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Kifaya Under Arrest

There's a gentle spring breeze blowing in Brooklyn, and the sounds of kids playing basketball are coming in through the window from the schoolyard next door. It's early evening, at the end of a sunny weekend. Across the street, neighbors are singing intentionally off-key to an earnest version of “Wimoweh.” It's clashing with the piano from downstairs. I'm sunburned from a day eating homemade Indian food with an old friend in Prospect Park.

And I'm stunned, sickened, and anxious to get back to Cairo. Another friend of mine, Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam, went to jail there yesterday (May 7). He was among 11 young people arrested for turning out to support Kifaya activists arrested in last week's crackdown at the latter's scheduled hearing this morning. The tireless Aida Seif El-Dawla, who was there, says Assistant Interior Minister a senior intelligence officer known by the name Sami Sedhom told the protesters, “You bitc***. You sons of bitc***. This is how it is going to be from now on if you do not behave and know your limits. If you do not behave you'll have the bottom of my old shoes all over you.” (Her full email is posted at Arabist.net)

Police released three people—Sara Abd al-Gilil, Mohammed Awaad, and Yasser Abbas Mohammed—and held the rest in the Saida Zainab police station before transferring them to the Heliopolis State Security Prosecutor's office. A friend who works for a wire agency tells me he just heard the prosecutor has ordered them held for 15 days.

“We were just there to be present at the court hearing,” Aida said. “They encircled us…they wouldn't let us go.”

Friends of two of the detainees told Aida that security agents had called to say they were “screwing them right now.”

The eight people still in custody from yesterday's arrests are:

  1. Ahmed Abd al-Gawad
  2. Ahmed Abd al-Ghaffar
  3. Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam
  4. Asmaa Ali
  5. Fadi Iskandar
  6. Karim El-Shaer
  7. Nada al-Qassas
  8. Rasha Azab

These most recent arrests, coupled with the arrests last week, are dominating the Egyptian blogosphere. Wael Abbas has photos. “The Egyptian regime is getting bloody wild,” Freedom for Egyptians observed in the headline to her May 7 post. “Security forces are lashing out in all directions detaining anyone who would open his/her mouth in any street in Egypt using very arbitaray procedures, thanks to the renewal of the Emergency Law…One year ago…a political writer told me ‘this regime will be thrown away with blood.’ I didn't want to believe him, but I am seeing blood coming! I am saying it now with my eyes filled with tears,” she concludes.

Toman Bay is concerned that “the government will continue this illegal arrest until the infamous May 25th passes (the first anniversary of the constitutional amendment referendum, and the police brutality against protestors).”

Sandmonkey writes, “We are on our own, and the regime is getting more desperate, paranoid and brutal by the minute.” Toward that end, he is encouraging people to campaign for Alaa's release. The campaign is spreading rapidly across the Egyptian and expatriate Egyptian blogosphere.

In the same vein, a group of Ahmed al-Droubi's friends and supporters have put together a blog devoted to campaigning for his release and the release of those arrested with him on April 26, and Big Pharaoh has posted a list of useful Egyptian government contacts. I hope these won't dilute the effort to free Alaa. But when Malek and three other bloggers were arrested at protests last week, Alaa felt strongly that whatever campaigns people launched should be in support of all the detainees, not just the bloggers among them. I know that he would not want special attention—for good or for ill—because of his rising international profile.

I've met these people. I can't imagine the Interior Ministry honestly regards them as a threat. True, Alaa is an award-winning blogger and the son of veteran rights activist Ahmed Seif al-Islam, but the protests represent a nuisance rather than an existential threat to the regime. Yet the Interior Ministry does seem to recognize that the arrests could backfire: A spokesman told Al-Jazeera that those arrested the morning of May 7 had been released (just as they were being transferred to the Heliopolis State Security Prosecutor's office) and the Interior Ministry told Reuters that no one had been arrested.

So is this the regime's new idea? Crack down, arrest those protesting the crackdown, arrest those protesting the arrest of those protesting the crackdown, deny everything? Protests are no longer tolerated. The core of the Kifaya movement is now in jail.

When I first met Alaa in the summer of 2005, I told him I was worried the government would crack down on the Kifaya protesters after the elections, when the world's attention was elsewhere. I asked him if he was worried about what would happen if that came to pass: Many of the protesters were young, they had never been in jail, they didn't know what could happen to them. He said he believed that it was too late for the government to put an end to the protests, that once people had tasted a bit of freedom, the regime couldn't roll it back.

“The government would pay a heavy price if it clamps down on us,” Alaa's father told the BBC's Heba Saleh last year. The coming days and weeks will see both those predictions tested.

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