Alaa Abd El Fattah was a skilled computer programmer. Like millions of young Egyptians, he dreamed of democracy in his country. In 2005 he created the blog Manalaa, whose title combines his name with the name of his wife, Manal. They urged an end to Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Employed as a programmer in South Africa when revolution broke out in 2011, Abd El Fattah immediately returned to Egypt to contribute to the popular uprising.
Later, when President Mohamed Morsi, who rose from the Muslim Brotherhood, declared his own decrees to be above Egyptian law, Abd El Fattah joined millions of Egyptians in demonstrations in June 2013 calling for early presidential elections. He later condemned the August 2013 massacre of Islamists perpetrated by the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the defense minister who had grabbed power and become president. Finally, that November, Abd El Fattah joined a peaceful protest against civilians being tried in military courts.
That was the end of Abd El Fattah’s activism. Soon, officials arrested him, and the courts handed down a five-year jail sentence, with an additional five years of parole. That means, although he was released in March, he still spends every night, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., in a locked cell at a Cairo police station. Ten years in the life of a young Egyptian have been squandered because he stood for minutes to express his opinion peacefully.
The bogus anti-protest law promulgated by Sissi, under which Abd El Fattah was imprisoned, makes him a political prisoner — one of 60,000 in Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch. The authorities in Egypt arrest anyone criticizing Sissi, whether in an article, in a work of art, at a meeting or on social media. Eighteen-year-old Mahmoud Mohamed Hussein was arrested and spent two years in prison without trial for wearing a T-shirt with the hopeful slogan “A nation without torture.” I, too, am vulnerable for writing this piece, though I believe it is the duty of a writer to defend freedom.
The dissidents inside Egypt’s prisons almost constitute a nation all their own; I tried to capture this universe in my novel “The Yacoubian Building.” In it, one of the main characters is a young man, Taha el Shazli, who dreams of becoming a police officer. He works diligently and receives outstanding grades, but he is rejected for admission by the police academy because of his poor social background as the son of a porter. Angry and frustrated, Taha seeks refuge in a mosque and falls under the spell of a hard-line Islamist preacher. The police arrest Taha on suspicion of terrorism and torture and sodomize him. Upon his release, he is recruited by Islamist militants, who persuade him to seek revenge against the regime that brutalized him and the society that turned a blind eye to this abuse. Based on the true story of a young man I knew, Taha’s path to radicalization mirrors that of thousands of young Egyptians.
Sissi’s regime does not even make a pretense of respecting civil rights. Amnesty International’s 2017-2018 report on Egypt states, “The authorities used torture and other ill-treatment and enforced disappearance against hundreds of people, and dozens were extrajudicially executed with impunity.” The Interior Ministry routinely publicizes “enemy” casualties in armed clashes between security forces and terrorists, with images of their corpses posted alongside official statements. A Reuters investigation recently confirmed that many of the dead could not have been killed in gun battles but were instead extrajudicially executed. According to the family of Khaled Emam, the 37-year-old weightlifting trainer was arrested in June 2017. Four months later, the Interior Ministry announced that three men had died in a shootout with police, mentioning the names of two of the men, both friends of Emam. Security sources acknowledged that he was the third casualty; relatives located his body, bearing signs of torture, at a morgue. Mohamed Abu Amer, a 37-year-old gardener, was arrested in February 2018, his family says. Five months later, a photo of his body appeared with an Interior Ministry statement alleging that he had died in a gun battle.
Human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances. Political opponents disappear, perhaps reappearing days or weeks later in court to issue torture-induced confessions. Sometimes, they simply vanish, as in the case of former parliamentarian Mostafa Alnagar, whose wife received an anonymous phone call last fall informing her that her husband had been arrested. She hasn’t heard anything since.
Freedom of expression has died in the Sissi era. The regime dominates newspapers, television channels, and film and television production companies — all transformed into bullhorns that hail Sissi. Consider what happened to me. Once Sissi became president, I was banned from appearing on television or writing in Egypt’s newspapers. (A television presenter on whose program I was scheduled to appear informed me that I was no longer allowed on TV.) Then a weekly public cultural salon that I had organized for two decades was prohibited. My latest novel, “The Republic As If,” came out in Lebanon, since publishers in Egypt were afraid to publish it. In March, military prosecutors filed a case against me in a military court on account of my novel and my columns that appear on Deutsche Welle’s Arabic website.
Sissi says the crackdown is about fighting “the war against terrorism.” And it’s true that the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013, a harsh blow to Islamist currents around the world, led to terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists in Egypt that claimed hundreds of victims — military personnel, police officers and civilians.
Yet Sissi seems to think any power grab is justified by these attacks, and he uses them as the pretense for a machinery of oppression that targets political opponents more than it does the terrorists. Recently, he held a referendum amending the constitution to extend his rule until 2030, give him control of the judiciary and place the military above the political process. According to the “official” results, 89 percent of voters approved the changes. (Authorities in Egypt have rigged elections since 1952, when the military first took power.)
The machinery of repression has for now quashed dissenting voices, but it hasn’t eliminated the political strains that seem to terrify the president. History teaches us that repression does not annihilate terrorism but swells its ferocity. What do we expect will happen to any person after being tortured, humiliated and dehumanized? Every victim of repression in his own country has the potential to become a domestic terrorist. When opponents are tortured, imprisoned for years on end and sent to the executioner, thousands of desperate youth will be convinced that violence is the only route for affecting change. Terrorism will not end without justice. Justice can be achieved only through the rule of law. The rule of law can prevail only in a democratic state. And Egypt is no democracy.