Prisoners of a Vision: Dissidents in Sisi’s Egypt
By Tom StevensonJune 27, 2018
The law in question, known as the assembly law, appeared to be a relic of Britain’s colonial administration. Under this law, not only is public assembly severely restricted, but all participants in a gathering deemed illegal by the state are subject to a strange form of collective responsibility: should anyone attending an unsanctioned gathering commit a crime — which could be anything from chanting a slogan against the army to murder — then everyone present can be held jointly culpable. The infamous stories from 2014 and 2015 of Egyptian courts pronouncing mass death sentences upon hundreds of people at a sitting had their legal basis in the assembly law and its collective responsibility clauses. The only trouble was that — in 1928, almost 89 years to the day before the lawyers filed their case — the law had been struck from the books, deemed by the British colonial administrators as indefensibly draconian. And no one seemed to have noticed.
One man who eventually did was Mohamed Zaree, a researcher at an Egyptian human rights organization called the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. Zaree, a lawyer by training, had been drawn into activism more or less by accident, and against the wishes of his family who expected him to become a judge. As a student, he had heard about the work of lawyers like El Borei, who labored to protect people’s rights rather than violate them. In January 2011, like many young Egyptians, he participated in the mass uprising that unseated Hosni Mubarak, the dictator who ruled Egypt for 30 years. When Mubarak stepped down, Zaree was in the crowd that marched on the presidential palace to celebrate. Hugging a friend, he said, “Now we have the army, so what, the army is worse than Mubarak.”
Zaree joined the Cairo Institute with the belief that ordinary citizens must work to make the rights envisioned by the revolutionaries a reality. Under the military junta that took over Egypt after the uprising, and during the fraught year in which Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi held the presidency in an uneasy alliance with the army, Zaree spent his time organizing and producing reports that highlighted a constant stream of human rights abuses. The assembly law seemed to be behind many of them, so he began to search out the written record of the law’s history. Then, in a triumph for archive diggers everywhere, he found what was unmistakably an old order for its annulment. He wasn’t sure how the law had gone on being used for so long despite having been rescinded, but he knew perfectly well why. Egypt’s successive post-independence military leaders had simply found the law too effective a tool to let its cancellation get in the way of its use.
But Zaree and his colleagues had discovered dynamite. Since the military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi and brought General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to power in the summer of 2013, tens of thousands of civilians have been imprisoned across Egypt. The sheer number of people detained makes representing individual cases overwhelming and inefficient work for any legal team. But by challenging the assembly law, Zaree and his colleagues were striking at the ground upon which the police and security services walked. “In the past, we brought cases against the Interior Ministry knowing we would lose, just to express the principle that the state can be challenged in law,” he said. “But the assembly law is something different, it’s everything to them.” There’s good reason to think the Egyptian government shares Zaree’s assessment. Leaks from cabinet meetings after the Cairo Institute logged their case suggest that Egypt’s Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar urged his fellow ministers to maintain the law because it provided the foundation for the security services’ methods.
Egypt’s military-controlled security services may wriggle out of the legal challenge without conceding any releases in spite of what Zaree and his colleagues have dug up. But the case is strong enough that no clean way out has yet been found. “If we bring down that law, it would help so many prisoners,” Zaree said. “Of course, we are not so naïve as to think that the government wouldn’t make another law, or find another way, but in the intervening period many people would benefit.” Meanwhile, the Cairo Institute has targets on both its back and front. Neither Zaree nor the Institute’s lawyers were expecting to go unpunished for what they found. They have watched as their case has been kicked between courts and adjourned countless times. The most recent hearing, on April 4, was no different. But they go on, and so does their case — which, because it appears to be legally correct, has proven difficult for the state’s judges to brush away.
With their case against the assembly law, Zaree and the Cairo Institute aren’t just protesting the excesses of junta rule, they are actively challenging it. That this kind of activism persists in Egypt is itself remarkable. The street protests and youth activism that filled Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprisings are long gone. Since Sisi seized power in a military coup on July 3, 2013, Egypt has been transformed from a stagnant middle-of-the-road autocracy into one of the most repressive states on earth. Tens of thousands of political opponents and labor organizers are incarcerated en masse in an archipelago of prisons, army barracks, and black sites. Last year, the courts passed more death sentences than Saudi Arabia (in 2016, Egypt executed 44 people, including eight women). In March 2017, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for 739 people, including the Egyptian photographer Shawkan, in a single case. Every year hundreds of Egyptians are simply disappeared by the security services — many of them to be extra-judicially executed.
Activists and human rights defenders who draw attention to any of this are surveilled, intimidated, imprisoned, and attacked at every opportunity. After the military coup, when the Cairo Institute still had an office in Cairo, the staff noticed that a new tenant had moved into the apartment next door. Just inside the open door of that neighboring apartment a man would sit at a desk all day long, watching who came and went. Once, when the apartment seemed empty, Zaree took a look inside. He found that the spacious front room contained nothing but that single desk. The Cairo Institute was forced to move its offices to Tunis in 2014 (it has kept its name). Afterward, Zaree was given a travel ban that prevented him from leaving the country. Now he and his staff work clandestinely, shuttling between meetings in private residences or drafting their reports. Most of them are subject to open investigations by the authorities. “The staff doesn’t use phones; instead we contact each other either in person or using encryption,” he said. “Even in encrypted messages we keep our conversations short and avoid saying anything specific.” When Zaree risked a public meeting with a European diplomat last year, a plainclothes police agent conspicuously photographed them (a certain style of shirt, jacket, even moustache often gives the agent away) and sent the photographs to the tame local press for a smear story.
More than 20 Egyptian human rights groups joined the Cairo Institute in attempting to overturn the assembly law. These organizations have all survived, in various injured states, the onslaught of military rule. Together they represent an anomaly in an otherwise desolate political landscape — and a testament to what can be done by a few dedicated people in even the worst of times.
In the Garden City district of central Cairo can be found the offices of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, known to Egypt’s dissident community simply as al-Mobadara, the Initiative. When it was founded in 2002, the Initiative fought for privacy rights and campaigned against the intelligence agencies’ phone surveillance of ordinary citizens. It has since grown into one of the country’s foremost human rights groups, with researchers working full-time on everything from unlawful detentions and economic justice to LGBT rights. The Initiative’s current head, 51-year-old Gasser Abdel-Razek, like many of Egypt’s more prominent dissidents, comes from a family of political activists. Gasser’s parents were communists in the 1960s and ’70s, which meant a childhood of running between police stations, courthouses, and prison visits (both father and mother spent time in Anwar Sadat’s prisons). He inherited the profession and has now been a nuisance to the Egyptian state for almost 30 years.
Since 2012, the Initiative has hosted a weekly breakfast every Thursday that serves as both salon and meeting place for activists, human rights defenders, and oppositionists. Each week they sit and talk around a table covered with fool (crushed fava beans), taameya (an Egyptian falafel where fava substitutes for chickpeas), mackerel, rocket, cheese, omelettes, and smoked aubergine, or gather in the office’s small kitchen as people drop in and out over a period of hours. It is a fine place to discuss the issues of the day, or debate the title for a new article, or lament the latest travesty committed by the authorities.
Talk inevitably turns to those who cannot attend, such as Ismail Alexandrani, a researcher and journalist who, having already spent two years in pre-trial detention, was recently sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment by a military court. Or Amr Ali, the leader of a dissident youth movement who was sentenced to three years in prison after being kidnapped by the police and held incommunicado. The government claims there are no political prisoners in Egypt, but dissidents have always been imprisoned — often for short periods, to send a message. However, political activists are increasingly being held longer and in worse conditions. Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent young activist and one of the most recognizable faces of the 2011 uprisings, is currently serving five years in Tora prison on trumped up charges for “encouraging a demonstration.” Hisham Gaafar, a dissident journalist, is going blind in the same prison’s “Scorpion wing,” where he has been held for more than two years and denied medical treatment for optic nerve atrophy.
Modern Egyptian dissidents tend to come in waves, defined by the moment when they were first mobilized: demonstrations in support of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, protests against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a planned strike at the Mahalla textile plant in 2006, or Mubarak’s fraudulent election in 2010. Gasser Abdel-Razek traces his own involvement in human rights activism further back, to a solidarity movement with an Egyptian steelworkers strike in 1989. Nonetheless, he says that the current moment is the worst the country has ever faced. “The Sisi regime is using a level of repression that is unknown in this country’s modern history — no one before could do what he’s done and get away with it.”
And yet the Initiative maintains a staff working constantly to expose facts the Sisi regime would prefer to keep quiet. One of Gasser’s colleagues is finalizing a report on Mubarak-era business cronies reclaiming their frozen assets from abroad. Another, Dalia Abd El-Hameed, is working on the internal intelligence apparatus targeting the gay community. Ishaq is documenting the murder of a Coptic Christian priest. Sitting opposite him, Abdelhamid is working on a critique of Egypt’s deals with the IMF. “Think of a young person who was just 13 when the January uprising came and is 20 today,” Gasser said. “This is someone whose entire conception of public demonstration is that it means you will probably be found in a morgue the next morning — that’s all they know.” And yet young Egyptians persist in seeking outlets to challenge the existing order. The Initiative and groups like it are only ever mentioned in the Egyptian media as dangerous traitors, but something keeps drawing the young to their doors: the organization receives more offers from prospective volunteers than it can make use of. “You just can’t look at yourself in the mirror if, at the worst time in your country’s history, you choose to do nothing,” Gasser said. “And none of it is necessary, the price this country is paying. So there’s work to be done, and that’s the decision of everyone you will meet in the corridor outside.”
The IMF’s dealings with the Sisi government have come under close scrutiny from Egyptian dissidents, and their analysis is damning. At the end of 2016, the Fund reached an agreement with the Egyptian government for a $12 billion loan package, funding that a state exhausted by upheaval badly needed. But the money did not come without strings attached. Drawing parallels between the current program and a 1991 IMF structural reform package, activists saw a deal with international finance that offers little more than the privatization of public assets, subsidy cuts for the poor, reduced labor rights, and currency devaluation. These measures proved disastrous for the country when they were applied in earnest in the 1990s. By the 2000s, Egypt had been forced into what Egyptian economists have called a “hollowed-out economy model.” The new program, they say, is unlikely to have any measurable effect on poverty and unemployment rates; the IMF is acting in the interests of the state and international investors, not the public. Yet in Egypt there was no room for such criticism, of the IMF deal or anything else the government does.
Last year, the weekly breakfast at the Initiative was briefly animated by the possibility of a challenge to the Sisi regime that took account of these views. Presidential elections were slated for April 2018, and Khaled Ali, a respected lawyer and stalwart of the human rights movement, announced that he would run against Sisi at a press conference packed with young people desperate to hear him speak. It was a rousing affair. “From the middle of catastrophic crises, and born of a belief in the people’s ability and will to change, emerges this lifeline: a declaration stemming from our belief that we, the Egyptian people, can resist injustice and create better alternatives for the future,” Ali said. He called out the army’s despotism, its economic schemes, and “the enrichment of a small group linked to unbridled cross-border capitalist interests.” A court case was quickly constructed alleging that Ali had violated public decency laws by using a profane gesture. In a typically Egyptian moment, Ali was forced to take a recess from defending the activist Alaa Abdel Fattah in one courtroom to defend himself in another. In the end, his presidential bid came to nothing. Under pressure from the state and the public prosecutor, Ali pulled out of the race. Sisi went on to run against a candidate plucked from obscurity at the last minute by the intelligence services (probably at the request of the United States) and won 97 percent of the vote, the same share he had received in 2014.
The Middle East contains plenty of undemocratic governments. The Gulf monarchies are, at least formally, more absolute in their denial of civil freedoms than the Egyptian junta. But in Egypt, the implied bargain offered by the rulers of the United Arab Emirates or Qatar to the people they govern is absent. In the Gulf monarchies, the citizen (though not the indentured foreign laborer) forgoes civil rights in exchange for a prosperous existence and no income tax. Egypt offers no such bargain. Dissidents there are just as likely to disappear into the maw of the state security services, but even ordinary citizens have no option except to keep their heads down. As a result, it is a society that is in every way decaying, crumbling in slow motion.
The police regularly show up at the Initiative under concocted pretexts to sniff around. Gasser assumes the office is bugged, but the men and women who work with him have long realized that there’s no point in saying anything in private they wouldn’t also say in public. The Egyptian state has been steadily eradicating civil society organizations since the coup. With human rights groups run by the intelligentsia, one of the principal weapons aside from arrests has been slander (imputing to them a lack of patriotism), combined with attempts to shut down their work by targeting the funding they receive from abroad (usually from Europe). Making a wide range of things technically illegal is a well-known tactic of authoritarian states: when everything is illicit, the authorities can always arrest any individual, safe in the knowledge that they are certain to have technically infringed upon the law in some way.
In November 2016, the Initiative was subjected to a cyber attack, in which the hackers attempted to seize electronic copies of its accounts. The attack was part of a larger program of electronic surveillance and disruption introduced by the Egyptian security services, known as Nile Phish. The Egyptian government is not known for its technological savvy, but Nile Phish showed that things were changing. The hacking attempts were clearly designed to seize files from dissident civil society groups and activists that could be used against them in ongoing court cases. The cyber attack on the Initiative was ultimately unsuccessful, but it was another sign of how bitter the government’s fight against human rights is becoming.
The only reason some human rights groups have survived the raids, attacks, and arrests this long appears to be the small amounts of support they receive from representatives of European parliaments and some UN agencies. This support has caused the Sisi regime to moderate the speed at which it chokes off activism. In doing so, it has left open a tiny gap between the bars of the cage, for now. For Gasser, this sliver of opportunity also confers a responsibility. “Knowing that, for whatever reason and perhaps temporarily, you have this chance to do something, at the worst time in your country’s history, you can’t choose to stop,” he said. “But I will speak for myself and say that I am very scared. I don’t want to be in solitary confinement, I don’t want to spend one hour in a police station, I don’t want to be tortured. I know what that means and there’s nothing heroic about it.”
The Underground Clinic
In March 2016, a dozen agents of the National Security Agency approached the home of a defense lawyer in the northern Egyptian province of Gharbiya. Wearing balaclavas and plain clothes, they broke down the door, blindfolded the man (who was later given the pseudonym “Mustafa” in an account recorded by Human Rights Watch), and drove him to a black site in the National Security headquarters building in the city of Tanta, 60 miles north of Cairo. Mustafa was an attorney who had represented political activists of various persuasions, but also farmers, regular people. He was kept in a cell for 50 days before the agents came for him again. When they did, they once again blindfolded him, then strapped him to a chair and tortured him relentlessly: they connected electrical wires to both his hands and electrocuted him for 30 minutes; later, they stripped him naked and pushed him to the floor before attaching electrical wire to his feet and genitals and turning up the current. There was no arrest warrant out for Mustafa. And when he was finally released from National Security custody, it was unclear what the security forces had even wanted. He had been brutally tortured for no apparent reason.
Torture of this kind, particularly by the National Security Agency (known in Egypt as Amn al-Watany), is widespread. The methods vary, but victims are usually blindfolded and stripped. National Security agents routinely use electric current to shock detainees, rip out their fingernails with pliers, hang them upside down by the shoulders, and then beat or rape them. Many are killed in the process, and those who survive have no legal recourse; sometimes they don’t even see the men torturing them.
There was once a place where people like Mustafa, who survived these ordeals, could seek help. But Egypt’s main agency for the treatment of torture victims, the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, was shut down by the police in February 2017. The state had its sights set on the Center ever since the clinic released a report based on its research detailing mass torture by the Egyptian police in 2015. Nadeem was founded in 1993 to provide psychological support to torture victims, especially tortured political activists. But the Center’s founders soon realized that torture wasn’t used only against agitators. The poor and marginalized were more likely to be tortured than well-known activists; such torture was used to intimidate, or to force people off their land, or to appease a third party with connections in the police force. The Center treated any who came to its doors (which were always watched by informants, at least when I would visit) and campaigned against torture at every level of Egyptian society — that is, until the National Security raid locked the doors and sealed them with masking tape and red wax.
Aida Seif El Dawla, one of Nadeem’s founders and a widely respected pillar of the human rights movement, has a dissident heritage long even by Egyptian standards. Her father was a lawyer and activist and her paternal grandfather once led a peasant mutiny in Upper Egypt. In 1919, her maternal grandfather briefly declared the town of Zifta in the Nile Delta independent of British rule. Like Gasser Abdel-Razek, she saw friends and colleagues arrested and tortured during the 1989 steel strikes and resolved to do something about it. Since then, the Nadeem Center has provided health and psychological care for survivors and worked with the families of victims while campaigning against the use of torture.
When Nadeem was established by Aida and her colleagues Suzanne Fayyad and Magda Adly, the three founders had an idea for a research project: they planned to create a map that would mark all the police stations and state facilities where torture was known to be used and look for patterns. Within a year, the project was abandoned; the map was just a layout of the country’s police stations and prisons. Decades of working with survivors of this network of torture sites led Aida to believe that rehabilitation is about more than medical treatment and counseling. It must also include, she believes, a wider focus on what a person needs to come to terms with what’s happened to them, including legal aid and the pursuit of justice. It’s an approach that sees torture as a social pathology, not just a set of individual crimes. “Apart from cases of extreme psychosis, these are people suffering in a way that is proportional to what they have been subjected to,” she said. “The sickness is not in survivors, but in the situation where they were handcuffed, electrocuted, tortured, and could not fight back.”
With the clinic shut down and the Egyptian state using torture on a mass scale, the need has never been greater. Military rule has led to an explosion in the number who need care — so Aida and her colleagues refused to stop treating patients. But without the Center, the clinicians and medical professionals who work with Nadeem have to meet patients more discreetly. Aida and her colleagues now spend their time traveling between rented private clinics, homes, and even backrooms in cafes to provide care. It’s a poor substitute for the support of an institution, particularly for new patients who have yet to begin coming to terms with their ordeals. But by these means Nadeem’s work quietly continues.
The underground clinic takes on four to five new patients per week. For Aida, the bodies and minds of those they treat are a testament not just to the brutality of the state but also to its irrationality. “Think of someone who is not a political activist but who has been tortured because they protested verbal abuse of their mother by a police officer — it simply doesn’t make sense,” she said. “It is a symbol of how this regime cannot tolerate dissent of any kind, and how it is led by a person who is so disturbed, so single-minded, and has committed so many crimes that there is actually no return.”
Nadeem’s work was considered a threat by the state partly because the records the Center kept make clear that a great number of people who are reported by the state as killed in confrontations with the security services have often been reported missing weeks or even months beforehand. Enforced disappearance, the kidnapping and imprisonment or execution of civilians by the state, is not an entirely new phenomenon in Egypt, but the current regime has taken it to an extreme none had predicted. Aida has done much to support the case of Ashraf Shahada, the owner of a private school in Giza and a well-known government critic. On January 13, 2014, Shahada received a phone call at work; he walked out into the school’s garden to take the call and has not been heard from since. Shahada’s wife has been searching for him constantly but to no avail. “The lengths to which this woman has gone you would not believe,” Aida said. “One day she will ring state security and be told her husband is just being held to send a message and will be released in a few days; the next she is being told he’s dead and that she should forget him.”
There are countless cases like Shahada’s in which the family has chosen not to go public or that will never come to light. Where once families feared that their relatives would be arrested, now they fear that they will simply vanish, sometimes without their names appearing in any record, without justification, without explanation. “Never before did I hear a mother thank god that her son had been located in a state security building,” Aida said. “Once that was the ultimate nightmare; now mothers pray their kids reappear in state security instead of being ‘liquidated’ in some made-up confrontation.”
Walking through central Cairo’s streets, one can see the effects plainly. Despair and depression, a sense of helplessness and disillusionment, has gripped the young. Aida’s own work is discouraging enough: for her efforts, her assets have been frozen and she is banned from leaving the country. By her own admission she has become cynical about overt activism of the kind the 2011 uprisings inspired — cynical, but not defeatist. “Now is the time for underground activism, which is a different tradition, you cannot use Facebook, not even an inbox,” she said. “You have to organize, plan, and start very small on very concrete issues. And you have to know that it can get worse — every time we think we have reached the bottom, something happens that shows you it can get worse, because there is no way out for this regime. Frankly, I don’t know how the situation can be repaired.”
The Title of This Chapter Is Defeat
As the level of repression in Egypt has risen, avenues for public discussion have been cut off. Authoritarian states always pay special attention to controlling the press, and post-coup Egypt is no exception. Just as under Mubarak, the state-owned broadcasters and newspapers are organs of the government, and private media companies are leaned on heavily. Control of the press is not only a matter of censorship and state pressure. Over the past two years, the state and military intelligence agencies have organized a series of corporate takeovers of television channels and newspapers. Using shell companies, the intelligence apparatus has in effect taken ownership of many of the largest private media firms, including the broadcasters ONTV, CBC, Al-Nahar, Al-Assema, and Al Hayat, and the well-known newspaper Youm7.
Reporting on the daily rights abuses of the state is left mostly to international media, which are given more freedom. As the Sisi order has become more entrenched, however, many international media organizations have slimmed or shut down their Cairo bureaus and turned their attention elsewhere. A small number of Egyptian journalists continue to work as best they can to bring out stories the state wishes weren’t known, and they take great risks in doing so.
Hossam Bahgat is probably foremost among them. Born into an apolitical upper-middle-class family in Alexandria, Bahgat started his career in journalism as a translator for the now-shuttered independent English-language newspaper The Cairo Times. He quickly rose to become a reporter, covering peasant revolts against privatization, the mass arrests of Islamists after the 1997 Luxor massacre, and the torture of political detainees. But he grew tired of the detachment reporting demanded and sought a route into activism. Flicking through the Times’s ad listings, he found a job at a human rights group called the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. It was the beginning of what would be more than a decade of activism, during which he founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the organization now run by Gasser Abdel-Razek.
Bahgat returned to journalism in 2013, after Sisi took power. Since the coup, he has published investigations into some of the most guarded secrets of the Egyptian state, including the military’s release of imprisoned jihadists, the fate of the Mubarak family’s embezzled assets, a hushed-up coup attempt within the army, the trial and subsequent execution of six men who may have already been in jail when the crime for which they were convicted happened, and the role of the country’s competing intelligence agencies in fixing the 2015 parliamentary elections. Each of these stories was artfully done, the facts meticulously laid out. In a different environment, any one of them could have been made into a feature film — if audiences had the stomach for it.
There’s almost nowhere in Egypt that will publish stories this damaging to the government. In fact, there is only one place: Mada Masr, an independent news website set up in 2013. Mada regularly depicts, in both Arabic and English, an Egypt that is unrecognizable by comparison with the vision of the country found in the state-controlled press. As a result, its website has been blocked to limit its reach within Egypt, and readers must use a VPN to access it. Many, despite the trouble, do. “It feels absurd,” Bahgat told me. “We spend so much time thinking about the layout of a story, the visual component, when we know the majority of our readers won’t be able to see it.”
As the de facto house journal of Egypt’s remaining dissident movement, Mada has had to carry the weight of expectations of the uprising’s children. Bahgat joined Mada in November 2013 precisely because the goal was not the victory of the revolution but honest, quality journalism — a goal Mada has certainly achieved. For Bahgat, it was in part a retreat from the horrors of the coup and the massacres that followed, which as a rights campaigner on the front lines had affected him deeply. But it was also an exit from a world of activism that was obviously facing an uphill climb. Clearly, the new junta planned to run things differently, but too many of the revolutionaries were focused on the fact that Sisi had removed Morsi, and that the Muslim Brothers were getting their comeuppance, to see the danger. Even when the killings started, many more than Hossam had expected were willing to defend what the army was doing. Experienced activists who knew what a coup would mean soon found themselves in disputes with people they once thought of as allies on seemingly obvious moral questions; the feeling of unity among the young that had been built in Tahrir Square felt like it was slipping away.
The first of Bahgat’s major investigations — titled “Who Let the Jihadis Out?” — investigated the release of more than 800 jihadists imprisoned under Mubarak. The story was a challenge not just to the regime but also to elements in the opposition. Before its publication, it was widely believed within Egypt that the Muslim Brotherhood had been behind the release. Bahgat knew, and demonstrated, that it was the military junta itself that had given the order. For the government there was worse to come. Before the 2015 elections were even held, everyone in the country knew they were being fixed, but it was Bahgat who went to the trouble of discovering and explaining exactly how it would be done. Collectively, Bahgat’s investigations established a factual record about the January uprising, the coup, and its aftermath that was beyond the government’s control.
The army, and its sprawling power networks, inevitably played a role of some sort in all of Bahgat’s exposés, and it was just a matter of time before there were consequences. Two years ago, he was arrested. The state prosecutor sent a summons to his mother’s house in Alexandria, where he hadn’t lived since 1998, and then he was taken. At a military intelligence building, he was searched and blindfolded, then locked in an informal detention facility within the compound. “It was surreal when they detained me,” he said. “The officers seemed to be in disbelief, they couldn’t understand how I could write these things. The questions were as simple as, ‘How could you write about the army?’”
Then something happened that the Egyptian government did not expect. Almost as quickly as they had detained him, a campaign sprung up under the slogan “Free Hossam Bahgat.” It quickly mushroomed. The state seemed not to have expected so large a domestic outcry. It certainly didn’t expect Ban Ki-moon, then secretary general of the United Nations, to speak up for Bahgat’s release. “After that, the interviews were more respectful,” he told me. Bahgat’s military tribunal took place at night, probably to avoid the attention of the campaign for his release. If so, it didn’t work. A total of 25 lawyers came to defend him, including counsel from the Journalists Syndicate. Together, and with an international campaign to free him in full swing, they managed to work him out of custody.
Bahgat is still watched closely. In February 2016, he was banned from traveling abroad, but he says he prefers being locked inside the country, where he can work, to exile. “I don’t feel that I’m doing something significant, but at least I can tell myself I was here,” he said. Later that year, in September, his assets were frozen. He’s still under investigation. Bahgat has had more experience than most with state surveillance: the first human rights campaign he ran as an activist was against phone surveillance by state security. He says his life often feels like a form of limbo, which is mirrored in Mada Masr’s legal status. He’s out of prison but knows he’s watched carefully, just as Mada remains open, for now, publishing regularly despite the website block. “No one would deny that the title of this chapter is defeat,” he told me, “but there are signs that the defeat is not complete — so it is important not to just sit back and lick one’s wounds.”
One of the features of dictatorship is that the particular character of the leader gains undue importance. As a ruler, Sisi has shown neither aptitude for nor much interest in running the machinery of state. When he believes a minister or civil servant is performing poorly, he often summarily dismisses that person with little deliberation. Sisi’s own chief of staff, Major-General Abbas Kamel, is currently also standing in as head of intelligence after the president dismissed the last intelligence chief in anger. The public persona that Sisi presents contains a peculiar mix of vanity and preposterousness. When traveling, Sisi is always accompanied by a bodyguard who stands nearly seven feet tall. Not a natural demagogue, his public addresses often come across as unstructured, even crazed. There is no Sisi ideology to speak of besides a belief in the army’s guardianship over the state. This makes it difficult to know what he’s thinking or what he is trying to achieve. Describing these tendencies, Mohamed Zaree told me that Egyptians were “prisoners of a vision about which we know nothing.”
The Egyptian army rules the country in a deeper sense than is suggested by a council of aging generals sitting around a cabinet table ineptly mismanaging a decaying economy. As president, Sisi has as yet forged no political party to run the state bureaucracy — he seems to see no need for one. In some ways, the army itself fills that role. Retired army officers staff state institutions at every level. In the 1990s, the army seized what were once state-owned plants after privatizations recommended by the IMF and staffed them with conscripts. An enormous slice of the economy is now controlled by the army, which runs almost as many factories — everything from food processing to electronics — as barracks. While spending on public services and critical national infrastructure is scant, money is always found for new military equipment. Most of that equipment comes from the United States.
Since the coup, the United States has supported military rule in Egypt with almost no reservations. Next to Saudi Arabia and Israel, Egypt has, since 1979, been the third pillar of US Middle East policy and a key client state. Egypt receives more American aid than any country in the world except Israel. Visitors from US arms companies like Lockheed Martin and Honeywell regularly occupy entire floors of the Marriott hotel on the outskirts of Cairo. Sometimes their suites are paid for by Egyptian intelligence. The Obama administration refused to call Sisi’s coup a coup so that it could continue selling the regime weapons. Under the Trump administration, the US relationship with Sisi has grown even closer. On February 9, Egyptian military command released videos of the nation’s Air Force loading planes with US-made cluster bombs. The weapons are used in the brutal campaign against an extremist insurgency in the Sinai peninsula.
The Sisi model of rule does not really depend on any domestic constitution. The army and a small selection of favored businessmen rule what has become a depressed client state, with critical support from international powers like the United States, and with much force. “Huwa beyahkum be hadeed wa nar,” said Aida Seif El Sawla: he rules with iron and fire. Egyptian dissidents are well aware of how this game is played, even as they meet with representatives of Western governments who profess to support democracy worldwide. “In the end, whatever conversations we have with well-meaning diplomats, those governments support the regime because of security and economic interests,” Gasser Abdel-Razek said. In the service of those interests, the Western powers have traded away not only the lives of many young Egyptians but also quite possibly the chance of a more humane nation. What happens in Egypt is not the isolated problem of one Middle Eastern country: the blessing of the dictatorship by international powers is a key reason the regime survives. And Egypt is not Paraguay, where the depredations of a corrupt junta have little wider effect — it is the most populous and historically influential country in the world’s major energy-producing region.
The Sisi regime doesn’t make it easy for its international allies. Bankrolling and propping up a government that has already killed more people than Pinochet ever did, and that storms the Journalists Syndicate on World Press Freedom Day, inevitably draws questions. It isn’t that the Egyptian government doesn’t care about its international image, but it knows that, so long as it satisfies the Western powers’ real strategic interest in counter-terrorism, investment, and migration, all else will be secondary. Activists within Western societies may ensure that human rights get mentioned during foreign policy discussions, but the effect is limited by Western governments’ strategic support for the regime. The Obama administration backed Mubarak up until the last minute of the uprising against him. The US attitude toward Sisi displays the same short-sighted vision.
One of the most persistent myths about Egypt’s popular uprising was that it came out of a simple mix of discontent and the internet. Yet what network news quickly termed a “Facebook revolution” proved neither social media driven nor a revolution. The last years of Mubarak’s rule were vexed by rising dissidence in the capital and wildcat strikes across the country, which the police met with increasing levels of brutality. The strikes continued right up until the openly fraudulent elections in 2010 and through the uprising itself. When Mubarak stood down, he delegated authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which praised his leadership before declaring itself in control the following day.
Though it pledged to oversee a “transition” (a much-abused term in Washington think tanks) to civilian rule, in practice the junta soon set about appointing new military governors and trying the uprising’s participants in military courts. Even after the 2012 elections brought Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency, in an uneasy alliance with the generals, the army continued to exercise decisive power over the state. It dissolved the elected parliament soon after it formed and, in the midst of the election, radically curtailed the powers of the presidency. The military coup in 2013 dispensed with the Brothers and the remaining trappings of civilian rule. The movement that produced the uprising may have had revolutionary characteristics, but in the end it never got near power.
The military coup shattered many illusions. Until 2013, it was still possible for dissidents of an optimistic temperament to think that they could bring down the Brothers and the army both. After the coup, that notion was merely absurd. It is useful for those dissidents still fighting the good fight to believe that the revolution continues and the present travails are a temporary setback. There is no doubt that what happened in January 2011 transformed many lives, giving its participants a completely new and different sense of history — a sense that, even at the smallest scale, what one says and does matters. But the belief in continuing revolution is not an easy one to maintain for those who now live the aftermath.
I first met Ahmed Maher at one of the Initiative’s breakfasts. The son of a technician in a car factory and a social support worker, in 2011 Maher was a student activist who became the face of the uprising. He’s now in his late 30s and, when we met, was wearing sunglasses inside, as though in disguise. Studying engineering in college in the 2000s, he had gotten used to the rigidly organized theory of how systems should run, but after leaving the university, he found that nothing in Egyptian society worked as he had studied. “Everything worked with bribes, there was no garbage collection to schedule, no traffic planning to manage, and instead of protecting the public, the police were torturing them,” he said.
The first protest Maher joined was against the US invasion of Iraq. Soon afterward, he found himself swept up with a group of activists (many of whom would go on the participate in the 2011 uprisings) known as the Kefaya movement. Kefaya contained a mix of genuine radicals and liberal elites who had fallen out of favor with the Mubarak regime. The youth of the organization, of which Maher was a part, soon came to feel encumbered by the older leadership. “They always seemed to find a reason not to do anything, some way to hold us back,” he remembered. Meanwhile, Egyptian workers were agitating and striking at a rate not seen for decades. Maher had an idea: what if, for once, the youth activists of the capital could join forces with the country’s workers?
On April 6, 2008, textile workers in the Mahalla textile complex in northern Egypt planned to hold a strike. It was the opportunity Maher had been looking for. He and his friends Esraa Abdel Fattah and Mohamed Adel began organizing to turn what was a local labor protest into a general strike across the country. They sent texts and posted on internet forums, and within days thousands had agreed to the plan. But when the day of the strike came, the police were prepared; they flooded the streets and mopped up any protesters. Esraa Abdel Fattah was arrested, and Maher went into hiding. He slept in his car for a month to avoid the police. A month later, when he finally turned on his phone, he was immediately tracked, arrested, and then tortured in the Interior Ministry building in Lazoughly Square before being released two days later and told to stop all political activity.
The strikes may have been stopped but the enthusiasm they provoked was evident, and Maher was undeterred. He and a few of the core April 6 activists set about turning the network they had built into a mass movement. For the next three years, they recruited in universities, speaking to anyone who would listen about the April 6 youth movement. Maher was picked up twice more in catch-and-release arrests aimed mostly at intimidating him. It seems to have had little effect. By the end of 2010, the rallying cry of April 6 had gained significant purchase, and with Zine el Abidine Ben Ali having been deposed in Tunisia, the potential for sweeping change seemed quite real.
From the beginning, Maher insisted that precise organization was the only way to achieve anything. Local neighborhood leaders had to be set up throughout Cairo and in every governorate across the country. A media room would present the uprising’s goals clearly, and a central operations room would help to direct the energies of the movement. We usually think of states as guardians of order and protests as anarchic, but for Maher these roles were reversed. In revolting against a dysfunctional state, he engineered a truly orderly system.
Early on the morning of January 25, Maher checked on the central operations room in downtown Cairo before visiting several of the more than 20 march points in Cairo and Giza in his car. Officially, the plan was to begin a series of marches at 2:00 p.m. that would convene on Tahrir Square. Informed by the experience of the 2008 general strike, they planned to start two hours early, in an attempt to take the police by surprise. Once everything was in place, Maher joined the protest point in Mustafa Mahmoud Square in the Mohandiseen district. The police were quick to react and, just as Maher had expected, soon kettled the marchers. Had the police been able to contain the protests in Mohandiseen, history may well have been different. But the revolutionaries had a plan for which the police were not prepared. A 21st marching point, begun in the slum of Bulaq ad-Dakrour to the west of Mohandiseen, had not been advertised on social media and therefore wasn’t known to the police. Maher had personally measured the steps between the slum and the square in Mohandiseen. The Bulaq marchers, right on time, traveled along Gameat ad-Dowal al-Arabiya Street and broke the police siege in Mohandiseen. Together they went on to take Tahrir Square. Fourteen days later, Mubarak resigned the presidency.
Two days after Mubarak resigned, it was Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, formerly Mubarak’s head of military intelligence, who was charged by his superiors with organizing a meeting with Maher and a number of the uprising’s leaders. None of them knew it at the time, but the encounter would later serve as a fine metaphor for how the old order would retain power. “It was very like a game,” Maher said of the meeting. “He told us we were heroes, national heroes, but that now we had to stop protesting, leave the streets, go home, and let Egypt be rebuilt — he kept repeating that.” Maher would meet Sisi two more times that year: in July and October 2011. The message was always the same, and always delivered with faux kindness: “Stop the protests, give the army a chance.”
The uprising eventually ran out of steam. The enthusiasm of the square wasn’t translated into an effective mass movement. At any rate, it couldn’t maintain the critical mass necessary to unseat the junta. “There are many reasons why 2011 failed, but I suppose the main one is that we didn’t really have a plan for victory,” Maher said. “Beforehand we never discussed what kind of state we wanted, what constitution we wanted and how to make it.” The revolutionaries were focused on getting rid of Mubarak, a goal they didn’t really expect to achieve, and so spent little time thinking about what would come next. More fundamentally, in forgetting that the army was the real power behind the state, they had misunderstood the nature of the regime they were fighting. Sisi and the generals knew very well what they wanted. “We didn’t understand how powerful the army was,” Maher said. “It’s clear now that they had their own reasons for wanting to remove Mubarak and [his son] Gamal from the picture, and they used us to do that.”
After Sisi’s coup, the April 6 Youth Movement was banned, and Maher was quickly imprisoned along with many of the other most prominent figures from January 2011. He’d been in jail before, but this time was different. He was kept in solitary confinement for three years. Periodically, he was subjected to additional punishments: having the cell’s window blocked up, or having his books and radio removed. The arbitrariness of it all bothered him. “One of the things you realize in prison is that there’s no reason. There is no logic behind anything.” He started shaving his hair and let his beard grow — a look he retains today, with the addition of the sunglasses.
In January 2017, Maher was partially released from prison. The terms of his release specify that he must spend the hours between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. in police custody — an arrangement that will continue for at least another 18 months. At night, he shares a cell with thugs and gangsters. For 12 hours every day, they are locked up with only books to amuse them. During the daylight hours, Maher is technically at liberty but is closely watched. The second time we met, our meeting had to be broken up after a plainclothes police officer arrived. “They follow me constantly. All my calls are recorded — anything I say on the phone,” he said. “It gets into your head.” He’s been looking for a job, but even among the small group of employers who somehow haven’t heard of him, no one wants to hire a freelance engineer.
Maher’s bearing and demeanor now feels at odds with what he has achieved. The effort required to bear up in the face of the uprising’s failure, combined with the horrors of an Egyptian jail, have left scars. He hasn’t lost the conviction that the crimes of the government will eventually lead to mass opposition against it, but the level of surveillance to which he is subjected and his ongoing part-time imprisonment makes personal involvement in bringing that opposition about very difficult. “I’m still a prisoner,” he said, “but if I were free, what could I do now? They can arrest anyone for any reason. We always have hope, but we can no longer afford to have dreams like before.”
The revolutionary outburst in Egypt in 2011 excited great ambitions but has left behind a dejected generation. The few who persist in the struggle cling to small hopes, warding off feelings of grim futility. They are all that is left of the liberatory sentiments the uprising birthed, their movement a vestige of yesterday’s fight. They live what on the surface look like absurd lives, spending their nights in prison and their days at doubtful liberty, treating torture survivors secretly in back rooms, publishing the findings of investigations on a banned website that almost no one can read, and suing the state that controls the courts.
All of them are unlikely rebels. They are quiet, mostly unassuming, and doggedly hopeful. “The strong hand over society will never protect any dictator forever,” Mohamed Zaree said, shortly after a hearing at which the assembly-law case was adjourned yet again. “At some point, however hard a fist is clenched, it comes apart.” The price to be paid in the meantime is the endurance of thousands of disillusioning setbacks. Dissidents do not have the luxury, as guerillas do, of living outside society and periodically striking at it. They remain in the midst of things, witnessing crimes and abuses too numerous and commonplace to note. Having lived so long with the contradictions of their lives, Egypt’s dissidents have forgotten that they are courageous, if they ever knew it. They just persevere, sustained by the belief that there is something in man that must be defended, and that the current state of affairs is beneath their dignity.
Ahmed Maher spends the evenings in his cell reading novels by Youssef Idriss, Alaa Al Aswany, Ahmed Murad, and Radwa Ashour. Sometimes he reads accounts of revolutions past. When we last met, he had been reading about the ’Urabi revolt of 1879, a failed uprising against British influence that led to a full military occupation of Egypt. “’Urabi’s was a miserable life,” he told me; “he was exiled to Sri Lanka, and everyone blamed him. But then, after his death, they began to speak of him more highly.”
This article was completed with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Tom Stevenson is a journalist based in Istanbul.
Feature image and banner image by Alisdare Hickson. These images have been slightly cropped.
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