How To Avoid Arrest In Egypt? A Trip To The Barbershop

A barbershop in downtown Cairo
A barbershop in downtown Cairo
Birgit Svensson

GIZA — The barber is named Wissam Ibrahim. His shop in this bustling city south of Cairo is halfway up Pyramid Street, a road that is now almost permanently blocked with traffic. Clients come down four steps into the small basement salon next to the temple-like water reservoir. Two plush chairs with headrests give the barbershop an aura of the 1960s, a feeling that is heightened by Ibrahim’s traditional method: shaving foam, straight razor and an artisan’s lightness of touch.

“Normally the two chairs are enough,” he says. “But now I need twice as many.”

For a month now, he has been overwhelmed by clients. Although the Egyptian economy is languishing, Ibrahim is earning more than ever before. “It used to be the exact opposite,” he says. “When the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, everyone wanted beards. The longer, the better.”

His shop in Giza, a city of 2.6 million with a large proportion of Islamists, often stood empty. Since President Mohamed Morsi’s July 3 ouster and the violent break-up of protest camps six weeks ago, men no longer want their beards.

In Cairo, the streets have never been so full of clean-shaven men. Pale cheeks and chins show where beards used to protect skin from the sunlight. Some men have chosen to grow a little stubble to hide this tell-tale sign.

Prison risk

“The police look at photos or videos of the protests,” one client says as the barber lathers up his face. “Then they come at night during curfew and take you away. It’s mostly bearded men who get taken away.”

Egypt’s prisons are full to bursting with 3,000 suspected Muslim Brotherhood members. After Morsi was overthrown, the military broke up the government and declared a state of emergency, granting itself the power to hold prisoners indefinitely without legal counsel. The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, have been officially outlawed. The military has extended the state of emergency to the end of November, citing the “unstable security situation.”

The town of Kerdasa, just seven kilometers from Ibrahim’s barbershop, was stormed by anti-terror police, who went from door to door searching for suspects. Sixty-five men were arrested, and hand grenades and automatic weapons were discovered in the raid. There were casualties on both sides. “It’s no wonder everyone wants to shave off their beards,” says Ibrahim’s client.

The events of Aug. 14 have transformed the promising spring of change into a bitter winter of discontent. At half past six in the morning, the army and police in Cairo stormed the protest camps where Muslim Brotherhood members were demanding President Morsi’s reinstatement. Hundreds of his supporters were killed, and the raid in Kerdasa followed two hours later. The shooting lasted an hour until police ran out of ammunition. Then the militants slit survivors’ throats and threw acid on them, before dragging the commander’s body through the streets.

The video of the massacre, which the militants posted online, has been used by the security forces as justification for the war on “terrorists.” Arson attacks on churches and a car bomb attack in mid-September led to a raid last week on Dalga, another Islamist stronghold.

What future for the Brotherhood?

“It’s wrong to say that we’re all terrorists,” says Ahmed, who doesn’t want to give his full name. A practising Muslim, the 42-year-old says he joined the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party because he wanted to see state and religion combined. As a businessman, Ahmed hoped for economic reform and reduced corruption, but he soon realized that his fellow members were more interested in ideological debates than concrete plans. After a year, he was also convinced that Morsi was not the right man for the presidency.

“But it shouldn’t have happened that way,” Ahmed says. “It’s worse now than under former President Hosni Mubarak. At least then we could voice our criticism without being arrested. Now no one dares say anything.”

Mohamed Soffar, politics professor at Cairo University, says the Muslim Brotherhood will not recover. “Their first elected president has been overthrown, and their members are in prison. What can they do other than go underground?”

For the majority of the party's 85-year history, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders have been in prison. This created a sense of persecution and paranoia that carried over into Morsi’s presidency. Survival was the watchword and it hindered the Muslim Brotherhood’s political development. Morsi justified any controversial decisions by claiming that he was fighting against conspiracies. “Now his supporters think he has been proven right,” says Soffar.

Yehia El-Gamal is uncomfortable with the idea of the military being in control. His voice grows quiet as he dares to criticize the current situation. “I think there should be reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood,” says the 83-year-old Egyptian. “Is it right to send 40% of our population underground?”

Independent researchers have estimated support for the Muslim Brotherhood at around 40%. El-Gamal was involved in the revolution from the start. He supported opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei and joined his party. But when Nobel Prize winner ElBaradei stepped down as vice president of the transitional government in protest of the violence in Nasr City, he was demonized as a Muslim Brotherhood supporter and has since sought refuge in Vienna to escape accusations of complicity.

“At the moment, no one dares open their mouth,” says El-Gamal. “The emergency laws mean that the transitional government’s powers are limitless.” The media is being reined in, with Islamist newspapers and TV channels being banned. Bassem Youssef, the well-known satirist and critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, is also taking a break, which has already lasted two months. “The beards are gone,” smiles El-Gamal. “What’s left for him to make fun of now?” No one dares to mock military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It seems that Egypt has lost its sense of humor.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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