I am visiting the US for the first time in my life in order to blog the presidential election. Many things have amazed me in this great country. I've had an American education my entire life, so I believe I'm well acquainted with the American election spirit. But when I stepped foot on American soil I was amazed by how Americans treat the elections. The outcome of American elections affects not only Americans but also the entire world, sometimes even more than any local presidential election in any country.
In Egypt, my homeland, the presidential election takes place every 6 years purely as a formality so the president can continue presiding even though the election results are far from the actual will of the people. Our president, Hosni Mubarak, has been in power since 1981 and may very well outlive us all. Voting day for us includes depressingly low voting turnouts, shameless voting fraud and rigging by government officials and others, bribery, and individual votes bought and sold for petty amounts of cash.
I know here in the US there has been voting fraud and corruption in the past, but my dear Americans, you have something that was, up to very recently, a mirage-like dream for us. You have freedom of the press. We have freedom of the press in our constitution as well, but since we've been living under emergency laws since the assassination of former president Sadat in 1981, our constitution is pretty much suspended.
On numerous occasions, independent journalists in Egypt have been harassed by the state security apparatus and sometimes even charged with phony crimes after they exposed corruption or spoken their true minds. So unlike here, in Egypt you are free to say whatever you want only if you are ready to face the consequences. Others have been subject to harsh criticism from the more conservative sectors in society for speaking about freedom of religion, secularism, equality for women, etc. The best example was the assassination by alleged Islamists of Farag Fouda, an Egyptian writer and advocate of secularism and separation of religion and politics.
But still, when election time comes we go out and witness first hand the violations that take place. We document them and sometimes if we're lucky we're able to take snapshots or some footage as evidence when the riot police is not looking. But when in Egypt, I operate as an anonymous blogger, and that takes away so much of my credibility since no one knows who I am or whether or not I was really there. However, my anonymity is essential so I can keep on writing without having to censor myself out of fear of what others may think of me. That was the entire goal of my blog, to be a free, uninhibited voice.
In the United States, on the other hand, freedom of the press and expression have become embedded in the national consciousness. So when people and/or journalists witness violations and expose them, they are protected by something that is respected by all no matter how different or how much they disagree. People seem to be united on these basic principles and as long as these principles are upheld and guaranteed, anyone is allowed to disagree with anything and with the majority. In short, it seems to me that in the United States, freedom of expression and of the press cannot easily be compromised.
When I started writing on my blog about two years ago I chose to be anonymous so that I would not chain myself to what others think and believe. I wanted to be free not only to write and express, but also to think and decide without being constrained by fear of facing consequences. The sad part is that I'm not blogging anonymously out of fear of the government's surveillance. I'm veiling my identity to protect myself from being revealed and potentially judged and marginalized by other Egyptians because of my views. When I write about social issues, especially those involving politics, women and religion, I find that most people do not agree with me. And I have absolutely no problem with being disagreed with. To accept those you disagree with you is the only guarantee that they will in turn accept you. What compels me to write anonymously is that it is very difficult for people to accept who they disagree with.
It is no secret that religious extremism has seeped into all segments of Egyptian society. But what I've felt many people here don't know is that there are highly open and free-thinking societies in Egypt as well. I guess it has a lot do with economic as well as social contradictions especially that contradictions split society along many different and overlapping lines. Many may call it cultural diversity, but the difference between a diverse society and a conflicted society is that when society is divided by so many differing and sometimes opposing values and views, it is in free societies that everybody's rights and freedom's are protected. But in an already totalitarian society, in which the regime rarely respects anybody's rights or freedoms, it is more likely for all groups to get defensive about what they stand for and believe.
The best and most recent example of that is the Abdul Kareem case. Abdul Kareem is an Alexandrian blogger who wrote about his opposition to the regime and the president and the freedom to choose which religion to follow. It was his view of Islam that brought a law suit against him for offending Islam by an Islamist lawyer. Kareem is now in jail serving a 4 year sentence for two different charges - offending Islam and offending the president. For more information about him visit freekareem.com.
After witnessing what happened to Kareem, it persuaded me even more to stay anonymous and not reveal my identity. My fears definitely include being harassed for opposing the regime on a lot of policies and criticizing its incompetence. But since the movement for change is now growing in Egypt, freedom of expression is establishing itself more and more every day. However, it is the fear of being treated differently by people because of my views that is the real reason why I prefer to stay anonymous. People may decide that anything I say on there may be offensive to tradition or values and someday I may find a law suit against me by any random conservative who disagrees with me enough to file a law suit. Better yet it could be someone who wants to improve his own standing with the regime like what happened with a judge who decided to file a suit against 21 blogs and websites and asked the court to close them down. The 21 webpages are mainly Opposition or human rights websites that criticize the situation in Egypt. In this case however the court decided it wasn't in any court's jurisdiction to close down a website merely for its views.
Another reason why I blog anonymously is for the social issues I choose to write. For example one of my most pressing concerns is women's issues. I am clearly against Female Genital Mutilation, Virginity testing, and honor killings. But to be against those things is perceived by a fundamentalist minority as being a proponent of sexual promiscuity, social deviance, or even sometimes prostitution. Also to be an advocate of minority rights of Copts (Egyptian Christians) or rights of personal freedom or even abortion is asking for trouble, especially if you're female.
The thing is I believe in the 'free market' of ideas, where the best ideas, beliefs, and views will spread themselves naturally earn more followers given they have the freedom to chose and the opportunity to apply. And to be a proponent of something that could have the potential to change the status quo will always be opposed by those who benefit most from the incumbent circumstances.
This week OffTheBus is publishing a variety of stories that cover the presidential election from an international perspective.