An unprecedented crackdown has the country’s liberal activists reconsidering everything.
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor for Foreign Policy.
CAIRO — The Egyptian government worked intensively to make sure that something important happened in Tahrir Square on Monday: nothing.
On the fifth anniversary of the Jan. 25 protests that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, traffic snaked through the square in downtown Cairo unimpeded. The only gathering was a small cluster of pro-government Egyptians, some holding signs adorned with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s smiling face, organized to praise the police forces that were the loathed enemy of the protesters on Jan. 25, 2011.
It was the first time since 2010 that Jan. 25 passed without demonstrations disrupting the normal pace of daily life.
An Interior Ministry source told the Egyptian daily el-Watan that the government had dispatched 180,000 security forces across Egypt to ensure quiet. The effort succeeded. The 35 protest marches organized by the Muslim Brotherhood to “shock and shake the junta … with your thundering protests” fizzled without a trace. Leftist activists didn’t even bother organizing protests of their own.
Ensuring this political silence was months in the making. Sisi’s government, according to lawyers and activists, engaged in a sweeping crackdown in advance of Jan. 25 that disrupted life across downtown Cairo and even affected the cases of those arrested on unrelated charges.
The government left nothing to chance in ensuring that it kept a firm grip on Tahrir Square. In the run-up to the anniversary, security forces raided more than 5,000 homes in central Cairo, and police, on little more than a whim, regularly searched passersby and occupants of the area’s cafes.
“There are always informants in the cafes; people are always aware that they are being watched and heard,” said Mohamed Abdel Rahman, an activist convicted in 2014 of violating a law prohibiting protest, only to be pardoned this past September. “Now, they can stop people in a cafe or the metro and ask for their IDs, and ask for their phones, and ask them to log in to their Facebook.”
The government has also moved against cultural centers that could potentially serve as hubs of dissent. Townhouse, which hosts art exhibitions and provides workshops in the visual and performing arts, was the target of a four-hour raid on Dec. 28 and remains shuttered to this day.
“They started searching: the computers, the drawers, everywhere,” said Yasser Gerab, Townhouse’s outreach director. “They said that everything was OK and the licenses were OK, but then they closed the space. Surprisingly, strangely.”
Even before the closure, Gerab said that the authorities had shown an increased interest in regulating Townhouse’s activities. Six or seven months before the raid, he said, authorities came to them and said they shouldn’t have any art exhibitions — even of nonpolitical work — before ensuring that the artists had independently cleared their work with the censorship authorities. Such authorization, Gerab said, hadn’t been needed since Townhouse opened in 1998.
“I think the Ministry of Culture is not happy to have a cultural space that has a good reputation and is active and doesn’t have any ties to it,” he said.
For the tens of thousands of Egyptians who do end up arrested for political crimes, the situation has also become worse than ever before. It falls to people like Yasmine Hossam al-Din, a young lawyer from the city of Fayoum, to mount a legal defense for these detainees, though she freely admits her efforts are pointless, more often than not. The numbers are daunting: She is currently defending roughly 800 people across 15 cases, all of whom she represents pro bono. Even worse, she says, many of the judges do little to hide taking their cues from the political authorities and the security agencies, regularly ignoring her protests.
“[The police] just write a case, saying this person is charged with being a terrorist,” Din said. “That’s it, you get into jail for 15 or 10 years. And there’s no way [for me] or any other lawyer to prove the opposite, because the judges themselves are politically recruited — they’re pro-Sisi.”
Defending political prisoners has always been an uphill battle in Egypt, but Din says her task has become outright impossible since late last year, when the government initiated its pre-Jan. 25 anniversary crackdown.
“I haven’t gotten anyone out for three months,” she said. “They arrested people in preparation of Jan. 25 memorial, and the regime is freaking out, so all the judges who are pro-regime are freaking out, too.”
The ongoing crackdown has Egypt’s opposition movements reconsidering basic strategy. Beaten down by the regime’s actions and the sense that they had lost the initiative even before that, leftist activists in particular are reflecting on previous mistakes of the past and how to chart a new course.
“The revolutionary bloc saw itself as above politics, in a way that I think was naive,” said Omar Said, an activist formerly with the Revolutionary Socialist movement. “There was an idea among the revolutionaries that their movement was directly tied to the street.… But when there was a lot of activity on the political scene, it turned out these groups were actually smaller than they thought.”
Said has been arrested 11 times before and has now gone into hiding as a precautionary measure. But this time, he and his comrades are ridiculing calls for new protests: That will only get more people arrested, he says, without sparking a broader reaction in Egyptian society.
In previous years, activists had a rallying cry to signal their resolve to the regime: “We didn’t forget Tahrir, you sons of bitches.” Today, Said says, it has been modified to reflect the more cynical mood — and poke fun at the lengths the government has gone to keep the streets quiet.
“The new slogan goes: ‘We’re not going to Tahrir, you sons of bitches,’” he said. “As in, ‘Stop the crackdown, no one is even thinking of it.’”
Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images