Cairo — Cairo's airport has been unusually busy the past month as Egypt's security apparatus steps up its campaign against online political activists.
Several prominent Egyptian bloggers have "disappeared" from the airport's arrivals hall, while others report suspiciously long delays that they claim were cover for state security officers to search their laptops and luggage.
Bloggers Abdel Rahman Ayyash and Magdy Saad were arrested at Cairo airport last week as they returned from a political conference in Turkey. Both men are outspoken members of Muslim Brotherhood, the banned fundamentalist Islamic group that is the largest political opponent of Egypt's ruling regime.
Ayyash, who runs the blog Al-Ghareeb ('Strange'), is being held incommunicado. The 19-year-old Islamist, known for his reformist tendencies, posts in Arabic and English about Islam and its role in governance.
Saad, a 31-year-old marketing executive, blogs at Yalla Mesh Mohem ('All right, it doesn't matter') about matters both personal and political. He was among 21 Muslim Brotherhood members and leaders arrested in March 2006 in what later became known as the "student's case". Saad's blog entries following his release helped focus media spotlight on the arrests.
"These guys are among the most influential young Islamist bloggers in Egypt, generally voices for dialogue with other currents and reform inside the Muslim Brotherhood," according to The Arabist.
The popular blog suggests a link between the arrest of the two online activists and their efforts in the campaign for the release of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Council. Aboul Fotouh was arrested Jun. 28 along with six other Brotherhood members, and is currently being detained without charge.
The Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) says detention of bloggers arriving at the airport is "becoming a routine."
"This is a new episode of the blatant violation programme practised by the security services, with absolute illegitimacy and with shameful consent of the prosecution, the only entity responsible for questioning police authorities about such encroachments and law breaking incidents," says ANHRI executive director Gamal Eid.
Egyptian authorities have intercepted at least two other cyber dissidents at Cairo airport this month. On Jul. 18, blogger Ahmed Salah was reportedly detained at customs for several hours while his belongings were searched. State security officers also detained prominent blogger Wael Abbas for 13 hours upon his return to Cairo on Jun. 30 from a conference in Sweden where he criticised the government.
Abbas said he was taken to a separate room in the arrivals hall where officers searched his backpack, wallet, camera and laptop. The belongings were returned except for his conference papers and his laptop, which he was told had been sent to be scanned for pirated software.
As more Egyptians espouse their political views online, authorities have taken an increasingly heavy hand in suppressing their voices. State security monitors phone and Internet communications, and cyber café owners are required to collect and keep personal information of all Internet users.
Police have detained hundreds of online activists in the last year. A handful still remain in custody, including blogger Abdel Karim Sulieman, better known as Kareem Amer, who was arrested in November 2006 and is currently serving a four-year jail term for insulting religion and the president.
Earlier this year, Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders named Egypt as one of 12 "Enemies of the Internet." The other members of the "dirty dozen" are Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
"All these countries distinguish themselves not only by their ability to censor online news and information but also by their virtually systematic persecution of troublesome Internet users," the rights organisation said.
Cairo airport has become a preferred place to apprehend bloggers. The terminal is an easy place to monitor and detain activists, as arriving passengers must pass successively through the gate, immigration hall and customs - each station affording authorities an opportunity to interrogate the passenger and search their belongings.
Airport officials keep lists of individuals wanted by police.