Arrest warrants were issued for two of Egypt’s highest-profile activists on Wednesday, a day after 79 other secular campaigners were detained in Cairo in the largest crackdown on non-Islamist dissent since the fall of Mohamed Morsi. It was the first use of a draconian new protest law that was enacted on Sunday and has been condemned by the UN and human rights groups.
Ahmed Maher, the leader of a youth movement that helped spearhead Egypt’s 2011 revolution, and Alaa Abd El Fattah, an activist targeted by every administration since Hosni Mubarak, were accused of masterminding a protest outside the Egyptian parliament.
“We’re back to Mubarak’s time,” said Maher by telephone, while he considered whether to hand himself in to the police. “I feel it’s the same atmosphere as it was in 2008, when I was hiding and trying to escape the police, and trying to make my wife and family safe.”
Twenty-two female protesters, many of them well known for their activism during and since the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, said they were beaten and harassed by police during their arrest on Tuesday night before being abandoned in the desert several miles south of Cairo. At least 24 of their colleagues remain detained.
The activists were among the first to be arrested under a new law that demands protesters seek permission from the police to demonstrate in public. Those arrested had gathered without permission outside the Egyptian parliament to protest against the way Egypt’s new constitution is set to allow the army to try civilians in military courts – and police used the new law to arrest them within minutes. One activist who tried to apply for permission to protest said he was made to wait four hours at a police station before his application was rejected on the pretext that he had made a mistake on the form.
The UN has called the new law “seriously flawed”, while Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and 19 Egyptian human rights groups have said it threatens the right to protest.
The arrests capped a week in which non-Islamist activists re-emerged in significant numbers for the first time since Morsi’s overthrow.
Islamist supporters of the former president have turned out to protest across the country almost daily since July, calling for Morsi’s return and condemning the killing of about 1,000 of his supporters.
Fourteen female Morsi supporters were given 11-year jail terms on Wednesday for carrying pro-Morsi balloons and forming a human chain at a protest this month.
But non-Islamists have been far thinner on the ground, critical of the new army-installed government’s brutality but uncomfortable standing alongside backers of Morsi, whose government they saw as similarly autocratic and whose removal many of them supported.
Now some of them are making their street presence felt once more, starting last week on the second anniversary of a series of 2011 protests that left more than 40 dead, and continuing with Tuesday’s demonstrations.
After the new government enacted or drafted legislation impinging on the right to protest, free association and civilian trials, activists have begun to fear a return to the oppression of the Mubarak era and are raising their voices accordingly.
“What’s going on is putting us back to Mubarak’s age – and it’s even worse, actually,” said Gehad Yonis, a 29-year-old engineer and activist who was detained for six days last week for visiting his friend in hospital who had been shot by police during a protest.
Yonis said he and his friend Ronny were taken to a police station where they were beaten and Ronny was denied adequate medical treatment. “We started the revolution on 25 January 2011 against policemen,” Yonis said. “We were against torture in the police stations and the rough treatment of civilians. Now they’re dealing with civilians in an even rougher way, with more blood, and they know they won’t get blamed.”
Many revolutionaries still balk at aligning themselves with Morsi supporters. Those gathering in central Cairo over the past few days have chanted against the remnants of the Mubarak regime and military rule and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood too.
Morsi shied away from implementing a similarly worded protest law this spring, but his administration nevertheless cracked down on many of the same activists arrested this week. They are furious that he seemed to encourage police brutality during his year in office, and consider the Brotherhood two-faced for once cosying up to the very military whose rule they now condemn.
“We can’t forget what they did, and all the blood that was spilt because of them,” said Alaa Ghanen, an activist whose 16-year-old brother Mohamed has been detained in an adult jail since last Tuesday, when he was seized on his way home from a football match. Police claim he had been protesting.
Ghanen said that regardless of what had happened since Morsi’s overthrow, his removal had been necessary to further what she saw as the goals of the 2011 revolution: social justice and police reform. When Morsi was in power, she said, revolutionaries were waging a battle on two fronts, whereas today they had one enemy: the security state.
“Six months ago we were also fighting the Brotherhood,” she said. “Now it’s just the people versus the government.”But whether the people are with the secular revolutionaries is impossible to judge. General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the army chief who brought down Morsi, is widely popular, with posters of his face seen on most streets in Cairo. Many activists agree that he would win a presidential election by a landslide.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Brotherhood and their supporters seem able to rally far more protesters than any secular group. Meanwhile, many Egyptians are tired from three years of economic and political mayhem, and are fed up with what some perceive as an urban revolutionary elite that seems to lack clear goals.
“The people over there, what do they really want?” asked Adel Saleh, a bus driver watching a protest this week in central Cairo. “I’ve been without work for the past three years and I just want this country to get better. But the protesters, they want this cycle to go on and on.”
But as he wondered what to do about his impending arrest, Ahmed Maher told the Guardian that many Egyptians were beginning to have second thoughts about a government whose introduction they cheered in July: “There’s a big debate now in the Egyptian community. Some people say: yes, kill them [the activists], and put them in jail. But also there was a lot of criticism of what happened yesterday, and other people are now worried about what will happen next.”