Egypt's Dream and the Peacefulness That's Killing Them

Egypt's Dream and the Peacefulness That's Killing Them

As the horrific events taking place in Syria and Iraq dominate headlines, and we’re inundated with images of ISIS beheadings and bombs, it is easy to forget that just a few years ago the Middle East held our attention for an entirely different reason. Referred to in Western media outlets as the Arab Spring (or Awakening in the Arab world), the uprising that started with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia and spread across the region, fueled primarily by economic concerns but also by frustration with political repression and social immobility, stunned the world. Many of us were awestruck by the mass protests in Egypt, which brought down the decades-spanning reign of former president Hosni Mubarak at the beginning of 2011 and were inspired by the country’s landmark democratic elections in 2012, the first in its history.

As dictators fell from power following peaceful protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen and demonstrators extracted concessions for political reform from leaders in Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco, the future of the Arab world looked brighter than it had in a long time. However, the passing of time has dampened much of the initial enthusiasm. More than four years later, commentators have often touted the (relative) success of Tunisia in its democratic transition and mourned the ruinous failures in Syria, Libya and Yemen, where peaceful protests eventually shifted into destructive civil wars in the face of regime brutality. But with the exception of regionally focused sources like Al Jazeera or Al Ahram, which students here at Otago could reasonably be forgiven for not following, most outlets have been relatively silent on how the situation has developed in Egypt.

Life for Egyptians has been nowhere near as quiet as the headlines would have you believe. After the military coup that overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, on 3 July 2013, the new government under interim president, Adly Mansour, and later president, Abdel Fattah el-SiSi (a general and coup leader), has for all intents and purposes ended the Arab Awakening that brought hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic protestors to Tahrir Square four years ago. The same cabal of elite Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) officers that once served under former president Mubarak is loyal to the new regime, which represents one of the most successful counter-revolutions in the Arab world.

What many leading media outlets have overlooked is the underlying generational struggle raging over Egypt’s future, with older Egyptians overwhelmingly supportive of the government while the country’s youth are more sceptical. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s data demonstrates that in the “election” that brought President Sisi to power in 2014, voter turnout was not only lower than 2012, but also heavily tilted toward older voters, while the masses of youth who led the revolution boycotted the vote. This is unsurprising. Since the 2013 coup, a crackdown of epic proportions has ended any semblance of political plurality as young activists representing Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and secularist, liberal groups alike have found themselves the victims of police brutality far worse than anything experienced during the original uprising.

Allegations of mass arrests, arbitrary detentions, torture and rapidly worsening prison conditions are widespread, while former interior minister Mohammed Ibrahim’s ridiculous denial that such activities have taken place highlights perfectly the attitude of the government in dealing with the youthful opposition. According to scholars at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, the death toll from political violence has reached over 3000 people since the coup (some estimates are lower, some higher — exact figures are hard to come by), with more than 17,000 injured in clashes and at least 20,000 activists detained or imprisoned (likely closer to 40,000), including over 1000 imprisoned and 49 dead in one day on the third anniversary of the uprising. A judge in Minya, a city on the Nile 150 miles south of Cairo, sentenced 529 people to death in a single day on 24 March 2014 after a single, hour-long hearing in which the defense lawyers were prevented from arguing their case. While all but 37 of these sentences were later commuted to life in prison at a new trial held on 28 April 2014, another 683 were sentenced to death on that occasion. On 16 May 2015, former president Morsi himself was sentenced to death, along with 105 others, in another ridiculously unfair mass trial. According to Aljazeera, two of those sentenced to death in May were already dead at the time the crimes of which they were convicted supposedly occurred, while another has been in an Israeli prison since 1996, long before the alleged crimes.

It has become clear over the two years since the coup that there are no safe spaces for youthful dissent in Egypt; the nation’s fiery student movements have been tamed through outright brutality. The Egyptian government reversed one of the original triumphs of the 2011 uprising by taking direct control of the appointment of university presidents and deans rather than allowing them to be elected, removing any sense of accountability on the part of university administrations. But despite laws banning protest, many student activists were undeterred, and demonstrations have continued on campuses nationwide. According to the Carnegie Endowment, at least 16 students were killed on campuses, while hundreds were arrested and hundreds more were expelled during the 2013–14 academic year. Most of the main public universities have outlawed or significantly restricted the rights of students to organise politically on campus and have brought in private security companies owned by figures seen as close to the government to restrict access and break up demonstrations before they even begin. Try to imagine some of the Capping Show stars spending five years in prison for making fun of John Key’s ponytail antics, knowing that they faced torture and potentially even death while incarcerated, and you may be getting a bit closer to understanding the plight faced by Egypt’s students.

A postgraduate student here at Otago, Yehya Hassan, participated in the original 2011 protests in Tahrir Square that toppled Mubarak while studying at Cairo University, and has friends who were imprisoned or killed after the coup. Yehya recounted a chilling tale of the abuse faced by the families of activists killed in political demonstrations, a tragically common occurrence. His story focused on describing the aftermath of the now infamous Rabaa Massacre of 14 August 2013, in which security forces stormed two peaceful protest camps set up in Cairo by youthful supporters of Morsi, who opposed the coup removing him from office. Clashes ensued, and the death toll was anywhere between 800 to 1000 people, most of whom were teenagers, and according to Human Rights Watch constituted “one of the world’s largest killing of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”. Yehya discussed the government’s response to the incident, in particular the treatment of the dead activists’ families, who went to the morgue after the massacre to retrieve the bodies of their children. Rather than being allowed to retrieve their deceased and mourn in peace, they were instead permitted to have a proper burial only if they agreed to sign legal documents swearing that their relatives had committed suicide, thus relinquishing any right to pursue justice for the murder of their loved ones. Families were forced to choose between burying their loved ones and trying to bring those responsible to justice. This is sadly only one of the unenviable choices faced by Egyptians under the current regime’s crackdown on dissent.

Some 16 Egyptian and foreign human rights organisations signed a letter on 12 February 2014, which brought attention to the ferocity of the crackdown and the authorities’ seeming lack of concern about the damning allegations. One after another, activists have been brought before judges, often showing the courts physical evidence of their bruises and scars and demonstrating exactly what happened during their time in custody. Meticulously describing the state of their captivity and the ruthless physical and psychological abuse they experienced, activists often found that judges wouldn’t even allow their testimony to show up in the court records, striking it as irrelevant. An excerpt from the letter sent by the group of organisations provides a chilling description of what many hundreds if not thousands of young people are currently experiencing throughout prisons and police stations nationwide as the EAF tries to crush all dissent:

Al-Sayyed spoke in detail about the torture endured by many detainees who were arbitrarily arrested and taken to the Azbakiya police station. He said that a security force at the station put the known political activists in the room where the torture took place and blindfolded them, forcing them to listen to the screams of detainees who were being beaten and electrocuted. The activists were repeatedly told things like, “You revolutionaries are to blame for what’s happening to these kids. If not for you, we would’ve let them go already, they’d already be home.” More than one person who was returned to the detention room after torture claimed they had been sexually assaulted and electrocuted on various parts of their bodies.

These claims are supported by the quantity and diversity of the people reporting them, and Amnesty International compiled many details of the abuses in a report released in June of this year entitled Generation Jail: Egypt’s Youth Go from Protest to Prison. Liberal and leftist forces within Egypt, which have a significant influence among the young and initially supported the coup that ousted the Islamist Morsi, have since joined Islamist-oriented youth groups in condemning the government’s assault on freedoms of speech, association and assembly that immediately followed the coup’s success. Secular activists, politicians and journalists have also found themselves the targets of the government’s ire even as they tried to defend their suffering Islamist counterparts from persecution. According to analysts at the Brookings Institution, the repeated abuse by, and the utter indifference of, the courts, prosecutors and National Council of Human Rights, which is supposed to fight these abuses but is controlled by EAF officers, is leading to a widespread political disillusionment among young Egyptians, a prospect that is tragic at best and dangerous at worst. Foreign and domestic journalists are under considerable pressure to not report on abuses. Examples of recent abuse abound, but the most disconcerting might be the courts’ exceptionally cruel practice of putting activists on trial for the murder of their own friends and colleagues. In at least one case, these are the same friends who were shot to death during peaceful marches in front of the office of the High Court right before the surviving activists were arrested and imprisoned, cut off from their families, tortured and sexually assaulted or worse.

The brutality of the authorities and outsiders’ indifference have contributed to the transformation of peaceful activist groups into more violent and radical organisations. Though the Muslim Brotherhood had refused to endorse the use of violence until very recently, other Islamists were not so patient, and groups that have sprung up like “Molotov Against the Coup” and “Ajnad Misr” are advocating violence as the only remaining option for disillusioned youth tired of not fighting back. The Brotherhood itself finally succumbed to hopelessness and misery after army forces assassinated a dozen members in a raid at the end of June, with the movement officially giving up on a decades-old pledge of non-violence and calling for a revolt against the current president on the first of July this year. This, conversely perhaps, is a huge victory for the regime, which falsely branded its opponents terrorists and has now succeeded in killing enough of them to make the survivors into the very enemy it originally claimed to be fighting.

As an entire generation of young Egyptians have watched their hard-won achievements from nearly five years of unrest disappear, drowned in the blood of their friends and comrades, the idea of violent resistance is increasingly attractive. The compelling message of “fighting back” is spreading beyond Islamists, and at recent demonstrations the now-famous phrase that once adorned signs at practically every protest during the Uprising — “Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets” — was replaced by two other phrases that accurately capture the mood of young people in Egypt: “Our peacefulness has killed us” and the even more chilling “Our peacefulness is stronger with bullets”. Egypt’s dream, which brought hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life to the streets peacefully demanding a better future more than four years ago, has been transformed into a nightmare with no end in sight.

This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2015.
Posted 12:27pm Sunday 9th August 2015 by Jace Smith.