How Egypt's democratic uprising gave way to enduring repression

After years of revolt and turmoil, Egypt is in a period of historic oppression. And world powers like the United States are pretty much OK with that.

Ahmed Abd El Latif/El -Shorouk Newspaper via AP
An Egyptian court sentenced 11 people to death and 40 defendants to up to 15 years in prison on Tuesday for their involvement in a 2012 soccer riot in Port Said. The defendants were kept inside a cage in a makeshift courtroom on the outskirts of Cairo.

Saturday was the fifth anniversary of Khaled Said's death. The fact that most of you are probably asking "Khaled who?" is a good measure of how the so-called Arab Spring has failed to deliver on its lofty promises. 

The revolutionary cries of democracy and freedom have been replaced by a yearning for the old autocratic stability, with Syria and Iraq, and to a lesser extent Libya, now mired in bloody civil wars. 

Egypt, the Arab world's largest nation, has been spared the horrors visited on some of its neighbors. Yet it's witnessing a period of state repression not seen in the country since the 1970s.

Who was Mr. Said? He was beaten to death on an Alexandria street by a group of Egyptian police on June 6, 2010, his hands bound behind his back and his head bashed against iron grates and walls. The officers ignored the entreaties of two passing doctors to spare the reedy young man and beat him well past unconsciousness.

'We are all Khaled Said'

Murders by the police are common in Egypt, then and now. Torture is a standard interrogation tool and many police stations operate as thinly disguised mafia outfits. But Said's murder was different, and provided the tinder for the Egyptian uprising that swept former President Hosni Mubarak from power the following February.

Middle class and Internet-savvy, Said was like so many young Egyptians who felt trapped in a country with limited personal freedoms and few economic opportunities. The contrast of his handsome smiling face with the photo of his bludgeoned head that went viral captured the public imagination in the way that the death of a peasant's or a laborer's son never had.

The visual evidence of his murder – the official police report claimed he choked to death on marijuana he swallowed when being arrested – added fuel to the fire. A Facebook group called "We are all Khaled Said" quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of supporters. The group called for a protest against police brutality on January 25 – national police day – and hitherto apathetic Egyptians turned out in droves in Cairo and other cities, sparking an upheaval that resonates to this day.

Amro Ali, an acquaintance of Said's, explained the impact of his murder on the second anniversary of his death:

Khaled’s tragedy is Egypt’s tragedy. We should not commemorate him because he was either a saint or sinner, but simply because he was a human being who was robbed of his rights and dignity once he breathed his last. We stand not only in commemoration of Khaled Saeed but also the countless nameless and faceless lives taken away before and since.

Five years on, there has been little justice for Said. And dreams of a more open society in Egypt and an end to impunity for the police and high officials have turned to dust. Two of the police who beat him received 10-year prison sentences, but that pales in comparison to the hundreds of death and life-in-prison sentences handed out for political activity in the last few years.

'A dose of repression'

The voices raised in Tahrir Square and across Egypt five years ago, declaring that "the people" knew their rights and wouldn't be pushed around anymore, have been reduced to fearful whispers. Retired General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claimed the presidency last June and, following the mold of the Mubarak regime he served for most of his life, has stuffed the revolutionary genie back into its bottle.

“The al-Sisi government is acting as though to restore stability Egypt needs a dose of repression the likes of which it hasn’t seen for decades, but its treatment is killing the patient,” Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement released Tuesday. “What makes it worse is that Western governments that subordinated human rights in their relations with Egypt during the Mubarak era seem ready to repeat their mistake.”

Human Rights Watch estimates that 900 people were killed by security forces as they cleared a Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in Cairo in August 2013. Those killings followed the ouster by the Sisi-led military of the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically-elected president, that June. No policeman or soldier has been tried in those deaths. Mr. Morsi has since been given a death sentence.

On Tuesday, an Egyptian high court upheld death sentences for 11 men who were at a riot at a soccer game in Port Said in 2013, in which over 70 died. A separate military court handed out 25-year prison sentences to 36 Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The unevenness in the application of judicial punishments has rarely been more glaring.

Business as usual

The response of the US, and much of Europe, to all this has been to prioritize stability over political freedom. President Obama lifted a partial ban on weapons delivery to Egypt in March and is seeking $1.3 billion for Egypt's military in the next annual budget.

In June 2009, the president delivered what was billed as a landmark address about US relations with the Muslim world in Cairo, in which he promised US support for democracy and individual freedoms. 

"I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose," Mr. Obama said then. "Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."

That was a year before Said's murder and well before the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya, and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq. 

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