Three Years On, Egyptians Fear Future Darker Than Mubarak Era

With the army crushing dissent, Egyptians remain cautiously supportive of General Sissi.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egypt's army chief, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, April 24, 2013.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

For three years, Ahmed Maher was “the star of the revolution” in Egypt. In November, he lost his crown, at least officially, when he was arrested, tried and sentenced to three years in prison for taking part in an illegal demonstration. It was the army, through the force of the new, liberal constitution, that decided to arrest him in accordance with a new, draconian law prohibiting unlicensed demonstrations, which has kicked up a storm in Egypt for its violation of the “spirit of the revolution” as envisioned by its leaders.

Maher, who in 2008 founded the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the main forces behind the revolution, is not alone. Last week Amr Hamzawy, a political scientist, former parliament member and a prominent figure in the country’s liberal bloc, appealed a court injunction barring him from leaving Egypt. The order was issued in January in connection to the trial of Hamzawy and 19 other leading activists on charges of “insulting the judiciary and attempting to sway public opinion on a 'sub judice' legal proceeding.” Other leaders in the revolutionary movements, such as Wael Ghonim, have also disappeared from the public stage. Some of them are in jail, and others have given up on trying to foment change.

“Instead of bringing about a real substantial change in the character of the government, we are once again battling over human rights, as it was before the revolution,” a senior Egyptian journalist told Haaretz. “Many of us who supported the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood and the seizure of power by the military, realize that the situation today is worse than it was before former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Anyone who refuses to join the chorus of supporters of General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi may find himself in the interrogation room. The truth is that it’s not so clear to us what is left of the revolution.”

According to reports by human rights organizations in Egypt, the army has arrested more than 16,000 people since seizing power. Not only Muslim Brotherhood members, but also journalists, intellectuals and activists from the protest movements are awaiting trial or a decision in appeals of their arrests.

This month, the first details of a report prepared by the National Council for Human Rights — a quasi-governmental body that counts government appointees among its members — were published. The findings have enraged independent human rights organizations operating in Egypt. For example, according to the preliminary report, “only” 300 people were killed in the dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations, while the real number is closer to 1,000. The report says 50 of those allegedly killed by the army actually committed suicide and Muslim Brotherhood activists removed their bodies from cemeteries to present them as victims of the confrontations. And, says the report, in what appears to be an attempt to prove that the protesters were armed and participated in the massacre, the number of deaths were nearly equal among security forces and civilians.

In response, a group of 19 human rights organizations compiled their own report, which they submitted to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It will serve as the basis of the international report slated for publication in October. The United States State Department and the European Union are also concerned about the ongoing violations of human rights in Egypt. On March 7, 27 UN member states issued a joint declaration condemning the attitude toward human rights in Egypt, especially the killing of hundreds of supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi who gathered in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square last August. Egypt’s deputy foreign minister, in response, summoned the ambassadors of 19 of the states and made it clear that the declaration constituted “interference in the internal affairs of Egypt| that would harm relations with their countries if it continued.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress, referring to the resumption of U.S. aid to Egypt, suspended after the military seized power, “It’s our hope to be able to do that soon. The hitch is a new law passed by Congress, according to which that can only happen if the administration confirms that Egypt is moving toward democracy — a serious impediment in the light of Sissi’s iron-fisted policies.

President Barack Obama's administration is trying to persuade Congress to allow the shipment to Egypt of military equipment, including attack helicopters and F-16 fighter jets, to help Cairo in its battle against terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. This is also the explanation given by Egypt for its mass arrests, though the connection to anti-terrorism has yet to be proved.

While government newspapers are filled with descriptions of military successes, including the assassination last week of the leader of the extremist Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis organization, which was responsible for a series of attacks, and the discovery of an explosives factory operated by the group in Qalioubiya, north of Cairo. Pictures of drug smugglers and “carcinogenic materials with inscriptions in Hebrew” are presented as evidence in the fight against “crime organizations.” But with all due respect to the war on terror, Cairo has trouble convincing even the Egyptian public of the link between it and the arrests of social activists.

Support for Sissi is still considerable, and for now, he seems to be the only presidential candidate. But along with that support is a deep fear that his election will herald an era darker even than that under the Mubarak regime.

“We probably cannot yet give up military rule or the general telling the people what’s good for them,” the Egyptian journalist said. “We, too, have wearied of the revolution.”