Update on Convicted Egyptian Blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman:

Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey has a detailed post providing updates on the situation of Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman, who was recently sentenced to four years in prison for the "crimes" of "contempt of religion" and "insulting the president." It is ironic that the "insult" to President Hosni Mubarak for which Kareem was convicted was that of criticizing him for various authoritarian policies, a critique that is surely validated by the action against Kareem. I have little more to say about the conviction itself other than to add my voice to the many others who have rightly condemned it as a travesty and a violation of human rights.

The more difficult question concerns the broader implications of this prosecution. It is the first such action against an Egyptian blogger, and to my knowledge, one of the relatively few times so far that a blogger has been imprisoned solely for the contents of his blog posts anywhere in the world. It has long been argued that the internet makes it more difficult for authoritarian rulers to suppress opposition to their rule. And there is some truth to this. It is much easier for bloggers and opposition groups to reach a wide audience online than by other means, and more difficult for governments to track them there and impose punishment.

Unfortunately, government censors need not suppress all or even most opposition bloggers and websites in order to have a major chilling effect. Punishing the authors of a few of the better-known opposition sites could have enough of a deterrent effect to greatly reduce the the potential of the internet as a tool against tyranny. Indeed, it is sobering to consider that even the lesser punishment of expulsion from a university - which was inflicted on Kareem months before his conviction - might well be enough to deter a great many would-be oppositionists even without jail time. How many of us would be willing to speak out against the government if doing so meant forfeiting any hope of a successful career and being consigned to a life of poverty? Those bloggers and opposition leaders brave enough to risk punishment could still have some impact, but perhaps not enough to seriously threaten the regime's grip on power or force it to liberalize.

If the Egyptian government is able to avoid paying any real cost for imprisoning Kareem, and succeeds in chilling opposition speech online, other authoritarian rulers could emulate its strategy. Even if the international "Free Kareem" movement doesn't succeed in its immediate object, hopefully it can inflict enough public relations damage on the Egyptian state that it and other governments will think twice about similar actions in the future.