The Courageous Few Challenging Egypt's Protest Law
The Arab Spring is now but a tiny trickle, as the new Egyptian government jails not just the Brotherhood but activists of any kind. Those still standing continue, despite the poor odds.
CAIRO — On April 16, a small group of protesters excitedly marched into Tahrir Square, only to be chased out minutes later by police forces with tear gas.
"Revolutionaries are in Tahrir Square," activist Alaa Abd El Fattah tweeted. "It's true that we ran in and ran out, but we will still consider it an achievement."
After this protest in Tahrir, which has gone from a revolutionary hub to a restricted area for dissidents, the movement made its next large march to the presidential palace in late April.
But this week Abd El Fattah was arrested outside a courtroom, where a judge had just sentenced him to 15 years for illegally protesting and assaulting policemen, among other charges.
His arrest, alongside peers Wael Metwally and Mohamed Noubi, has caused an uproar among activists, whose space has been dwindling. Their fight now is about holding ground.
Zizo Abdou, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, which was recently banned, says he and other activists are cautiously but defiantly trying to reclaim "the lost territories of the revolution."
Three years after an anti-regime mobilization that brought millions to the streets, being able to hit that same street is an act of protest today. Such a simple accomplishment is regarded as an achievement in today's Egypt by this meager group that wants to keep going.
These days, the group chooses audacious locations and escalating measures, and attempts to avoid confrontations with the police, which have proved costly in recent months. A protest often ends shortly after people arrive, and other protective measures are taken such as inviting public figures to participate.
The day the revolution ceases to be seen in the streets, even in a weakened condition, will be the end, they argue.
Abdou is one of a few activists who initiated a campaign in April demanding the annulment of the protest law, issued last November, which imposed strict limitations on the right to demonstrate and freedom of assembly.
He says the concrete victories of the campaign have been limited. In some cases, it was able to improve the prison conditions of detainees or draw attention to certain cases.
But the campaign has another main function.
"If I shut up and stay home, it would be a huge victory for the state, and it would succeed in, not weakening, but eradicating the revolution altogether," he says.
For Abdou, the revolutionary movement is hanging on by a thread after the state's crackdown on political expression after last year's ouster of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, this revolutionary movement that has survived national politics being reduced to state-versus-Brotherhood has been trying to expand protest space, figuratively and literally.
Activist Khaled Abdel Hameed says that the mere presence of a street movement unsettles the current regime, whose leader, former military commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was recently inaugurated president. It similarly unsettles the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Both parties of the battle are keen on suggesting they are the only players on the scene. Our presence challenges that," Abdou says.
Defending even Brotherhood speech
State crackdown aside, the Brotherhood has criticized this group of mostly secular activists, accusing it of not taking a strong enough stand against the crackdown on the Brotherhood members. The protest law activists have made a point of focusing on all political detainees regardless of their political affiliation. But on many occasions Muslim Brotherhood detainees have refused to use lawyers sent by the activists to attend interrogations with them.
Abdel Hameed adds that in the absence of independent protesters in the streets, the state could succeed in propagating deposed President Hosni Mubarak's myth that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only opposition to the government, and easily eradicate all opposition.
"It is important to carve a third way, difficult as it is," Hameed says.
While he remains hopeful, believing that the strongest movements are born in the hardest situations, Abdou says that the current situation has unique challenges that are different from the political drought he witnessed under Mubarak.
In the last few months, the revolutionary camp — namely those activists who refuse both the militarization and the Islamization of politics — has shrunk, just as it enters its most difficult battle. Many of the groups, parties and figures considered to be "revolutionary" have changed camps and are now on the state's side. Others remain in the opposition but have stayed away from the street, deeming it too dangerous.
Those who are still active have become state targets, beyond the crackdown on the Brotherhood.
"The state is personalizing its battle with the youth of the revolution, and insists on picturing them as the cause of all chaos," Abdou says. Both prominent and lesser known activists have gone to prison on protest charges.
Lack of popular solidarity with the political crackdown is another challenge. "Before the revolution, there was hidden popular support," Abdou says. "When people would see us in a protest, they would be with us but too afraid to join. Now the people harbor a hidden support for the state that's killing us."
The turnout at protests is incomparable to the numbers that turned out in recent years. When Nourhan Hefzy — the wife of prominent activist Ahmad Douma, who was sentenced to three years in prison under the protest law — called for a women's sit-in at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace in April to demand the release of all detainees, fewer than 10 women showed up.
Abd El Fattah, who spoke to Mada Masr days just before going to jail, says that the revolutionary movement's constant state of emergency over the last three years has taken its toll. Between working on the cases of other prisoners of conscience, he has constantly anticipated his own arrest.
"We have been busy putting out fires," he says. "We didn't have time to take a breather or think about anything other than the right to live and the safety of the body, which is a good thing if we embrace it."
For him, once the intensity of the crackdown breaks, activists should work not on merely holding revolutionary ground, but preparing it — strengthening the organization and attracting more people. Abdel Hameed shares his view, saying that the movement's main function is to remain ready for the people's next uprising.
But for Abdel Hameed, it is socio-economic demands, spearheaded by the labor movement, that will make people rise against the current regime. These are bound to happen, he says, in light of government failure to bring concrete gains to ordinary Egyptians. While the people are currently making excuses for the state's violations of rights with elaborate conspiracy theories, he says that when the government fails to respond to social demands, there won’t be as much space to maneuver.
"The political forces have to be able to build a bridge between political and social battles," he says. "We didn't succeed in that last time."
Loss of hope is held as the one burdensome challenge.
Throughout the last three years, the revolution that ignited an explosion of hope and aspirations for long-time activists as well as ordinary Egyptians has seen more defeats than victories.
"It’s a tough situation," Abd El Fattah says. "We struggle out of necessity. Despair is not an option, and hope is a luxury.”
Many people believe that fear stopped people from acting under Mubarak, but he says that isn't true. "It was the lack of hope," he says.
While this hope was propelled by seeing Tunisia triumph in 2011, this time around activists have a mission to somehow "manufacture hope" again, and make people believe once more that change is possible.