How Egypt’s Activists Became ‘Generation Jail’

Egypt’s slide back into authoritarianism wasn’t foreordained. Today the leaders of April 6 admit that they weren’t prepared for the challenges that followed their initial success. Many of them were barely out of their teens; Maher, from a politically aware, middle-class family in Cairo, had built the group online, connecting on Facebook and embracing civil-disobedience techniques that he learned while demonstrating for human rights and judicial independence with a small pro-democracy movement. He was beaten and jailed repeatedly. The group took its name from the date of a sit-down strike in Cairo that Maher organized in 2008 in solidarity with textile workers in the Nile Delta. That led to small demonstrations against corruption and police brutality, which were quickly broken up by Mubarak’s security forces. Then, on Jan. 25, 2011, a protest march on Egypt’s National Police Day exploded into a nationwide movement. Late that morning, Maher watched with amazement as crowds filled Tahrir Square and said: “We made a revolution! We made a revolution!”

Days after the Feb. 11 resignation of Mubarak, one of the world’s longest-serving tyrants, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a transitional military body, sent a bus to pick up Maher and three other protest leaders and took them to a villa owned by military-intelligence officials. Sisi, then the intelligence chief, and two other generals greeted them respectfully, Maher recalled. “Sisi said: ‘You are heroes. You did miracles. You brought down Mubarak. You did something we failed to do for years. But now we need you to stop demonstrating.’ ”

Maher and the others rejected Sisi’s request. “We said: ‘The revolution is not complete. We need to change the cabinet, change the structure of the government.’ We kept sending them demands.” Over the next six months, Maher met with Sisi three times. “We said the same, and he said the same. ‘We need to stop demonstrating; stand together against the enemies.’ Sisi always hated the protests.”

After Mubarak’s downfall, Maher traveled to the United States and captivated students in gatherings at New York University, Harvard, M.I.T. and American University, and met with leaders of the Arab-American community. In Europe, he talked politics and revolution with the first vice president of the European Commission, Catherine Ashton; officials from the United Nations Human Rights Council; and Green Party and Social Democratic representatives to the European Parliament in Brussels. Western diplomats and politicians underestimated the structural weakness of the secular democrats, the grass-roots appeal of the Islamists and the entrenched power of the “deep state” — military intelligence and the state security apparatus.

Back in Egypt, the April 6 leaders searched for a strategy. “We didn’t have a vision,” admitted Walid Shawky, a dentist and a member of the April 6 Political Committee. “We didn’t have an answer for what comes next.” Maher struggled to articulate an ideology, vaguely describing the group’s leanings as “social democratic, social liberal” — somewhere between unfettered capitalism and Soviet-style communism. There were debates between those who wanted to transform April 6 into a secular political party that would challenge the Muslim Brotherhood and those, like Maher, who believed that such a transformation was too ambitious. The Brotherhood “outnumbered us 10 to one,” he told me. “I thought that being a pressure group to write a new Constitution would be a better role for us.” April 6 began an awareness campaign throughout the country. “We used to go out with slide projectors in rural areas, teaching people of all the [human rights] violations made by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” recalls Mamdouh Gamal, one of tens of thousands of youths who joined the movement in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. He has since left it.

While April 6 members continued their activism, the Islamists cemented their political advantage. The Muslim Brotherhood won parliamentary and presidential elections but enraged much of the population when it tried to draft a Constitution based largely on fundamentalist Islamic principles. By the end of 2012, Egypt was in chaos. “There were street fights, people at one another’s throats, a real possibility of civil war,” remembered Dawoud, the journalist. April 6 gave its support to Tamarod, a grass-roots movement that gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures favoring early elections that, they believed, would remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Maher believed that they had the military’s support. Instead, on July 3, 2013, Sisi went on television and announced that he was deposing President Mohammed Morsi and seizing power. He suspended the Constitution, disbanded Parliament, declared a state of emergency, ordered the arrests of Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders and then in August began the deadly attack on the Brotherhood protest camp at Rabaa. After nearly two years of turmoil, many Egyptians were desperate for stability, and April 6 suddenly found itself lacking any popular support. “At that time, there was not one person in the street who was against Sisi,” recalled Amal Sharaf, the April 6 spokeswoman for the foreign media. After the killings, Sharaf said, “we tried to make protests, and we got beaten. People with hammers and knives were chasing us. There was a lot of ugliness.”

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Days after the coup, the interim president, Adly Mansour, a former Constitutional Court chief justice who was appointed by Sisi as a figurehead civilian leader, summoned Maher to the presidential palace. “He was asked to go on trips to Western countries and say, ‘This was not a coup, but something the people had asked for,’ ” said Ayman, the April 6 founding member. “Maher and the whole leadership of the movement refused to do it. We said, ‘This is a military coup — people asked for an early election.’ ” (Maher won’t comment on the incident.) The movement’s leaders publicly denounced the Rabaa killings as a “massacre,” further antagonizing Sisi and sealing the group’s fate. Maher was arrested on Nov. 30 and sent to Tora Prison.

In 2014, as Maher and other April 6 leaders languished in jail, Egypt’s Court for Urgent Matters, one of Sisi’s favored tools for stifling dissent, banned the group’s activities, accusing it of espionage and defaming the state. Last winter, Amr Ali, who succeeded Maher as the April 6 general coordinator, received a three-year sentence for conspiring to overthrow the government and joining an illegal organization, another crippling blow to the movement. “The case against us is not finished,” said Mohammed Samy, the acting coordinator of the outlawed movement. “They don’t need to capture that many people now, so they put this case in the drawer, and when they want to recapture us, they will open it again.”

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A portrait of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (center) in Cairo in 2014, a few months before he became president. Credit Rena Effendi for The New York Times

The government remains resolute. “April 6 was not at all a peaceful organization,” said a top Egyptian official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It was an anarchist movement that used violence against the security forces and incited violence. They said, ‘We have to topple the government.’ ” When I pressed him for an example of such violence, he cited, without offering proof, an April 6 member who, during the revolution, “seized a gun from a police officer and threw it in the Nile.”

One November afternoon in Cairo, I rode in a taxi along the bank of the Nile, passing the former site of Mubarak’s riverside National Democratic Party headquarters, now an empty lot. Set on fire and gutted by mobs of angry protesters in February 2011, the abandoned hulk was finally torn down more than a year ago, ridding the regime of a potent symbol of revolt. “We woke up one morning, and it was gone,” my translator told me. We soon found ourselves in Tahrir Square. Though protests still take place there from time to time — high-school students assembled there last June to denounce corruption in Egypt’s abysmal education system — the police quickly break them up with tear gas.

While the stability imposed by Sisi has gained him wide support, he has staked his presidency on an economic turnaround that has not materialized. Tourism has collapsed, and the regime spent over $8 billion on a huge expansion of the Suez Canal, a money pit that depleted foreign-currency supplies and set off shortages of sugar, medicine and rice. Sisi alienated poor Egyptians by raising the price of gasoline and instituting a tax to obtain a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Two days before my arrival last November, the regime devalued the Egyptian pound by 48 percent to combat a black market that has siphoned almost all hard currency from the legal economy. Many economists applauded the move, but the punitive effects were being felt by everyone from tuk-tuk drivers to an administrator at an international high school in Cairo. The school was suddenly facing a doubling of its expenses, because its expatriate teachers were paid in euros. “We may not last until the end of the year,” he told me.

I met the school administrator at an evening soiree, attended mostly by gay Egyptians, including my translator, and hosted by a European diplomat at his elegant apartment in a building a few blocks from the Nile. The atmosphere was festive but rife with anxiety: In a sweeping crackdown, the police have been shutting gay bars and nightclubs, entrapping gay people using online dating sites, even raiding private homes in the name of debauchery and prostitution laws.

The persecution has gone far beyond the Mubarak regime’s sporadic attacks on the gay community. Over crème brûlée and Egyptian red wine, I chatted with a towering bearded man who had spent four years as a closeted member of a Salafist sect in Alexandria. “I hated myself, and I thought being a Salafist would cure me of being gay,” he told me. He had fallen in love with another fundamentalist, a Syrian who jilted him and joined the refugee flood to Europe. The man had returned to the gay scene in Alexandria and Cairo — but the oppressive atmosphere has made it nearly impossible for him to mix socially with other gay men. “We have never seen anything like this in Egypt,” he told me. “People are terrified.” (A few days after I left Egypt, my translator would seek, and eventually gain, humanitarian asylum in Germany, claiming that the crackdown on gay Egyptians had endangered him.)

Around midnight, the host cleared furniture from the salon, and the crowd gathered around the perimeter of the room to watch the evening’s entertainment. A lithe, bare-chested man danced erotically around another man swathed in a black burqa, prying apart the second man’s legs and removing a beach ball, a teddy bear and other objects and tossing them around the salon. The lewdly choreographed show, taking place out of sight of Sisi’s ubiquitous security forces, seemed an act of defiance. Yet I was asked repeatedly not to identify the location of the party or anything else that might compromise those in attendance.

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The country’s security forces have displayed their unbridled power in other startling ways. Last year, Ziad Hassan Qenawy, a 3-year-old from the Cairo exurb of Al Shorouk, was detained at Cairo Airport with his father and hauled into court to face sentencing for six guilty verdicts handed down in absentia, ranging from theft to “resisting the authorities.” Each was punishable by a year in prison. The boy’s lawyer, Mahmoud Al Shinawy, calls the case a revenge plot against the father, an affluent businessman who had refused to submit to a police shakedown. In the courtroom, Shinawy told me: “I had to lift Ziad up so the judge could see him. When the judge saw me carrying the boy, he asked me, ‘Why are you bringing your son to the court?’ I said: ‘This is not my son. This is the defendant.’ ” Ziad was given suspended sentences, “but he now has a criminal record,” Shinawy said. “It will last for his entire life, and he will lose many rights.”

Egypt’s byzantine justice system seemed to be assiduous in sweeping up toddlers. Last February, a military court found 3-year-old Ahmed Mansour Qorani Sharara and 115 others guilty of killing three people and damaging private and public property during a pro-Muslim Brotherhood demonstration. Ahmed was sentenced to life in prison, but the verdict was later thrown out of court. The police insist that it was a case of mistaken identity and that the real culprit, a teenager, is still being sought.

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An alley in the Cairo cafe district known as el-Borsa. The area was once a night-life hub and popular meeting place for revolutionary youths, but it now lies mostly deserted after Sisi ordered the businesses to shut down. Credit Rena Effendi for The New York Times

One November evening, I met my translator at El Horreya cafe, an 80-year-old beer hall that served as a refuge for protesters fleeing the crush of humanity and occasional clouds of tear gas in Tahrir Square. Today it is a popular late-night hangout for journalists, leftists and members of Cairo’s beleaguered L.G.B.T. community. Together we headed for a meeting with an original member of the April 6 movement who has also been caught up in the purgatory of Sisi’s courts and prisons. He had spent five months in jail for organizing the April 2016 protest against Sisi’s transfer of two uninhabited islands, Tiran and Sanafir, in the Gulf of Aqaba, to Saudi Arabia, apparently in a quid pro quo for desperately needed hard currency, gas and oil. (Egypt’s State Council, in a rare display of independence, later ruled the transfer illegal.) The activist had been given a provisional release weeks earlier and had broken a few appointments with me already, but this evening, he promised to make an appearance.

My translator and I walked through the downtown streets, past stray dogs and cats feasting on piles of garbage in alleys, past derelict century-old buildings that looked dangerously close to collapse. After 15 minutes, we arrived at the Eish and Malh bistro, a high-ceilinged pizza-and-salad joint. The April 6 organizer, a skinny 33-year-old with square wire-rim glasses, a white Tour de France shirt, a thin beard and a mop of curly black hair, was smoking furiously at a round table in the center of the large room. He insisted on being quoted anonymously, only to change his mind, saying, “I don’t want anyone who reads this to feel it’s a fabrication,” before anxiously changing his mind again.

He recounted how plainclothes security men had jumped out of five cars at the April demonstration, punched and pistol-whipped him, then pushed him inside one of the vehicles and blindfolded him on the way to the security headquarters. He spent the next five months in pretrial detention, before a judge ordered his strictly supervised release.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, in a ritual that mimics Maher’s, he walks or takes a tuk-tuk from his home to the local police station and sits on a bench for two hours, a humiliating routine that “has made it impossible for me to have a normal life,” he told me, lighting another cigarette. Around us, young Egyptians smoked, ate pizza and worked on their MacBooks, having settled back into their quotidian lives six years after Egypt’s aborted revolution and three years after Sisi’s military coup. At the end of five months, the organizer must appear again before a judge — who could renew his probation or send him back to jail. He checked his watch and told me he could talk for only 10 minutes more. He was worried that he would be picked up again if he stayed any longer.

“I know that I am always being observed, and it drives you to an obsession,” he said. “I have thought about going abroad, but I need to be more psychologically stable first. I need to have the safe feeling, so that I can organize my life again.” (His anxieties about being rearrested proved well founded. In February, the police detained him without explanation for six hours; when he arrived late for that day’s scheduled detention, he was sent back to prison for 18 days.) As he stood up to leave the pizza parlor, I asked him if the campaign for democracy had accomplished anything. “I don’t believe it was a waste,” he told me after a pause. “It created a feeling, a space, even if we don’t have that now. Even if the people are afraid again, that experience was so important. In spite of everything, I believe it was worth it.”

In February, I returned to Cairo to meet Maher, who was released from prison on Jan. 5. As the April 6 leader prepared to report for his own far stricter surveillance, I asked him whether this routine, a constant reminder of the unyielding power of the state, demoralized him. Maher shrugged. He had recently finished reading Samuel Huntington’s 1991 book, “The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20th Century,” and he believed that history would prove his efforts worthwhile. “Huntington wrote that waves of revolution are greater than waves of counterrevolution,” Maher said. “So it’s three steps forward, two steps back.”

A friend picked up Maher at his home, and I followed them in my car to the station. The sun was sinking low over the desert as I drove down the wide street leading from Maher’s home, past shabby apartment blocks with laundry drying on every balcony and stunted palm trees lining the meridian. I parked at the bottom of a hill, across the street from the gated police compound, an Egyptian flag fluttering over the entrance. The wail of a muezzin wafted across the neighborhood; four officers stood inside a corrugated-roof guard post just before the gate. The driver embraced Maher and then motored away. Maher wore his woolen ski cap and carried a black satchel containing a novel and a dinner that Reham had prepared for him. “It’s a surprise,” he told me, hoisting the bag over his shoulder. “I’ll find out what it is when I get inside.” Then he crossed the road, walked past the four unsmiling policemen and disappeared into the shadows.

Joshua Hammer is the author of “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.” He last wrote for the magazine about a Bucknell professor who became the leader of an Ethiopian rebel army.

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A version of this article appears in print on March 19, 2017, on Page MM44 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Generation Jail. Today's Paper|Subscribe

Source : https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/magazine/how-egypts-activists-became-generation-jail.html

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