From Kareem Amer to Aliaa Elmahdy: The Egyptian Revolution Disowns her Own?

An Egyptian walks past graffiti opposing the Interior Ministry during clashes between protesters with riot police at Tahrir Square in Cairo 19 November 2011. (Photo: REUTERS - Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

By: Mohammed Kheir

Published Monday, November 21, 2011

The paradox that Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy revealed was that her nude pictures were more of a nightmare for liberals than for conservatives. The controversy over Aliaa’s pictures posted on her blog, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, is one that no Arab advocate of free speech wishes to face as he/she can not defend what the young blogger did without going completely against social norms.

It is as if Aliaa broke the last taboo in the trilogy of taboos in Egypt. The first was religion (blogger Kareem Amer was accused of contempt of religion), the second military power (blogger Maikel Nabil called for an end of compulsory military service), and then came sex, with a nude picture of Aliaa.

Amer spent four years in prison in his city of Alexandria. Nabil is spending a three-year prison sentence meted out by the military court. As for Aliaa, the so-called coalition of Islamic law graduates reported her to the general prosecutor demanding that she be punished according to Islamic law. The Egyptian penal code does not apply Islamic law but it does condemn contempt of religion as a crime. It is possible that 20-year-old Aliaa might face prison time like Kareem and Maikel.

Aliaa, like the other two bloggers, put activists and intellectuals in the worst dilemma, faced with a choice between abandoning her or cutting the very thread that connects “them” to “society.”

This case is not about defending Aliaa’s right to choose what to wear because she is not wearing anything. Just as Kareem’s case was not about defending his right to criticize Islamists because he was criticizing Islam itself. As for Maikel, he violated political taboos on more than one level. No only did he organize a campaign against compulsory military service, he also attacked the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in the very early days after Mubarak stepped down.

Who could defend someone who “attacks” the army or someone who is “contemptuous” of Islam and finally, who could defend a “stripper?”

Professionally speaking, lawyers are always prepared to defend and lose such cases. But cultural and social reactions are a different matter. When Amer went to prison a few years ago under Mubarak’s rule, solidarity with him was almost nonexistent. Solidarity with Nabil who has been imprisoned after the revolution has been stronger and more obvious especially after the blogger went on a hunger strike while in prison.

Aliaa’s case received more media attention than the previous two, stirring up all kinds of questions between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives were shocked at the millions of viewers who visited her blog in a premeditated and wilful decision to engage in the “sin” of viewing. Aliaa, after all, put a content warning on her blog and a button that the visitor must press to enter the blog and view the pictures. So there is no coincidence here, no “assault on the freedom of the browser” and no affront to public decency.

Liberals faced their moment of truth – is it possible in our society and at the present moment to defend freedom of expression - full rebellion in full nudity - in an unqualified manner? Can we jeopardize the margin of freedom we have in an “unworthy” battle? Should we concede that moral restraints are the Islamists’ specialty and prerogative?

That young Aliaa with her countenance, angry words and baby face looks like an offspring of Tahrir Square in its full meaning and essence only compounds the crisis for intellectuals.

The April 6 Movement can deny the young blogger’s membership in its ranks. But the revolution, in its broader sense, can not disavow her. Perhaps that explains the secret of the anxiety that secular activists feel; they know that Aliaa is one of them. And if the crisis develops from an online debate to the possibility of imprisonment, it could complicate matters even more.

What is to be done if Aliaa is put on trial? Do we stand in solidarity with her? And how? Despite Amer and Maikel’s unbridled rebellion, it was still possible to link their writings to the cause of free speech. But Aliaa’s picture, like any picture, does not lie. The power of photography is like a word that can not be retracted.

This controversy reminds us, even if the case is not completely analogous, of when al-Dustour newspaper was closed twice - once directly and once by trickery so to speak. The second time, it was accompanied by the silencing of a number of TV programs and channels which served to intimidate newspapers and programs that were not shut down, thus diminishing the margin of freedom.

Unbridled freedom that withstands criticism from every direction, as is the case with these three bloggers, preserves the margin of freedom for the less controversial views.

The models that Aliaa, Amer and Maikel represent are not trivial; they are not rebels without a cause. A careful look at their blogs reveals a consistent position. All three of them have clear and critical views of religion and of patriarchal authority and they all sympathize with minorities.

Reading the hundreds of comments on Aliaa’s pictures says more about those who feel “outraged” than about her. One expects to see comments that reflect moral outrage or that dish out religious advice or that accuse her of engaging in pornography in the name of “nude art.” There are however the occasional unpredictable comments, like: “What is this, do you think yourself beautiful!”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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