Egyptian bloggers put new face on dissent

One activist has been detained by police three times. Upon release, he returns to his computer.

CAIRO, Egypt - Measured by feet in the street, Mohamed Abdel Aziz has been a failed activist. In cyberspace, it's another matter.

He has landed in police stations three times, but upon each release he has returned to his computer, opened his blog, and conspired in cyberspace to end President Hosni Mubarak's 27-year rule of Egypt.

That's an unlikely prospect. But Aziz, a man so thin his wristwatch shimmies up and down his arm, keeps tending to 6th of April, a protest movement he helped found that draws from a Facebook group of 76,000, mostly high school and university students.

Within five days of its founding last year, the Facebook group that is aligned with 6th of April had registered 40,000 members.

"No one expected it to spread so quickly," Aziz said.

The movement opines, plots, and Twitters, although it has yet to generate crowds in the street: Three of its calls for nationwide strikes drew more police than protesters.

"No one knows when the trigger of revolution will be pulled. The state is oppressive, but ordinary Egyptians from all over sympathize with us," said Aziz, who likes to recall the passions that roused his countrymen's 1919 revolution against the British.

"When we started using Facebook, it was a novelty," he said. "Calling for a national strike was a novelty. It was like lighting a candle in a dark room. But this is still an oppressive state, and people are scared."

Human-rights groups say the public's fear is a testament to mass arrests, torture, and other violations of civil liberties against political opponents in a nation that has been under a state of emergency for three decades.

The Mubarak government, which receives $1.2 billion a year in U.S. military and economic aid, is blamed for inflation and corruption, and for allowing public services such as schools and hospitals to deteriorate. Young Egyptians see a nation stripped of opportunity and run by patronage and connections.

"The generation born since 1981 came into the world during the worst period of Egyptian history," said Aziz, a 23-year-old aviation engineer.

"We can see how dynamic the rest of the world is, but we feel alienated, as if we are living outside of time. We've spent years in schools and learned nothing. We have diplomas that are useless."

Mubarak's opposition hums in disparate voices - nationalists, unionists, leftists, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the strongest, but despite a growing religious tilt in the country, the Brotherhood's Islamist ideals are viewed by many as too radical to enable it to form strong alliances with secular parties and organizations.

Though 6th of April speaks to anxious, rebellious youth, the movement has been tugged in many directions, including demonstrating for better wages for textile workers and protesting discrimination against the minority Nubian community.

Aziz's organization and other bloggers and Facebook activists, however, have expanded the debate into cyberspace, a new worry for security forces that at times have been outflanked by organizing tactics and videos of protests and police brutality appearing on the Internet. Police have detained 500 bloggers.

Aziz sat recently in an office along the Nile, where fishermen glided past.

He is a returnee, the son of teachers who left Egypt years ago to raise their son amid the prosperity of the United Arab Emirates.

It is a common trek. For generations, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have moved to the Persian Gulf, sending money home every month and growing accustomed to - if not accepting - a more rigid form of Islam than is practiced in Egypt.

It was this environment, Aziz said, that stirred a self-reflection that would later inspire his political awareness.

"I was raised in the religious conservatism and tribal tradition of the Persian Gulf," he said. "I read a lot and I began writing essays on freedom and political poetry. Then I turned to Egypt. Egyptians. Who was I? I started to read about our history.

"I was fascinated by the revolution against the British and our independence. But I wanted to know: Why have we retreated? Why have we gone backward?"

His parents remained in the Emirates, but Aziz came home to Cairo to live with his grandfather and attend school. His first major demonstration was in 2003, when he joined tens of thousands of Egyptians in the streets to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Aziz walked home from the rally an activist. He later took a job in information technologies and began a blog called Free Egyptians.

He found like-minded blogs, scrolled through similar manifestos.

"We've broken the silence and we've started stuff," he said. "We've motivated the youth and we're spreading the culture of disobedience and strikes."

The police have yet to budge.