Since the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and throughout Egypt’s changing governments, the authorities have made a concerted effort to repress revolutionary voices through various means, including cooptation, intimidation, and imprisonment. This effort has intensified notably since the military took over in the July 2013 coup, following the mass popular protests on June 30.
One of the regime’s most potent tools in suppressing dissenting voices has been the 2013 protest law, which allows authorities to impose multi-year sentences on protesters found to be in violation. By cracking down on protests in the name of law and order, as opposed to direct political repression, the regime has succeeded in turning down the volume of dissent. Would-be protesters are forced to reevaluate taking to the streets in light of the increasingly severe consequences.
Moreover, the popular political pressure the imprisonment of activists once inspired has softened; a growing segment of the population sees the state as simply seeking to enforce the letter of the law, rather than as committing arbitrary repression. Although political prisoners undermine the regime’s primary justification for its repression, namely the “war on terrorism,” the overall support for those wrongly imprisoned has declined sharply.
Traditionally, one of the strategic considerations for civil disobedience was that protestors could count on arbitrary imprisonment to elicit public sympathy, placing pressure on the regime by bringing to light unjust practices. Recently, however, sympathy among the public has been limited. Soha Abdelaty, the Assistant Director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), said: “It becomes scary when you’re not sure if that pressure will yield any results or will be effective in getting the regime to reverse its strategies and decisions.”
As the cost of protest continues to rise and its effectiveness becomes increasingly dubious, the number of people prepared to take to the streets is in sharp decline. On November 29th, 2014 a judge dismissed all remaining charges against Egypt’s deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak. The number of protestors who took to the streets paled in comparison to previous years.
There is of course a human cost to years of political resistance that has taken its toll as well. While it seems as though every major regime official has managed to evade prison, activists have lost friends to Egypt’s prisons en masse. The friends, families, and supporters of political prisoners do what they can to maintain public awareness, but their options seem increasingly limited, particularly with the press openly promising to limit criticism of the regime. As Bassem Youssef sardonically noted, “If something happens to me, you’ll write an article or start a hashtag, but that’s it.”
It is important, however, that these political prisoners not be reduced to faceless hashtags. One of the many inspirational young revolutionaries who have faced imprisonment is Yara Sallam, an award-winning human rights lawyer who has worked tirelessly to advance women’s and human rights. Sallam was arrested and tried for participating in a protest on June21, 2014. She and 22 other activists were sentenced to three years in prison.
I sat down with Sallam’s mother, Rawia Sadek, to discuss Sallam’s detention. Sadek herself witnessed the impact of regime repression from a young age. As a child, Sadek’s father was imprisoned for five years due to his communist activities. Sadek was proud of her daughter and confident in her daughter’s ability to take care of herself. She stated that Sallam’s understanding of the system and her diplomatic skills have helped her to become an effective negotiator for the women held in Qanater Prison with her. Sallam has pressed for better conditions for the prisoners and for securing beds for all the inmates, hundreds of whom have been sleeping on the floor.
When the state’s National Council for Human Rights visited Qanater prison, Sallam told them that they should be interviewing other detainees, who are facing conditions and abuse much more difficult than hers. Sallam’s selfless commitment to defending the rights of others helps explain how she is one of the most respected human rights workers in the activist community, even though she does not enjoy social media stardom.
While some look at the situation with understandable despair, Sadek believes that the sacrifices of her daughter and other activists will have long-term benefits. “They set a precedent that there are people who took this stand and paid this price,” Sadek said. She believes that over time, the regime will fall out of favor and people will remember that individuals like her daughter made the difficult choice to uphold their principles in the face of great risks and great personal sacrifice.
Sadek also feels that the identity of her daughter, as an educated, middle-class, non-Islamist woman, helps elicit public sympathy at a time in which it is rare. She related the story of an acquaintance of Sallam’s who had known her before her detention. The acquaintance was extremely supportive of the country’s current ruler, President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, but “when she found out what happened to Yara, it shook her. Her convictions that everything is going well began to be shaken.” This is one of the central goals of exposing the brutality of a repressive regime – to shake citizens’ faith in the authorities.
The images and stories of well-educated, non-Islamist women being caught up in a purported war on Islamist extremist terrorism creates dissonance for some, even if the majority still sympathizes with the regime. Victims’ social class has historically affected how the public perceives them. This was clear four years ago with the public backlash to the brutal murder of Khaled Said at the hands of police in Alexandria.
“Khaled Said was huge not only because people saw the before and after pictures, but also because he comes from a middle-class family. In a society that is largely classist, people assume that he couldn’t have possibly done what the police have accused him of. It’s a ‘he’s one of us’ mentality,” said Abdelaty.
This phenomenon can also be observed in the focus and sympathy that female prisoners have received. “With the female political prisoners, many people look at them and think they look like they belong to the middle class. They look like our daughters and friends. They can’t possibly be accused of vandalism, for example,” Abdelaty said.
Some try to cope with the cognitive dissonance of middle-class women held in Egypt’s notorious prisons (like Qanater) by citing the regime’s stated need to maintain the “rule of law.” Sadek says she faces this argument a lot. In response, it is easy for her to go through the details of the protest law, demonstrating how those responsible for law enforcement, and specifically the police, violated the protest law repeatedly on the day of her daughter’s arrest. The police did not issue the warnings required by the law, nor did they follow the designated steps for escalating the crackdown. In Sallam’s case, plainclothes officers arrested her at a nearby kiosk, not even at the actual protest site. The law calls for all police at protests to be uniformed and to only arrest protesters as a last resort, when they cannot be dispersed. Sadek counters the state’s narrative of law and order by turning the tables and explaining that it is the state that has failed to appropriately enforce its own laws.
The regime has been showing some softening with respect to individual cases. Nearly all the protesters arrested in Tahrir following the dismissal of Mubarak’s cases were released almost immediately and Sisi has spoken about sending foreign political detainees back to their home countries.
In the end, however, these are arbitrary and reversible actions, rather than systemic changes. Public sympathy and international pressure that bring about the release of certain prisoners of conscience only serve to take pressure off the government, while failing to address the systematic repression at the center of the regime’s counter-revolutionary tactics.
“If they decide to release a couple of political prisoners, there’s no guarantee that this strategy of cracking down on the opposition will end anytime soon,” Abdelaty said. Even Sallam’s mother expressed her opposition to a casual pardon from the president. “No, we don’t want a presidential pardon. We want a separation of powers” she said. Without challenging the structural nature of the repression, regime critics will remain vulnerable to relapses in repression whenever the regime deems it necessary or convenient.
The challenge that remains is convincing the Egyptian people that political prisoners like Sallam and so many others should be released not because of their appearance, class, or gender, but because the country needs space for free speech and critique. These rights are not simply luxuries, but are the foundation of an accountable government. The greater threat to the long-term viability of the state is a press that refuses to cover the government’s failings, and a people who do not demand it. Changing this must be the project of long-term political education. In the interim, many of Egypt’s most promising young political minds are in prison while Mubarak and his strongmen are free.