Three years after Egypt's revolution, a sweeping crackdown on dissent

Egypt's military-led government is expanding its crackdown from the Muslim Brotherhood to academics, bloggers and liberal activists. 

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Demonstrators from 6 April movement, Ultras and anti-military groups shout slogans during a protest against government military rules and against Egypt's Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at Talaat Harab square in downtown Cairo, January 22, 2014. Hundreds of protesters opposed to the current military-backed regime took to the streets in downtown Cairo on Wednesday echoing demands reminiscent of Egypt's 2011 revolution.

Late in the night on Feb. 11 2011, Alaa Abd El Fattah huddled with a few dozen young democracy activists in the rooftop bar of Cairo's downtown Carlton Hotel.

The atmosphere was electric. Mr. Fattah and his fellow activists were almost stunned by what they had just heard a few hours ago: Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's unchallenged leader for 30 years, had been forced by the military to resign. 

Similar meetings were taking place all across Cairo that night as activists grappled with the question of "what next." The crowds streamed home from Tahrir Square, willing to trust that the newly installed military junta would guide the country towards a more just and open political future.

But Fattah, from a family of human-rights activists and dissidents, was under no illusions. Taking a break from the strategy session that night, he was worried about the disorganization among regime opponents, the absence of a consensus on what to do next, and how the Egyptian military could seize on this disorder to snuff out their collective dreams before they had begun to take shape. 

“At the moment, the military isn’t talking to anyone, I don’t think they really know who to talk to," he said then. "Right now, all the existing parties are trying to cut deals and get something for themselves – the longer this goes on, the better chance (the military has) of success.”

Three years on, his words have proven grimly prescient. Fattah himself is in jail, along with dozens of activists and journalists from across the political spectrum. His latest detention came in late November, when over a dozen police stormed his home and beat him. 

Why? He's been charged with inciting violence, thuggery, and for organizing an illegal protest (under a law recently passed by the military-run government). So he won't be on the streets tomorrow, the third anniversary of the start of the revolution. 

The crackdown on dissent began after the July coup against President Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood and originally focused on the Islamist movement. Up to 1,000 pro-Morsi protesters died in a massacre last August in Cairo's Rabaa Square.

Alaa's latest arrest is just one of the pieces of evidence about how far it is spreading now. At the end of December, three reporters for Al Jazeera English - Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed - were arrested on charges of spreading lies to tarnish Egypt's reputation and harm national security.

Emad Shahin, a widely respected political scientist at the American University in Cairo, told Kristen Chick earlier this week that the arrest of journalists was a "continuation of the message of suppressing any opposition, any voice that opposes this coup." Shortly after Mr. Shahin's comments, Egypt announced that he had been charged with conspiring with foreigners to undermine the country's stability.

Political scientist and liberal activist Amr Hamzawy was recently charged with insulting the judiciary. His crime? Using Twitter to criticize a ruling against a number of democracy promotion NGOs - among them the US-government funded International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute.

At the end of December Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement that was vital to the organization of the Jan. 25, 2011 protests, was sentenced with two others to three years in prison for the crime of protesting.

None of these people are Muslim Brotherhood activists. This is about sending a clear message that dissent of any flavor won't be tolerated - something that the military has been more than hinting at since the moment Mubarak stepped down. In Alaa's case, this was far from his first arrest.

In October 2011 he was arrested and held for 30 days on spurious charges of inciting violence against the military, in the wake of a military crackdown on Coptic Christian protesters outside the state radio and television building in Cairo that left about 30 people dead. In May 2006 he was arrested and held for 45 days after participating in a peaceful protest calling for an independent judiciary. 

That 2006 arrest led to an online campaign for his freedom and was a foreshadowing of the digital activism that eventually helped to propel massive street power in 2011. Fattah had been living in South Africa, but returned home a few days after the protests erupted and was soon in the thick of it all.

Not all of Egypt's Jan. 25 revolutionaries were as prescient as Alaa in spying the risks ahead. Consider Wael Ghonim, a computer engineer who worked for Google. 

Mr. Ghonim was briefly an icon for Egypt's democracy movement for his role in organizing the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page, which commemorated the murder of young Egyptian who was beaten to death by the police in Alexandria in 2010.

A few days after Mubarak's ouster, as activists debated holding mass protests against military interference in national politics, particularly the use of military courts to try civilian protesters, he wrote that the military would get the country on the right course.

“I trust the Egyptian Army,” he wrote.

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