Why Egyptians don't care about Khaled Said, whose death began their revolution

After more than two years of upheaval, Egyptians appear too weary to fight for the state's most prominent victim. The two policemen accused of killing him remain free, their trial adjourned.

Tarek Fawzy/AP
Policemen Awad Ismail, center, and Amin Mahmoud Salah, right, defendants in the beating death of Khaled Said, stand trial in a courtroom in Alexandria, Egypt, Sept. 24, 2011.

Two photos taken in 2010 catalyzed Egypt's revolution. The first showed the quiet smile of a young man called Khaled Said. The second, his corpse on the cold morgue table. Police had dragged the 28-year-old out of an Internet cafe and beaten him to death in the streets of Alexandria. 

His story came to symbolize the brutality and corruption of Hosni Mubarak’s hated regime. A Facebook group called "We Are All Khaled Said" drummed up support for demonstrations on Jan. 25, Egypt’s national Police Day, which burgeoned into the massive uprising that unseated Mr. Mubarak.

But two-and-a-half years, two trials of Mr. Said's killers, and a revolution later, many say little has been achieved.

The policemen accused of killing Said remain free men. On Tuesday, their retrial was adjourned for a fourth time, and the case draws little public attention these days. 

Human rights campaigners say the delays in Said’s case are symptomatic of a broader deferral of justice.

“You only have to walk around downtown Cairo to see that the revolution has not achieved what we hoped,” says Dalia Moussa, a spokeswoman for the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, a Cairo-based NGO. “There is no social justice: the people are still hungry, the police can still humiliate you.”

'I want to eat!'

When Egyptians took to the streets in 2011, they were bound more by hatred of the Mubarak regime than by a common vision for “bread, freedom, and social justice,” a popular chant throughout the uprising.

After Mubarak's resignation, there was little to hold the crowds together, and the disparate protests of the next two years quickly lost widespread support.

But a July 3 military coup sent the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, into incommunicado detention, and set off a spiral of fresh protests by his Islamist supporters. This culminated in a sweeping crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the country’s wider Islamist community.  August was the bloodiest month in the country’s modern history, with more than 1,000 killed in political violence across the country.

Now the notorious security services are back on top, while the economy continues to falter and corruption remains rife.

“We keep fighting, but it is hard,” says Ms. Moussa. “Right now I am focusing on achieving an adequate minimum wage for the workers, but there are so many obstacles and many people see labor protests as a way of disrupting the country’s stability.”

This is the crux of the problem. The years of instability and economic hardship that followed revolution have convinced many that the upheaval is not worth it.

Many Egyptians have now put their faith in the country’s military leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his civilian government to set the country on the right path, giving up, at least temporarily, on their democratic dreams. They want mass protests to stop.

“I’ve seen so many people come and go over the past two years, and they have changed nothing,” says Mohamed, a flag vendor in Tahrir Square, once the symbolic epicenter of Egypt’s revolution. “We have a fresh start with our father Sisi. Why can’t protesters go home and stop distracting the government from solving important problems like the economy? I want to eat!”

He too wishes to see a day when he does not have to fear the police repossessing his cart, but right now he says would rather see dinner on the table than security service reform.

Persuasion

The frequent changes of government personnel and sporadic violence on the streets has taken a heavy toll on Egypt’s economy. This week, a Reuters survey found that economists believe the economy will only grow 2.6 percent in the fiscal year ending June 2014, well below the 3.5 percent that Egypt’s government predicts.

Slow economic growth will mean further hardship for the millions of Egyptians who now struggle to afford food, and for whom new job prospects are out of reach.

The security crackdown has done little to improve the situation. Investors and tourists remain hesitant to return to Egypt.

In a gesture to quell popular frustrations, Egypt’s military-backed authorities have announced the scrapping of public school fees and discounts on basic food items. Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi has also proposed a minimum wage for some public sector workers, although the annual figure of 1,200 Egyptian pounds ($174) is based on demands made in 2008 and does not take into account the currency’s devaluation.

These measures will have little impact in practice, say campaigners. But they might succeed in gaining the Egyptian public's support as the government extends a security crackdown against its opponents.

“The government says they are fighting a war on terror, mainly against the Islamists, and that is popular right now because the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule left sour memories,” says Moussa. “But they know they cannot lock up thousands of people without adding a sweetener, so the timing of the minimum wage and other concessions is politically motivated. People are accepting the repression of others in return for a handful of their rights.”

Those who continue to fight are sanguine about the challenges of the future. “There is no country that changes overnight,” says Mahmoud Afify, the lawyer still battling for justice over Khaled Said’s murder. “The demands of our revolution would never have been achieved quickly. But with the passing of time, cultures change, people demand more.”

He pauses. “Or at least, I hope they will demand more."

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