Activists on all sides in Egypt feel the chill

CAIRO — One day he might be accused of being a foreign agent. On another, an Islamist sympathizer. On yet another, of being part of a traitorous conspiracy.

Amr Hamzawy, a respected liberal politician and academic in Egypt, tries to shrug off the noxious stories that routinely circulate about him in the country’s state-run media. But he sometimes feels compelled to reassure acquaintances, professional contacts and even friends that it’s an orchestrated and false smear campaign.

In Egypt, where nearly three years of political upheaval first toppled a tyrant, then ushered in and tossed out an Islamist government, and finally propelled a military man to power, activists of all stripes — many of them part of the country’s intellectual elite — are feeling the chill. To some, an increasingly authoritarian political climate is reminiscent of the bad old days under Hosni Mubarak. Back then many of those who dared dissent simply vanished into the maw of the security services, sometimes never to emerge.


Most Egyptians cheered when the army stepped in July 3 to remove Mohamed Morsi, the much-vilified Islamist president, from power. And there was relatively little public outcry over the subsequent violent crackdown on Morsi’s followers in the Muslim Brotherhood, thousands of whom have been imprisoned and hundreds more killed by the police and army. Nearly all the now-banned group’s top leaders are in jail, and those still at large lead the lives of fugitives: changing residences and cellphones, meeting and communicating clandestinely.

These days, though, the official dragnet extends far beyond the Brotherhood. Criticizing the army, the mere questioning of government policy, or expressing views that could be construed as sympathetic toward dead and detained Islamist “terrorists” has become a dangerous game.

“It’s clear that we are witnessing a sort of exclusion against anyone who is voicing a concern against the current authority,” said Badr Shafai, a professor and political science researcher at Cairo University. “Anyone who criticizes the authority would be subjected to it.”

Those on the outs with the government run the gamut.

Two Canadian visitors, a doctor and a filmmaker, have languished in jail for more than a month since the latter filmed a demonstration being broken up by security forces and the former provided medical aid to some of the injured protesters. A newly released prison letter from the pair describes harsh conditions, beatings and a cockroach-infested cell.

Former U.N. diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, who quit the government to protest the killings of hundreds of Morsi supporters in August, soon afterward came under prosecutorial investigation on suspicion of betraying the public trust.

Police have pounced on graffitists caught spraying anti-military slogans. Activists who spearheaded the uprising against Mubarak have seen their offices raided by police, labor organizers have been detained, and some lawyers have found themselves under legal threat.

Journalists too have been targeted. A well-regarded reporter in the Sinai Peninsula was detained and accused of spreading lies about the army, and recently the military’s chief spokesman took to Facebook to pointedly urge that journalists exercise “caution” when writing about the army.

In September, reports emerged of a farmer who was arrested in southern Egypt after dressing up his donkey to depict Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, the army chief who led the coup against Morsi. The episode inspired some electronic mirth on Twitter, but also prompted more than a touch of nervousness; in the current climate, a joke can turn out to be no laughing matter.

In the wake of the most recent street upheavals, the interim government — like the short-lived Morsi administration before it — has an array of tools at its disposal not only to keep public order but to go after real or perceived enemies. A nationwide curfew remains in effect, though its hours have been shortened. Authorities have expanded their own powers of detention, and the use of military tribunals to try civilians is on the rise.

One powerful weapon is intimidation. Vilification in the state-run media, which often runs to accusations of terrorist sympathies, can leave activists feeling vulnerable to vigilante-style reprisals. Egypt is to an extraordinary degree a conspiracy-minded society; even far-fetched tales of malfeasance are often readily believed.

“People will say things like, ‘Oh, I heard on the news that you were in Israel last week,’” said activist Ahmed Maher, one of the architects of the 2011 revolution. Although Egypt and Israel have a peace treaty, Egyptians regard the nation with extreme suspicion, and a planted news article purporting to show that someone is beholden to it can be extremely damaging.

One factor that may prevent the crackdown from worsening is the government’s eagerness to rehabilitate its image in the eyes of the West, particularly the United States, whose longtime largesse, primarily in the form of some $1.5 billion in annual military aid, is now under review.

President Obama has voiced criticism of the interim administration that would probably land an activist here in hot water. He told the United Nations last week that Egyptian authorities have “made decisions inconsistent with inclusive democracy,” citing in particular the emergency law and restrictions on the press, civil society and the opposition.

To counter that view, Egyptian diplomats posted abroad have fanned out on a charm offensive. Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy used his own high-profile appearance last week at the U.N. General Assembly to insist that the administration has “so far succeeded in establishing the principles of justice, freedom and democracy as a basis for governance.”

Although the U.S. government, among others, appears increasingly prepared to accept that Morsi will not be reinstated, Western sentiment generally is that Egypt must take measures to bring Islamists back into the political process or risk yet another debilitating bout of unrest and upheaval.

In the meantime, political commentators like Hamzawy vow not to be silenced.

“This campaign is because I refuse to bargain over the principles of democracy, human rights and the civil state,” he said. “I won’t be frightened of or be threatened by lies and rumors.”

Special correspondent Amro Hassan contributed to this report.