UPDATE: One day after vowing to serve until September, Hosni Mubarak resigned the Egyptian presidency on Friday. His decision was announced by Vice President Omar Suleiman. Protesters greeted the news with noisy celebration, cheering and waving flags in Cairo’s Tahrir square. Earlier in the day, Mubarak fled Cairo.
The night before he went missing, the Egyptian dissident described Hosni Mubarak's crimes of the last week as the worst of his 30-year reign. David Keyes on what the disappearance means for reform—and why a U.S. senator is now intervening.
If one man symbolizes the price of Egyptian tyranny, it is the young blogger Kareem Amer. He spent the last four years in an Egyptian prison for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and "insulting" Islam on his website. Amer was released three months ago, but disappeared Sunday. I may have been the last Westerner to speak with Kareem, only hours before he went missing.
"Mubarak has been in power for almost 30 years and this period was so miserable and so full of human-rights violations that it is difficult to convey in a single article," Amer told me Saturday evening. "The crimes and violations have been too numerous to count under President Mubarak. Many human-rights activists and journalists were imprisoned during his reign. Some were beaten and subjected to horrible physical torture. Others were abducted and disappeared without a trace."
Amer said Mubarak's greatest crimes have occurred in the past week. "The worst of these incidents happened in the last few days when the security forces attacked anti-Mubarak protesters with great violence in Cairo and elsewhere, opening fire and killing people" he said. "Later they withdrew from the streets but they left it in the hands of thugs and released prisoners. Security forces asked the thugs to confront the peaceful protesters and attack them. This is what led to hundreds of injuries and deaths."
"Kareem's kidnapping raises troubling concerns about the government's commitment to reform and democracy," said Senator Mark Kirk. "His safety and security is a test-case for the Suleiman government's commitment to peaceful change and democracy."
Though his whereabouts are still unknown, Amer got a powerful boost Wednesday night as U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) became the first official to openly and vociferously express concern over the protester's fate. "Kareem's kidnapping raises troubling concerns about the government's commitment to reform and democracy," Kirk told me by phone. "As one of the most prominent bloggers in the Middle East, his safety and security is a test-case for the Suleiman government's commitment to peaceful change and democracy."
Back in 2008, before it was popular to protest Mubarak's repression of human rights, Kirk rose in the U.S. Congress and gave an impassioned speech in defense of Amer. With a large poster of the blogger's face behind him, Kirk boomed, "I strongly urge President Mubarak to release Kareem Amer, who has now served 17 months of his sentence. Egypt is one of the largest recipients of U.S. taxpayer aid and we should ensure that the partners of ours of this magnitude are also dedicated to freedom of expression. The release of Kareem Amer, the first blogger arrested in the Arab world simply for what he wrote on his blog, would demonstrate Egypt's commitment to Internet freedom and human rights."
But linking foreign aid to human rights has never been particularly popular, especially in some corridors of power. Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared on May 5, 2009, "[F]oreign military financing [to Egypt] that's in the budget should be without conditions."
The global campaigns waged on Amer's behalf meant the world to him. "Activism in these sorts of matters is not judged by whether or not the pressure led to my early release," he said with characteristic self-effacement, "because the Egyptian regime is very stubborn. But maybe it will have a future effect in stopping a repetition of this experience for others. That is what concerns me."
From 2008 to 2010, CyberDissidents.org organized global protests at Egyptian embassies and American universities on behalf of the jailed blogger. A deputy ambassador of Egypt told me that these protests had caused immense harm to Amer. How, I asked, did marching for human rights harm human rights? The deputy ambassador flippantly remarked that he had Ph.D. in political science and understood the conservative nature of Egyptian society far better than I. Egypt has different values and traditions, he explained, and the West had no right to interfere in Egypt's internal matters.
Once free, I asked Amer about the diplomat's claim. Had we, in fact, inadvertently harmed him? "Just the opposite." he shot back. "I am pleased at everything that was done on my behalf. I think this diplomat wanted to pressure you to stop the protests because they were against the government and its oppression of natural liberties."
Even after four years in prison, Amer said without hesitation, "Freedom is worth the sacrifice." But he has sacrificed enough. Mark Kirk should be the first of all 535 members of the U.S. Congress to stand shoulder to shoulder in demanding that Egypt locate and release Kareem Amer.