Op-Ed: Free Kareem campaign director weighs in on Middle-East youth activism

A day after global demonstrations were held to free jailed Egyptian blogger Abdul “Kareem” Nabeel Suleiman, Founder and Executive Director of Mideast Youth and the Director of the Free Kareem Campaign, Esra’a Al-Shafei discusses what these movements mean for the future of Middle-East youth activism.

MANAMA, November 7, 2008 (MENASSAT) - It is said that there is no force more powerful than that of righteous indignation.

I felt this indignation during my early college years when I realized my own social activism in Bahrain and the social activism of Middle Eastern youth in general was subverted by the one-dimensional portrayal of our activities in all of Arab media.

I attributed this mainly to censorship and state control of media in the region

I took to my keyboard to answer this phenomenon with my own voice, to show not only the diversity of ethnicities, religions, and cultures in the region, but also the diversity of opinion, fervor, ideals, hopes, and politics.

My hope has been to portray for the first time in global discourse, Middle Eastern youth in all our depth, our feelings, and our complexity.

Mideast Youth

I was joined over time by a growing number of similar voices, declaring in unison that we are Muslim and moderate, idealistic and hopeful, Jewish and Zionist and peaceful; we are Christians, Baha'is, Sunnis and Shias; Persians and Arabs; Turks, Berbers and Kurds, and we are all here so that the world hears us in our own voices.

This became the concept behind MideastYouth.com, the network I founded in May, 2006. Its mission was to inspire and provide young people with the freedom and opportunity of expression, and promote a fierce but respectful dialog among the highly diverse youth of all sects, socio-economic backgrounds, and political and religious beliefs in the Middle East.

We use this freedom to create social change and to prove that the collaboration necessary for stability is possible.

We risk our safety to do what we do because we believe that liberty and our right to free expression is worth fighting for. Just as we believe that we must fight for our right to freedom of speech, we also believe that we must fight for the right to human dignity.

We fight in the only way that we believe in, through a fierce but respectful dialog among ourselves, a form of regional diplomacy that uses the tools available to us to break down historical and linguistic barriers.

The Free Kareem Campaign

The Free Kareem Campaign has been the first official campaign we have run, and by far one of our most successful initiatives .

It was created on November 6, 2006, minutes after Abdul “Kareem” Nabeel Suleiman’s lawyer announced that he was detained, pending investigation for his activities online.

The site was officially launched less than an hour later. Information was being aggressively gathered, interviews with Kareem's friends were conducted, translations were in the process, press releases were being written.

More and more people became aware of the news and committed to help, and frequent volunteers later became known as the Free Kareem Coalition, which I serve as the Director for.

Kareem was held without charge for what was supposed to be days, which later stretched to weeks, eventually months. Over three months later he was officially tried and sentenced to four years in prison; three for criticizing Islam and one for criticizing the Egyptian President, ironically by referring to him as a "dictator."

It continues to be a challenging process to maintain interest for Kareem within the mainstream news. It has been exactly two years since we began running this campaign, its subject is hardly "news worthy" anymore according to many journalists we approach.

Each day we think of new strategies to keep the campaign's pulse beating, and have had a record of firsts in this regard.

Our most celebrated strategy is the creation of simultaneous worldwide rallies, where a group of Kareem's supporters in dozens of major cities around the world would gather in front of Egyptian Embassies or Consulates and peacefully demand his immediate and unconditional release.

Through this, we have had great success regaining and maintaining Kareem's presence in the news, making more people aware of our cause.

Worldwide solidarity

Yesterday was the fourth time worldwide rallies have taken place, and whenever we feel that the time is relevant, smaller rallies are sometimes organized individually.

We have succeeded in recruiting influential politicians in Europe and North America who would protest on behalf of Kareem's cause. We did this primarily because of the Egyptian government's obvious obsession with its worldwide reputation, particularly in these two regions. All told, Egypt has received over $50 billion in US largesse since 1975.

Many Muslim bloggers found this to be a controversial issue, a little too controversial for their solid involvement. The site was being attacked and people referred to the campaign as part of the "war against Islam," not understanding the principles of free speech and the fact that it includes criticism of our own faith and values.

Moreover, the Free Kareem campaign in no way echoed Kareem's opinions, and it is in fact run primarily by Muslim women. We don't support Kareem's opinions but we respect them. Why is that a problem?

Many people seemingly ignored this repeated disclaimer, insisting that supporting Kareem also means supporting his personal opinions. But that didn't stop us from fighting back. The campaign is still widely known and we're growing stronger than ever.

We still have a lot of things in store for this campaign, despite it being two years old. Our determination and hard work inspires other similar campaigns.

Free Kareem hosts and sponsors several free speech blogs including The Committee to Protect Bloggers, Free YemenPortal, Free the New Youth 4, amongst others.

We have also helped them reach beyond the blogosphere into the world of mainstream, traditional media in order to generate support and awareness of the cause.


Esra'a Al Shafei is the Executive Director of MideastYouth.com and The Mideast Youth Foundation. She is also the Director of the Free Kareem Campaign and the founder of the Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights.

A list of other projects launched by Mideast Youth can be found here.