By Raja M. Kamal, associate dean for resource development at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and Tom G. Palmer, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and director of the Byrne Project on Middle East Liberty (THE WASHINGTON POST, 21/02/07):
A former college student, Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman, is sitting in an Egyptian prison, awaiting sentencing tomorrow. His alleged “crime”: expressing his opinions on a blog. His mistake: having the courage to do so under his own name.
Soliman, 22, was expelled from Al-Azhar University last spring for sharply criticizing the university’s rigid curriculum and faulting religious extremism on his blog. He was ordered to appear before a public prosecutor on Nov. 7 on charges of “spreading information disruptive of public order,” “incitement to hate Muslims” and “insulting the President.” Soliman was detained pending an investigation, and the detention has been renewed four times. He has not had consistent access to lawyers or to his family.
Egyptian authorities have made a mistake in prosecuting Soliman. It is Egypt that will be hurt if he is convicted and sent to prison. That’s why sincere friends of Egypt call on the government to drop the charges against him. It is the right thing to do, and it is the best thing for Egypt’s standing in the modern world.
The case has gained attention in newspapers the world over and from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. Informal networks of bloggers have spread the word, notably through http://www.freekareem.org. Last Thursday, bloggers and human rights activists around the globe gathered to call on Egyptian authorities to respect freedom of speech. We echo this call.
Soliman has criticized Egyptian authorities as failing to protect the rights of religious minorities and women. He has expressed his views about religious extremism in very strong terms. He is the first Egyptian blogger to be prosecuted for the content of his remarks. Remarkably, the legal complaint originated with the university that had expelled him; once, it was a great center of learning in the Arab world, but it has been reduced to informing on students for their dissent from orthodoxy.
One of us, Tom Palmer, met Soliman at a conference for bloggers in the Middle East last year. In person, Soliman seemed quiet and shy but very committed to championing women’s rights and the rights of minorities.
We kept in touch by G-mail chat. Despite occasional admonitions to be careful about what he posted online and to think about possible consequences of public dissent, Soliman said that he was not afraid to express his views.
Last October, Soliman instant-messaged that he had been ordered to attend an interview with prosecutors the next day. Friends at organizations such as Hands Across the Middle East Support Alliance and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information quickly found Soliman a lawyer. Word spread when he had been detained, and protests were organized at Egyptian embassies. Soliman had no organized movement or group behind him, but his case came to be known around the world.
We find it shocking that a university would turn a student over to the authorities to be prosecuted for voicing his views. The future of learning and science is at risk when dissenting views are punished rather than debated. Jointly, we have contacted Egyptian authorities to ask that they correct a clear mistake and release Soliman.
Egypt is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media.” The exceptions allowed are narrowly drawn and require proof of “necessity” before restrictions can be imposed. The posting of opinions on a student’s personal blog hardly qualifies as a threat to national security, to the reputation of the president or to public order.
Soliman is not a threat to Egypt, but this prosecution is.
Whether or not we agree with the opinions that Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman expressed is not the issue. What matters is a principle: People should be free to express their opinions without fear of being imprisoned or killed. Blogging should not be a crime.