Egypt releases blogger jailed for 45 days after 'insulting' President

Jeff Blake, The Independent

Egyptian authorities have ordered the release of an award-winning blogger and activist, imprisoned 45 days ago on charges including insulting the President.

Alaa Seif al-Islam, 24, who was arrested at a pro-reform demonstration on 7 May, had drawn the ire of the authorities for his provocative weblog and taking part in banned street protests. He is expected to be released from the Tora prison in Cairo today.

The release comes after a turbulent period of protest and violence in Egypt. Practically all groups opposed to President Hosni Mubarak, including the Muslim Brotherhood and secular groups such as Kifaya! (Enough!) and Youth for Change have had members beaten. Hundreds have been arrested.

Alaa's wife, Manal, with whom he runs the website, which won an award from the media freedom group Reporters Without Borders, said after the decision: "There's no going back now, we'll definitely be continuing our activities."

Opposition groups have rallied around two judges on trial after making allegations about election fraud. Since April, 48 activists associated with Kifaya! and Youth for Change have been detained. Allegations of sexual assault and torture have been made by prisoners. In particular, the case of Mohammed al-Sharqawi, a Youth for Change member, who was reportedly sexually assaulted while in custody, continues to cause rights groups concern.

Alaa Seif al-Islam has risen to prominence as part of a new generation of secular activists that, while lacking a specific political programme, are in essence anti-authoritarian. The nephew of the author Ahdaf Soueif and the son of veteran campaigners Dr Layla Soueif and Ahmed Seif, Alaa has the dissident pedigree. However, he is a relative latecomer to street protests. "After May 2005, when I was beaten up by police, it was then that Alaa became an activist. Before that he didn't get personally involved," said his mother, Layla, a mathematics professor at Cairo University.

Supporters highlight Alaa's importance in pushing the boundaries for political dissent through the internet. Nora Younis, a fellow blogger and activist, said: "He raises the ceiling of what is possible. After others were arrested on charges of 'insulting the President', he arranged a petition on his site that said 'we, the undersigned, insult the President' - to be given to the Public Prosecutor."

Officials at the Ministry of the Interior were not available for comment on the release, but analysts suggested that it did not signify a relaxing of the government's strict stance.