In January 2011 hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo and other cities and achieved what at the time appeared to be a stunning victory: Longstanding dictator Hosni Mubarak, whose regime stood for over 30 years thanks to tight controls on politics, the press, and civil society, was forced from power by huge numbers of Egyptians risking torture and death to say they'd had enough.
The fall of Mubarak wasn't a solution to Egypt's many problems. But it opened the door to imagining the Arab world's largest country, which was once a cultural and political leader in the region, becoming a place where democratic politics could emerge, and citizen involvement in reining in rampant abuses could set an example for the rest of the region.
That dream has been dying for a long time now. And the latest bit of bad news was the sentencing of three activists to three years in prison today under a law passed after the military coup the deposed Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically-elected president, in July.
Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, co-founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, were sentenced along with Ahmed Douma. The incident that led to their arrests and imprisonment came when Mr. Maher arrived at a Cairo courthouse to surrender on an earlier warrant of organizing an illegal demonstration. A small protest accompanied his arrival, in which Mr. Adel and Mr. Douma participated. The protesters complaint was simple. If Maher or any other Egyptian could be charged with a crime for peacefully demonstrating, then Egypt was not free, the uprising against Mubarak had not succeeded.
Egypt's military rulers responded to that protest with new charges against Maher and by arresting Adel and Douma. Adel was arrested in a raid on the offices of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights last week. Douma was arrested at his home in early December.
Their convictions signal a military-government crackdown on political dissent that is expanding far beyond the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that catapulted Mr. Morsi to the presidency. The July coup followed massive street protests against Morsi that at least equaled in size those that drove Mubarak from power, reflecting the unease of large numbers of Egyptians at the Brotherhood's efforts to make Islamic Law dominant in Egyptian political and social life.
Morsi and much of the Brotherhood's senior leadership have been jailed since. But whatever question there was that the apparatus of repression would stop at the Brothers has pretty much been settled.
The three men jailed today are all secular leaning activists with roots in the Kifaya, or "Enough," movement that bubbled up against Mubarak and his plans to have his son succeed him in the middle of the last decade. Kifaya's demonstrations were often small, its leaders frequently arrested and harassed. While it didn't succeed outright, it helped lay the ground for the successful protests of 2011.
Maher cut his teeth on anti-Mubarak activism early. The April 6 Youth Movement came together via a Facebook page in support of striking textile workers in the Nile Delta town of Mahallah in 2008. A running theme of the secular activism against the state since the middle of the last decade has been standing up against police and government brutality, and calls for an end to impunity for human rights abuses by security officials. The murder of Khaled Said, a young middle-class businessman and blogger, in 2010 by police in Alexandria, led to a spate of online activism that helped bring the crowds out that brought Mubarak down.
Now it appears that Egypt's interim military government is not going to risk another such outburst. “The Ministry of Interior’s pursuit of these four activists is a deliberate effort to target the voices who, since January 2011, have consistently demanded justice and security agency reform," Sarah Lee Whitson, the Human Rights Watch director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement before the sentencing. “It should come as no surprise that with the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood well underway, the Ministry of Interior is now targeting leaders of the secular protest movement.”
Maher, like many secular activists, backed the protests against Morsi in the middle of the summer, and was pleased at the time that the military deposed the Brotherhood leader. He quickly grew disillusioned, as he found that the military and security apparatus of Egypt he'd opposed before Mubarak's downfall was much the same as it has always been.
In August, he wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post that his support for the military-backed interim government had been conditional on the military not interfering in politics. By that point he'd found that interference was their middle name - particularly in the passage of the law that saw him jailed today.
Our support for the transitional road map to new elections was predicated on the military’s pledge that it would not interfere in Egypt’s political life. The expanding role of the military in the political process that we are nonetheless witnessing is disconcerting...
Moreover, I cannot accept that, once again, the government is exerting control over the media on the pretext of the war on terror. Based on my previous experiences with the military — I was arrested and beaten for my activism in 2008 — I cannot help but fear that I may be accused of terrorism if I criticize the new regime...
Despite my support for the June 30 revolutionary wave, and despite the fact that it was a people’s movement before it was a military intervention, I now see much to fear. I fear the insurrection against the principles of the Jan. 25 revolution, the continued trampling of human rights and the expansion of restrictive measures in the name of the war on terror — lest any opponent of the authorities be branded a terrorist.
Maher and his friends opposed Mubarak and, eventually, won. He opposed Morsi and won.
The military in Egypt has sent the message today that they are not interested in him winning again.