CAIRO — The show had just started. It was one of those debates that the new private Egyptian channels love to produce: Viewers can call in to denounce a terrorist, live on air.
In front of his television, Yasser was listening to the host describe an “individual who seriously affects the image of the country.” The host repeated his name, again and again, so the audience wouldn’t forget. At that moment, on his couch, Yasser suddenly realized that this “terrorist” for whom the hunt was now on was him: a 40-year-old father of two who works at a conference center used by the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political organization in Egypt.
His wife told him right away, “You have to leave.”
But he refused, saying he “hasn't done anything wrong.”
Last year, Yasser and his wife gave up a comfortable situation in Dubai to return to Cairo, filled with enthusiasm after then-President Mohamed Morsi’s election and the arrival of an Islamist government. Over the summer, the Egyptian Army violently removed the elected leaders, and these last few weeks, the repression has become more judicial than military, as it was at the outset. At least 1,700 people have been arrested and placed in 15 police precincts and four prisons of the capital, according to an investigation carried out by an association of lawyers.
On his couch, Yasser can hardly believe that the police will come to arrest him. “Why me? The police only target high-ranking members.” And his wife: “Your colleagues have already left, haven’t they?” Former prominent ministers or more obscure Muslim Brotherhood members have been forced by the hundreds into hiding.
In Cairo, life seems almost normal after a summer of riots and mourning. Security checkpoints have been eased, and hotels have been openly organizing “special curfew” nights. The atmosphere, however, remains electric. The Egyptian capital is still on high alert. News flashes appear hourly on mobile phones.
We learn that Morsi, the deposed president, will be tried for “incitement to murder,” though the date of the trial is unclear. The first pro-Morsi demonstrators’ trial just took place before a military court in Suez, and the sentences are breathtaking — 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment, and a life sentence for one.
“There’s clearly a particular hostility toward Islamists,” says Amr Hassan, a lawyer. He is 29 and looks nothing like what someone might imagine an Islamist sympathizer would.
In 2011, Hassan founded a legal collective for defending demonstrators arrested on Tahrir Square in the struggle against then-President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. This time, the ones calling him are families of those who were among the truckloads of Morsi supporters raided by the police during last summer’s sit-ins.
Hassan says that, on a legal level at least, the fight is at least as hard as in 2011. “Many are being sued for weapon possession or for murder, which was not the case for Tahrir Square,” he explains. “Do you know what the most surprising part is? The official reports accuse them of having not only fired shots against the police, but also ‘inadvertently’ against their own troops.”
Abdallah Fattif, vice president of the Egyptian Judges’ Club, defends the charges. “All the procedures are legal. There have maybe been excesses concerning the intensity of the use of force, but you have to understand, we had no choice.”
The club’s headquarters has been located in the same elegant building for decades. It is the only official federation for judicial authorities in Egypt. “The new authorities first planned on banning the Freedom and Justice Party, maybe even the Muslim Brotherhood,” Fattif says. “It finally preferred the criminal prosecutions to the political ones. We have now entered a context of war on terrorism.”
Some 150 judges — out of 50,000 — signed a manifesto supporting Morsi when he was in power. Since his destitution, their cases have been taken away from them, and investigations will decide about their professional suspension. At least a dozen of them are also on the run.
Sending a message
It was around 5 a.m. a few days earlier, when Yasser and his wife heard the police cars driving up the street, escorted by young informants from the area pointing out their house. The whole neighborhood had gotten out of their beds and assembled to see men in dark face masks banging on Yasser’s door, as if they were issuing a general warning: “This is what can happen to you.”
Yasser had stayed. He had no backup plan, and no one to call.
In the streets of Cairo, after each Friday prayer, the Morsi supporters try reassembling their numbers to demonstrate. Between 10,000 and 40,000 people — depending on the weeks — march in a capital, otherwise on lockdown. Still, it's nothing compared with last summer’s explosion of violence.
In this security-driven context, the tone has also changed. Foreign journalists are now welcomed into the country. Women shake hands without anybody making comments. People smile at them and look them straight in the eye, even if their arms are uncovered.
It is here, in the middle of this visible crowd, that Bachir risks going out. He introduces himself with a small, almost teasing smile. He is a pharmacy technician, a longstanding activist in Islamist politics and, since July, coordinator of the Youth Against Coup Movement. Convinced he is being followed, he has not returned to his house for a number of days.
“While the Muslim Brotherhood has spent the larger part of their history in secrecy, no strategy whatsoever had been prepared in the case of any problem,” Bachir says. “It shows the Brotherhood’s incompetence and the disaster that they created by taking power. What a mistake!”
Around him, he recognizes at least “200 people, some of them living in secret like I am.” That day, in the heat and swarm of the demonstration, meetings are arranged under cover. News travels fast. The spokesmen of the new Youth Against Coup Movement have also been rounded up. Since the arrests of Morsi’s assistants, the ministerial staff, chosen during the Brotherhood’s time in power, is currently fleeing en masse. “We no longer have a leader,” another member says. “We are poorly organized. Luckily, we still have Facebook.”
A military helicopter flies over the demonstration. The crowd breaks into applause, as if it were the last recognition of their strength, the proof that their history is not yet finished.
“The army has done good by wanting to do bad,” Bachir says. “A whole generation of Brotherhood members is about to retire, enabling young ones to take over.” That sly little smile is back: “Never mind the exorbitant price. I don’t think it is a problem if we have to pay it.”
A few members of the former government — such as the minister of youth — know that an arrest warrant hangs over them. Some find out by accident, while others are completely denied any due process. By now, most of them have vanished.
“In fact, nobody understands anything about the situation. This confusion maintains the state of panic,” another lawyer, also in charge of cases, explains. “Apart from the arrests at the top, such as the head of the government or the Brotherhood’s Supreme Leader, the new authorities are giving the impression that they are striking randomly anyone they can get their hands on, at the top or at the bottom, with a preference maybe for those who are closest to the media.”
The lawyer says he is deeply committed to the Islamist movement. Like all his fellow members, he refuses to consider that those on the run could turn to violence, “except of course those who are isolated.” And with so many hiding around town? He seems more and more distressed, not being able to answer. He starts asking himself questions: “What if the army had set up this operation to force us to take up arms and really turn us into terrorists?”
He gets up and comes back with a stack of paper. “Take them!” He speaks as if he had just been convicted, as if he were leaving his most precious belongings before the fatal moment. His lips tremble a bit under his trimmed moustache. The only sound left to be heard is Cairo’s deafening traffic against the office windows. “I’m expecting them too: They will come to arrest me.”
In the Cairo streets, portraits of Army General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the nation's new military strongman, are posted on every shop. Yasser eventually fled, at the last moment. He is sitting in a café near the Nile. His eyes glance in every direction without being able to settle on anything. “Everything will get back to normal, won’t it? Do you think we will get the government back?” His phone rings. It’s his mother. He immediately starts lying. “I’m staying with friends. I’m safe. Pray for us.”
Then a message appears on mobile phones all over the city: a car bomb has just exploded outside the Ministry of the Interior.