President Obama tends to describe Egypt as a distasteful conflict between an autocratic military and its secular supporters and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which won democratic elections but is intolerant and anti-Western. That view is aggressively reinforced by Cairo’s de facto authorities, who have flooded Washington in recent weeks with a parade of English-speaking spin doctors, all arguing that Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, leader of July’s coup, saved Egypt from a theocratic dictatorship.
How, then, to explain people like Ayman Nour? A secular, pro-democracy dissident for a decade before the 2011 revolution, Nour mounted a quixotic campaign for president against strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2005 — and spent three years in prison for his trouble.
Now Nour is in exile, in Lebanon, having been warned to leave the country or face arrest and prosecution. He’s not alone: Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel-winning former nuclear inspector once adopted by the pro-democracy movement as its leader, has retired to his home in Vienna rather than answer prosecutorial summons. At least two other prominent figures in Egypt’s 2011 revolution, who asked not to be named, have quietly left the country since the July 3 coup. A third, Asmaa Mafouz, was recently expelled from Kuwait.
Many who remain in Cairo are under mounting pressure. The offices of the April 6 movement, a group of pro-democracy youth that organized the Jan. 25, 2011, demonstration triggering the revolution, were raided by police last month. Several of its members have been arrested without charge. So have the leader and deputy leader of the Wasat party, a moderate Islamist faction established during Mubarak’s rule as a centrist alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In short, the Sissi government is targeting the same liberal and secular activists who waged a lonely battle against the Mubarak regime. Moreover, their Western supporters are not exempt: The state-run newspaper al-Ahram, a quasi-official government mouthpiece, recently published a six-part series vilifying groups such as the National Democratic Institute for funding a dangerous “fifth column” bent on destabilizing Egypt — even as the regime’s envoys were assuring Congressional sponsors of those nongovernmental organizations that a democratic transition was on the way.
Not all Egyptians who fought for democracy before 2011 are under siege: Some have joined the Sissi movement. But those who opposed the July 3 coup, or who have since had second thoughts and turned against the military, are feeling more threatened and isolated than they ever did in the Mubarak era. “Back then we thought it was difficult. But it wasn’t as difficult as it is now,” one exiled activist told me last week. He asked that his name be withheld because his family is still in Cairo — a request he never made when Mubarak was in power.
“Back then we could get maybe 300 or 400 people out on the street, and we had an aggressive regime targeting us,” the activist said. “But at least we knew that the majority of the people, though afraid to join us, supported us. I’m here [outside Egypt] now because I know that if I was arrested or gunned down in Tahrir Square no one would care. The regime has succeeded in persuading people that the only alternative is chaos.”
The democrats being singled out have been relentless opponents of military rule and the Mubarak-era civilian establishment. Nour’s Ghad party briefly joined with another secular party in an electoral alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in the hope of bridging the secular-religious divide. Most of the April 6 movement chose to support Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi in a 2012 presidential runoff against a military-backed candidate out of the belief that that would offer a better chance to consolidate democracy.
These activists broke with Morsi a year ago, after he suspended the rule of law in order to force through a constitution. They joined anti-government demonstrations, but they didn’t support the coup. Their argument was that those opposed to the Brotherhood should work to defeat the party in the parliamentary elections that were to be held next year — something that polls showed was more than possible.
Part of the persecution of these democrats is payback by the generals and the state intelligence service, which blames them for the 2011 revolution and for trying to work with Morsi. But the repression also marks a return to a long-standing military strategy, honed to perfection under Mubarak: Offer Egyptians — and the West — a stark choice between an autocratic, military-backed government and unreconstructed Islamists.
That means making sure that moderate Islamists and secular liberals who oppose military rule are suppressed above all. Left behind are the militant Islamists — the regime has not touched the extremist Nour party, even while crushing the Brotherhood and more moderate forces — and those civilians content to serve under military tutelage.
In the end, President Obama is not necessarily wrong to see a stark political choice in Egypt. He just chooses to ignore why that choice has come about, and so fails to support its victims.