Generation jail: Arab Spring activists living under jail threat

Every day at 5:30am, an alarm clock awakens Ahmed Maher from his mattress below a stairwell at his neighbourhood police station in Cairo.

Maher, Douma, and Mohamed Adel are the first secular activists to go on trial amid a massive months-long crackdown on Islamists.

An officer then escorts him to the toilet and signs a notebook that Maher carries, authorising his release until 6pm.

After breakfast with his wife and two small children, he takes care of chores aimed at rebuilding his life — renewing his driver’s license, reactivating his mobile phone; he visits friends and family and searches for a job in civil engineering, his occupation before he was clapped into prison. Whatever he does, he must be back at the police station before sundown.

“Every second now is important,” said Maher, a slight 36-year-old with a full beard and a grey woollen ski cap that covered his bald pate. “If I delay for 15 minutes, the police have the right to send me back to prison.”

Maher and I were sitting in his small, dark apartment at 3pm on a Sunday in February, waiting for his children to return from school. A coffee table was strewn with textbooks from Maher’s studies at Cairo University, where he is pursuing a second degree, in political science, this one begun behind bars.

It was just six years ago that Maher was celebrated around the world as a symbol of freedom and democracy. In January 2011, as the leader of a social-media-savvy network of young activists called the April 6 Youth Movement, Maher mobilised hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and across the country that took down then president Hosni Mubarak.

The movement was considered for a Nobel Peace Prize, and Maher travelled across Europe and the US talking about the Arab Spring and Egypt’s future with the likes of Ban Ki-moon and Lech Walesa.

However, the hopes that were raised by the revolution dissolved into sectarianism and chaos, and Maher’s aspirations were extinguished within two years. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the defence minister and commander in chief of the armed forces, seized power in July 2013 and outlawed protests.

Five months later, a judge found Maher guilty of illegal demonstration, rioting, and “thuggery” and sentenced him to three years in jail. Another judge added six months to Maher’s sentence for “verbally assaulting a public officer while on duty” after he demanded that the police remove his handcuffs while in court for a 2014 appeal.

Maher spent almost all of that period sealed in a small cell in a solitary-confinement wing at Tora Prison, a notorious complex on the outskirts of Cairo, built during British rule, that houses about 2,500 political prisoners and common criminals.

Today, Maher is nominally a free man, but the restrictions on his movements are stifling. Every day for the next three years, Maher must spend 12 of every 24 hours at his local police station, a “surveillance period” intended to ensure he refrains from anti-regime activity.

The regime is deeply concerned that he could revive the social-media network that brought his followers to the streets six years ago. As it was explained to Maher, “tweets can lead to demonstrations, and demonstrations can lead to revolution, and that will bring down the regime and create martyrs”, he told me.

“So if you are tweeting, you are like a terrorist.”

Every day for the next three years, Maher must spend 12 of every 24 hours at his local police station, a “surveillance period” intended to ensure that he refrains from anti-regime activity.

The front door opened, and Maher’s wife, Reham, their daughter, Meral, 9, and their son, Nidal, 5, spilled into the room. Nidal raced to the television, switched it from the soccer match to a cartoon and then snuggled up to his father.

“I missed these moments,” Maher said.

Reham, who met Maher at Cairo University 16 years ago and married him in 2007, told me that, about a year after Maher’s imprisonment, they decided to explain the situation to their daughter.

“I tried to make her grasp the difference between being detained for political reasons and being a common criminal,” Reham said.

“I explained what the revolution was and how people protested. And I told her that when the current regime took over, it didn’t allow people to express their opinions. Sisi knew what happened to Mubarak, so he didn’t want them to speak out again.”

In prison, Maher earned a reputation as a defiant figure, repeatedly sending antigovernment criticism and vivid descriptions of his ordeal to the Western and Egyptian news media.

Denied pens and paper, he scribbled messages on tissues, using pens smuggled into his cell, and managed to smuggle the notes out. After they were published, guards would tear his cell apart, removing bricks from walls to search for hiding places.

They confiscated his books, radio and clothes, leaving him with only his thin prison uniform. Still he continued devising acts of rebellion. A year into his confinement, Maher grew an extravagant handlebar mustache and a long beard and then braided it.

“It bothered them — it seemed like I was making fun,” he said. “The prison officials complained to my father. They said: ‘Please tell him to shave.’ ”

After getting out of jail, Maher decided to keep wearing facial hair; it helped disguise his identity. Maher’s face is widely recognised in Egypt, and other April 6 Youth Movement leaders have been physically attacked by regime loyalists who blame them for plunging the country into instability and violence.

Maher had to be careful with what he told me; the regime might send him back to prison if he criticised Sisi too harshly. Yet Maher’s reluctance runs against all his instincts.

Since his release, he has sensed a deepening anger toward the regime, and he believes that the political climate may be changing.

“People tell me that they can see through the lies,” he said, “and that they are supporting us.”

Sisi’s crackdown on the opposition far exceeds the darkest period of repression during the Mubarak era. Human rights groups claim that as many as 60,000 political prisoners now languish in Egypt’s jails. (At the end of Mubarak’s rule, the figure was between 5,000 and 10,000.)

Egypt’s prisons are filled to triple their capacity, and the regime has built 16 more prisons to handle the overflow. Once described by Amnesty International as Generation Protest, the youths who took to the streets in Egypt to bring down a dictator in 2011 have acquired a grim new nickname: Generation Jail.

Many Egyptians have accepted Sisi’s argument that another prolonged round of protests could invite radical Islamists to capitalise on the chaos. Egyptians are proud that the first Arab leader to whom US president Donald Trump spoke after his electoral victory was Sisi, a sharp contrast to Barack Obama, who had suspended military aid to Egypt for two years after the police massacre of 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in August 2013 at Rabaa, a Cairo encampment.

Ahmed Maher, founder of the 6 April Youth movement, turns himself in to Egyptian prosecutors after an order for his arrest made for defying a new law restricting demonstrations on.

Obama never invited the Egyptian president to the White House.

“The thinking is, Egypt is returning to its rightful place as a player,” said a veteran political observer in Cairo, who, like many officials I spoke to, feared retribution for discussing even innocuous-seeming elements of Sisi’s policies.

Sisi’s crackdown has unfolded amid one of the most expansive overhauls of the legal system in Egyptian history. After declaring a state of emergency and disbanding parliament in 2013, he issued a series of presidential decrees that granted him unprecedented power to silence his critics.

A protest law enacted in November 2013 requires three days’ notification before a demonstration can take place and gives the Interior Ministry the right to “cancel, postpone, or move” the protest if it determines protesters will “breach ... the law”.

Broad new counterterrorism laws have expanded the definition of terrorism to include civil disobedience; this gives prosecutors latitude to roll over 15-day pretrial detention periods, in many cases without limit.

One of the most notorious magistrates, Mohammed Nagy Shehata, known as the “executioner judge”, a holdover from the Mubarak era, has handed out hundreds of lengthy prison terms and death sentences to pro-democracy activists.

In early 2016, Shehata sentenced three young members of April 6, who were attending a memorial service for a murdered comrade when they were arrested, to life terms for protesting without a license, possessing fireworks, and spreading false information. (The sentences were later reduced to 10 years.)

Egypt’s slide back into authoritarianism wasn’t foreordained. Today the leaders of April 6 admit that they weren’t prepared for the challenges that followed their initial success.

Many of them were barely out of their teens; Maher, from a politically aware, middle-class family in Cairo, had built the group online, connecting on Facebook and embracing civil-disobedience techniques that he learned while demonstrating for human rights and judicial independence with a small pro-democracy movement. He was beaten and jailed repeatedly.

The group took its name from the date of a sit-down strike in Cairo that Maher organised in 2008 in solidarity with textile workers in the Nile Delta. That led to small demonstrations against corruption and police brutality, which were quickly broken up by Mubarak’s security forces.

Then, on January 25, 2011, a protest march on Egypt’s National Police Day exploded into a nationwide movement. Late that morning, Maher watched with amazement as crowds filled Tahrir Square and said: “We made a revolution! We made a revolution!”

Days after the February 11 resignation of Mubarak, one of the world’s longest-serving tyrants, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a transitional military body, sent a bus to pick up Maher and three other protest leaders and took them to a villa owned by military-intelligence officials.

Sisi, then the intelligence chief, and two other generals greeted them respectfully, Maher recalled.

“Sisi said: ‘You are heroes. You did miracles. You brought down Mubarak. You did something we failed to do for years. But now we need you to stop demonstrating.’ ”

Maher and the others rejected Sisi’s request. “

We said: ‘The revolution is not complete. We need to change the cabinet, change the structure of the government.’ We kept sending them demands.”

Over the next six months, Maher met with Sisi three times.

“We said the same, and he said the same. ‘We need to stop demonstrating; stand together against enemies.’ Sisi always hated the protests.”

After Mubarak’s downfall, Maher travelled to the US and captivated students in gatherings at New York University, Harvard, MIT, and American University, and met with leaders of the Arab-American community.

In Europe, he talked politics and revolution with the first vice-president of the European Commission, Catherine Ashton; officials from the United Nations Human Rights Council; and Green Party and Social Democratic representatives to the European Parliament in Brussels.

Western diplomats and politicians underestimated the structural weakness of the secular democrats, the grass-roots appeal of the Islamists and the entrenched power of the “deep state” — military intelligence and the state security apparatus.

Back in Egypt, the April 6 leaders searched for a strategy.

“We didn’t have a vision,” admitted Walid Shawky, a dentist and member of the April 6 Political Committee.

“We didn’t have an answer for what comes next.”

Maher struggled to articulate an ideology, vaguely describing the group’s leanings as “social democratic, social liberal” — somewhere between unfettered capitalism and Soviet-style communism.

While April 6 members continued their activism, Islamists cemented their political advantage. The Muslim Brotherhood won parliamentary and presidential elections but enraged much of the population when it tried to draft a constitution based largely on fundamentalist Islamic principles.

By the end of 2012, Egypt was in chaos. April 6 gave its support to Tamarod, a grass-roots movement that gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures favoring early elections that, they believed, would remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

Maher believed that they had the military’s support. Instead, on July 3, 2013, Sisi went on television and announced that he was deposing President Mohammed Morsi and seizing power.

He suspended the constitution, disbanded parliament, declared a state of emergency, ordered the arrests of Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders and then in August began the deadly attack on the Brotherhood protest camp at Rabaa.

After nearly two years of turmoil, many Egyptians were desperate for stability, and April 6 suddenly found itself lacking any popular support.

Days after the coup, the interim president, Adly Mansour, a former Constitutional Court chief justice who was appointed by Sisi as a figurehead civilian leader, summoned Maher to the presidential palace.

“He was asked to go on trips to Western countries and say: ‘This was not a coup, but something the people had asked for,’ ” said Ayman, the April 6 founding member.

“Maher and the whole leadership of the movement refused to do it. We said: ‘This is a military coup — people asked for an early election.’ ”

Maher won’t comment on the incident.

The movement’s leaders publicly denounced the Rabaa killings as a “massacre”, further antagonising Sisi and sealing the group’s fate. Maher was arrested on Nov. 30 and sent to Tora Prison.

In 2014, as Maher and other April 6 leaders languished in jail, Egypt’s Court for Urgent Matters, one of Sisi’s favoured tools for stifling dissent, banned the group’s activities, accusing it of espionage and defaming the state.

Last winter, Amr Ali, who succeeded Maher as the April 6 general coordinator, received a three-year sentence for conspiring to overthrow the government and joining an illegal organisation, another crippling blow to the movement.

In February, I returned to Cairo to meet Maher, who was released from prison on Jan. 5. As the April 6 leader prepared to report for his own far stricter surveillance, I asked him whether this routine, a constant reminder of the unyielding power of the state, demoralised him.

Maher shrugged. He had recently finished reading Samuel Huntington’s 1991 book, The Third Wave: Democratisation in the Late 20th Century, and he believed that history would prove his efforts worthwhile.

“Huntington wrote that waves of revolution are greater than waves of counterrevolution,” Maher said.

“So it’s three steps forward, two steps back.”

A friend picked up Maher at his home, and I followed them in my car to the station. The sun was sinking low over the desert as I drove down the wide street leading from Maher’s home, past shabby apartment blocks with laundry drying on every balcony and stunted palm trees lining the meridian.

The wail of a muezzin wafted across the neighbourhood; four officers stood inside a corrugated-roof guard post just before the gate. The driver embraced Maher and then motored away.

Maher wore his woollen ski cap and carried a black satchel containing a novel and a dinner that Reham had prepared for him.

“It’s a surprise,” he told me, hoisting the bag over his shoulder. “I’ll find out what it is when I get inside.”

Then he crossed the road, walked past the four unsmiling policemen and disappeared into the shadows.

  • Joshua Hammer is the author of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.

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