak’s big posters in the public squares of Mahalla that triggered or echoed bells of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad in 2003, except in Mahalla there were no American tanks and the photos were not staged. So I expect the demonstrations, even if they have fizzled down now, to be revived again, because the economic situation has not improved. And hopefully we’ll get another bread uprising, that was similar to what happened in Egypt in 1977, that will overthrow the Mubaraks’ dictatorship.
AMY GOODMAN: Where can your blog be found?
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: My blog — my blog’s address is arabawy.org, which is “Arab” and “awy.org.”
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for joining us.
HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY: It’s my pleasure.
AMY GOODMAN: Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist, blogger and activist, as he said, blogging at arabawy.org, currently a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Journalism, joining me here in Stanford.