Hatem Zaghloul is just 17 and sentenced to die, one of 529 defendants an Egyptian judge condemned en masse two months ago in the killing of a single policeman, a case that has stirred disbelief and dismay both at home and abroad. Now his fearful father, Ahmed, wonders whether the expected election victory this week of former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sisi will make matters worse, or offer some faint ray of hope.
To those who have been targeted in one of the harshest and most sustained crackdowns on government opponents in a nation long known for its autocratic leadership, the overriding question is whether Sisi, bolstered by the voting results, will feel confident enough in his standing to ease the starkly repressive measures that have marked the last 11 months, or whether the new administration will double down on muzzling dissent from secularists and Islamists alike.
"Many people are hoping that arrests and verdicts will calm down a bit after a president has been elected," the elder Zaghloul said of the balloting Monday and Tuesday. But public statements by Sisi, including his assertion that the
Hundreds more have died in near-daily confrontations with security forces under order to move aggressively against demonstrations demanding Morsi's reinstatement. In the latest clash, two young protesters were killed Friday in the town of Fayoum, south of Cairo.
By official estimates, 16,000 people, most of them Morsi backers, have been jailed by authorities since July, and rights groups believe the figure is considerably higher.
Prison conditions are harsh, and mass trials, offering little in the way of due process, have become commonplace. Egypt's once-respected judiciary has become a key instrument in the crackdown not only against the Brotherhood, which has been banned and branded a terrorist organization, but against a smaller number of secular activists as well.
Over the months, fundamental freedom has come under systematic assault. An errant Twitter message can result in a prosecutor's summons, and almost anyone can find themselves under suspicion of terrorist sympathies, even a much-loved Muppet-like television character. Pro-Morsi media organizations were shut down months ago, but more mainstream outlets have also come under fire, with three journalists for the international broadcaster
Sisi is fond of portraying the deposing of Morsi, and his own ascent, as a continuation of the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator
Maher, like scores of other secular activists, was ensnared by a law enacted in November that in essence criminalized street demonstrations. Only government-sanctioned gatherings are permitted, and one does not have to take part in a protest to be accused of instigating one. That was the case with Maher; another group said that it, not he, had organized the protest he was charged in connection with. That made no difference to the court.
Although Sisi is expected to handily defeat his only opponent, liberal politician Hamdeen Sabahi, a lopsided vote is unlikely to be a true reflection of public sentiment. That is partly because many of those who oppose him plan to express that by staying away from the polls.
The Brotherhood, once the country's largest political bloc, considers the vote illegitimate and invalid. Some other groups, such as Maher's now-banned April 6 movement, have called for a boycott. Sisi's camp is worried that young people, whose turnout in January's constitutional referendum was notably low, will shun this balloting.
There are also signs that some of the nationalist fervor that surrounded Sisi after Morsi's ouster has faded. With the passage of nearly a year, the country's most pressing problems — the dismal economy, mounting terrorist attacks — have worsened under his de facto leadership.
Despite gimmicky expressions of devotion to Sisi, with his image adorning items varying from sweets to pajamas, a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center indicated that just 54% of Egyptians held a favorable view of Sisi, with 45% having a negative one. Meanwhile, about 40% still have a favorable perception of the Brotherhood, despite a months-long campaign of demonization in the official media.
Rights advocates are largely pessimistic about an easing of conditions after the election. They have warned that new anti-terrorism legislation will give authorities even greater latitude to pursue suspects, and noted that Sisi has not offered any reformist proposals in the course of the campaign, which has consisted almost entirely of televised interviews with friendly media and closed-door meetings with carefully vetted groups.
There is some question, too, as to whether the former military man could rein in such institutions as the judiciary system or the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, even if he wanted to. The courts and police have been behind some of the most flagrant abuses in recent months, and even under the strongman rule of Mubarak they had the power to pursue their own agendas.
Lawyer Ahmed Shabeeb, who defended Brotherhood supporters sentenced to death en masse in Minya, south of Cairo, said such harsh verdicts only served to strengthen street sympathy for the Islamists. He and other lawyers said they were not allowed to put on a defense, and said it was implausible that all the defendants could have been involved in a deadly attack on police. Some of those convicted said they were not even present when a pro-Morsi riot broke out.
"Many people believe that things will stabilize and calm down after a president has been elected, but I personally do not share this view," Shabeeb said. "They believe the crackdown will bring stability, but this is not true. Actually it will bring more chaos."
Security will be tight for the election. On Friday, authorities told voters they would not be allowed to take bags into polling places, apparently fearing the smuggling of explosive devices. Parking near polling places will not be allowed either, to provide ready access for soldiers securing the sites, state media said.
Even some who said they intended to cast a ballot for Sisi expressed little of the enthusiasm seen at rallies of his supporters.
"I don't see him as a savior, but there's no real choice," said shop owner Ahmed Awami. "He didn't share any kind of plan for solving our problems."
Ahmed Zaghloul, the father of the condemned 17-year-old, said he hoped for a reversal of the death verdict, though Hatem was one of 37 whose sentences were upheld by the same criminal court last month. He feared that Sisi's pledge to crush the Brotherhood presages more arrests and prosecutions of young men like his son.
"We are trying everything with our lawyer, and we've sent pleas to the prosecutor to review the case," he said. "We are doing everything possible. The rest is for God to decide."