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On May 25, 2006, Egyptian security forces detained 24-year-old Muhammad al-Sharqawi, a weblogger and member of the reformist Kifaya (Arabic for "enough") movement's Youth for Change offshoot, as he left a peaceful demonstration in Cairo where he had displayed a sign reading, "I want my rights."[1] While in custody, police officers beat and sodomized him.[2] He sustained injuries to his ribs, face, and groin. Even as he urinated blood, Egyptian authorities denied him medical care for four days.[3] Sharqawi's lawyer described his beating as the worst act of sadism in Egypt in a decade.[4]

Sharqawi's arrest and torture come against a shadow of growing repression in Egypt. Although Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak acquiesced in February 2005 to allow a contested presidential election, when international attention turned elsewhere, he moved to crush Egypt's fledgling liberal opposition. On January 29, 2005, he imprisoned presidential candidate Ayman Nour.[5] Twelve months later, he cancelled municipal elections that had been slated for April 2006, the same month he extended the country's emergency laws.[6]

Egyptian liberals and dissidents have continued to agitate for reform. Democracy activists lined Cairo's streets when the regime harassed two pro-reform magistrates, Hesham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki, who had questioned government vote-rigging during last November's legislative elections. It was at a rally in support of the two judges that police arrested Sharqawi.

Sharqawi's arrest marks an acceleration of Mubarak's crackdown. Since April 2006, Egyptian security forces have rounded up scores of protestors.[7] Egypt's blogosphere—a popular outlet for dissent in response to state control of newspapers—has also become a target for the regime as officials move to censor websites and arrest their managers. Mubarak has sought to point to opposition blogs and protests as "evidence of democracy," even as he accelerates the crackdown. "Most of what they [the bloggers] are writing could be punished according to the law, because it is libel and blasphemy," he warned on May 30.[8]

Under duress, democracy activists have sought the support of U.S. officials, to little avail. After Nour lost his final appeal on May 18, U.S. ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone stated that he "wished it turned out differently."[9] When a disciplinary tribunal censured Bastawisi on the same day, Ricciardone declined to comment.[10]

Still, pro-democracy forces vow to continue their struggle. Kifaya leader George Ishaq stated, "If we're silent now, we'll become accomplices to the state's crimes."[11] Many Egyptians will also interpret Washington's silence likewise.

Jeffrey Azarva is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

[1] "Middle East: Weekly Human Rights Roundup," U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Irinnews.org, June 5, 2006.
[2] The Washington Post, May 26, 2006.
[3] Voice of America radio, May 29, 2006.
[4] "Egypt: Police Severely Beat Pro-Democracy Activists," Human Rights Watch, May 31, 2006.
[5] Suzanne Gershowitz, "Dissident Watch: Ayman Nour," Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2005, p. 96.
[6] The Telegraph (London), Feb. 16, 2006.
[7] The Washington Post, May 31, 2006.
[8] Al-Jumhuriya (Cairo), May 30, 2006.
[9] Agence France-Presse, May 31, 2006.
[10] The New York Times, May 19, 2006.
[11] "Middle East: Weekly Human Rights Roundup," June 5, 2006.