The forgotten heroes

Egypt's activists were once the heroes of Tahrir Square. Then the world forgot them – and all other Arab democrats along with them. Authoritarian states and Salafists are not giving them any leeway. By Mey Dudin

By Mey Dudin

If Karim is out and about in Cairo with his camera, then he hides the memory card in his shoe. That′s because when he's walking through the town centre, or getting off the subway, there's a good chance he'll be searched. "Any photo you take on the street could land you in jail," he says. One of his friends was detained only recently: for trying to take a photo of the sunset from his balcony.

Whereas five years ago Karim might have believed in democracy for Egypt, now in his late 20s, he has no more hope. "I thought that we might at least retain freedom of speech from the revolution. That the little gods we weren't allowed to mock would no longer exist." But the famed Egyptian humour has long disappeared. "If you say the wrong thing, you end up in prison, if you go to the wrong place, you end up in prison, when you hang around with the wrong people, you end up in prison," he says.

Space for new prisons

Amnesty International believes that, since the summer of 2013, at least 34,000 people accused of being against the government have been detained. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) says there are currently 60,000 political prisoners. The organisation says that despite the economic crisis, 19 new prisons have been built. The largest of these each have the capacity for 15,000 people. "The message is," ANHRI concludes, "that in prison there will always be enough room to lock up all those who challenge the regime."

Egyptian soldier in an armoured car in front of the presidential palace in Cairo (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Khaled)
Weapons and privileges for Egypt′s unassailable military: the lion′s share of US military aid is divided up between Israel and Egypt. US government figures confirm that some 75 percent of the entire budget for 2014 (5.9 billion dollars) flowed in the direction of these two countries. The total sum of US military aid exceeds, for instance, the gross domestic product of Somalia

Since 2014 at the latest, when the former military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi became head of state, Egypt's democracy activists have been left to fend for themselves. They are the ones who felt that US President Obama was speaking to them when he promised to support them in their aspirations for freedom and the rule of law during his famous speech at Cairo University in 2009. "Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away," Obama assured his audience at the time.  Today, Washington is more concerned with maintaining good military co-operation, most recently sending a shipment of mine-proof armoured cars.

The world has forgotten the former "heroes of Tahrir Square". Only a hard core are still active and in the country. Wael Ghonim, one of the instigators of what was heralded in 2011 as the "Facebook Revolution" today lives in the US and works in Silicon Valley. Foreign foundations and NGOs – a large number of which once tended to the needs of Egyptian "civil society" – gave up, after their employees were sentenced to jail terms following accusations of illegal activity and unlawful financing. They included the German Adenauer Foundation as well as US organisations such as Freedom House.

Hopes fading

One of the most important champions of the interests of young people also left the country a while ago: Mohamed ElBaradei. He resigned as Egyptian Vice-President after mass protests by the Muslim Brotherhood were crushed by the military. Today, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate lives in Vienna. "I really resent the fact that he's just looking on from afar," says Karim. "He is influential and could effect great change. They wouldn't have just locked him up."

Internet activist Wael Ghonim (photo: AP)
Fleeing repression and political misery: Wael Ghonim, one of the instigators of what was heralded in 2011 as the "Facebook Revolution" now lives in the US and works in Silicon Valley. Using the Internet to mobilise his fellow Egyptians, under the pseudonym "Al-Shahid" – Arabic for the martyr – Ghonim became one of the leaders in the revolution against Mubarak′s repressive regime. His Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said" played a pivotal role, named for a blogger who was beaten to death in Alexandria in June 2010 by undercover officers

The most prominent activists still campaigning for fundamental rights to this day include human rights lawyer Mahienour el-Massry. But she has only just been released from prison. Another who is still active is Karim, which is actually a false name. Going abroad is out of the question for him. That he hasn't been arrested yet is pure luck. For his own protection, he is quoted in this article under a pseudonym. Most of his friends were arrested earlier this year for taking part in demonstrations.

Trapped in their own country

Karim felt especially helpless at this time. "Facebook was the only outlet to express myself," he says. But the social media are also being monitored. And while under Mubarak, only the detested police apparatus pursued supposed enemies of the regime, now army involvement is also considerable. Human Rights Watch says within a one-and-a-half year period, more than 7,000 civilians were brought before a military court. Karim says: "I feel as though I am being suffocated. I am trapped in my own country."

Economically speaking, prospects are also gloomy: revenues from the Suez Canal are contracting despite its expansion, tourists are staying away – especially since the Russian passenger plane crash over the Sinai desert – the Egyptian pound continues to lose value and almost one in every two young people are out of work. "There'll be another revolution – but this time people will be driven onto the streets by hunger," Karim is certain.

British Middle East correspondent Tim Marshall perceives the current situation as the second phase of the Arab uprisings: "That is the complex internal battle within societies where religious beliefs, social mores, tribal links and guns are currently far more powerful forces than 'Western' ideals such as equality, freedom of expression and universal suffrage," he writes in his book "Prisoners of Geography". The liberals never stood a chance: "if you are hungry and afraid and you have to choose between bread and security and the concept of democracy, then it's not a difficult choice."

Protesting the transfer of two islands to Saudi Arabia (photo: Reuters/A. Dalsh)
Protesting the sale of national assets: the demonstrations on 25 April 2016 were triggered by the decision of the Egyptian government to transfer the strategic islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Their focus then turned to President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and his hardline policies. Organised by secular and left-wing groups, they were the biggest anti-government protests for two years

Salafists are the second power

While humanists lose out, those who profit are the Islamists, who emerge with vigour where the state fails. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood – which aspires for power – is banned, but the government tolerates Salafists, members of a movement that is traditionally non-political there. This is because they live by the rule that one must follow the leader of a nation if he is a Muslim and does nothing to damage Islam. The Salafists in Egypt are primarily concerned with distributing food, exhorting people to lead a pious life and promising eternal happiness in paradise. Today, apart from the military, they are the only well-organised group – the second power within the state.

The situation is comparable in other nations of the region. But the forgotten activists of the Arab world are motivated to continue with their work by the small victories that still occasionally come to pass, as one example from Egypt shows. When the president promised two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in April, people took to the streets for the first time in a long while. The police and the military clamped down hard, and broke up the rallies within just a few minutes.

A court later fined 47 demonstrators the sum of 100,000 Egyptian pounds each (just over 10,000 euros). This meant the young activists had to drum up almost half a million euros between them. But the anger felt by many Egyptians was so great that the group received some unexpected support. "Our nation is the only one we have left. And the army that always promised to protect our nation is now giving it away cheaply," says Karim, summing up the mood in Egypt.

When the activists launched an appeal for donations through Facebook and word of mouth, the response was overwhelming. "Many people came and donated what they could, often small amounts, often money they'd worked hard to save," says Karim. The target was achieved after just 10 days. "For a brief moment, the spirit of the revolution was back."

Mey Dudin

© 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon