In Egypt, many shrug as freedoms disappear

The charges are often vague. The evidence is elusive. Arrests occur swiftly, and the convictions follow. And there is little transparency in what analysts have called the harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades.

But many Egyptians say they are all right with that.

There is a growing sense here in the Arab world’s largest country that the best path to stability — after three years of political turmoil — might be to do things the military’s way: crush the Islamists who made people angry enough to support a coup; silence dissent; and ask very few questions.

“Right now, the country is in exceptional circumstances,” said Ahmed Abdallah Suleiman, a government bureaucrat who saw the windows of his office shatter in the bombing of a nearby police station last month. “We are facing a highly organized terrorist organization, and it makes sense that this violence is met with violence.”

Egyptians are set to vote next week on a constitution drafted by people appointed by the military-backed government. The military shelved an earlier constitution ratified under then-President Mohamed Morsi when it overthrew him in July.

But as the country also approaches the third anniversary of the uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians have lost faith in democracy and the freedoms it briefly delivered.

“Every year is worse than the one before,” said Ahmed Gad, who makes a living delivering sweets. Now, he said, the country might just prosper — but only if it rids itself of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was formerly the country’s elected ruling party and is now labeled a terrorist organization by the state.

“They should all be imprisoned,” Gad said. “And if the law provides that they should be executed, then they will disappear, and with them, all of their problems.”

Burdened by economic hardship and political turmoil, Egyptians are also grappling with a violent insurgency born of the coup. Much of the nation’s deeply impoverished populace no longer sees democracy and free expression as the mechanisms to solve the economic despair that drove them to revolt in 2011, said H.A. Hellyer, an Egypt expert and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington.

“When given the choice between a democratic system that may or may not deliver stability in the short or medium term and a system that is backed by an extremely strong military institution, I think the majority of Egyptians have unfortunately decided that the latter is what they want,” Hellyer said.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties captured the lion’s share of the vote in Egypt’s first democratic elections two years ago. The Brotherhood had renounced violence decades earlier and gained popularity by establishing a vast network of charitable organizations.

These days, those images of benign Islamist leadership have been erased from many minds by the hyper-nationalist rhetoric promoted by the government, which has portrayed Brotherhood members as bloodthirsty terrorists bent on destroying the nation.

On Wednesday, a judge adjourned until Feb. 1 the trial of Morsi and 14 other Brotherhood members, who have been charged with inciting the murder of protesters during his rule. Court authorities said Morsi, who has been held virtually incommunicado since his ouster, could not be transported to the court because of weather conditions.

Several of the former president’s co-defendants appeared in court long enough to call out to journalists and lawyers gathered that they consider the trial “unconstitutional” and that their treatment had been poor. A journalist’s question about a reported hunger strike by Brotherhood prisoners was interrupted by a lawyer, who shouted: “Who cares! Let them die from their hunger strikes!”

A ‘black-and-white game’

The authorities have yet to provide evidence that the Brotherhood ordered or participated in the car bombings and other attacks that have been carried out against government targets. An extremist group based in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, has asserted responsibility for most of the recent attacks, and the Brotherhood has repeatedly condemned the violence.

“They are taking out a big brush, and everyone against them is a ‘terrorist,’ ” said a high-ranking Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid government criticism. “It’s so simple, this black-and-white game.”

In the days since Dec. 25, when the Brotherhood was declared a terrorist group, the risks of associating with the organization have become so great that many still willing to do so openly tend toward the extreme, analysts and activists said.

Last month, security forces jailed four well-known Al Jazeera English journalists, alleging that they were members of a terrorist cell. Egypt also summoned two foreign diplomats and vowed to cut ties with Qatar over recent criticism of the crackdown.

Many analysts, journalists, diplomats and nongovernmental organization workers say they can no longer meet with members of the political group that so recently ran this country, and they are wary about what they can say in public.

The government’s crackdown has been so pervasive — and the cult of support for military leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi so far-
reaching — that the Brotherhood has likened Egypt’s transgression to “fascism,” as have some liberal observers.

On Monday, Brotherhood attorneys filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court, of which Egypt is not a member, accusing the country’s military of committing “crimes against humanity.”

For months, security forces have swept into homes, schools and college campuses with mounting intensity. In recent weeks, they have clashed with student protesters and sought legislation to facilitate expulsions on political grounds. They have arrested men, women and teenagers in possession of anti-coup pamphlets or even pictures of Morsi.

Trending toward the past

Many among Egypt’s poor have rallied around the military-backed government as an economic savior. But the country’s educated elites have been among the most vocal backers of the government’s use of force to quell dissent, a trend that Western diplomats said reflects a desire to reassert Mubarak-era privileges and control.

“Like this if you hate the Brotherhood terrorists and want them to be executed without trial,” Egyptian pop star Amr Mostafa posted on his Facebook wall Sunday. More than 8,000 people “liked” the comment in less than 24 hours.

“Certainly, Egypt is no longer a democracy,” said Tarek Masoud, a political scientist and Egypt expert at Harvard University. But, he said, everyone should have seen this coming.

The country’s 2011 uprising was preceded by six decades of effective military rule, Masoud said, and the generals’ popularity and pervasive influence in society was never really shaken. The reach of Egypt’s police state remains deep, its media willing accomplices and its population desperately poor.

“Except for very few cases, democracy tends to emerge in places that are pretty well off economically and have a pretty literate population,” Masoud said. “Egypt doesn’t have any of that.”

Sharaf al-Hourani and Lara El Gibaly contributed to this report.

Abigail Hauslohner has been The Post’s Cairo bureau chief since 2012. She served previously as a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and has been covering the Middle East since 2007.
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