At year's end, Egypt maintains little tolerance for dissent

Regime and media persecute athletes, comedians and student protests, especially when Muslim Brotherhood sign is flashed

Female supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were tried in the Egyptian city of Alexandria on Nov. 27.
AFP/Getty Images

CAIRO — Twenty-one schoolgirls from Alexandria, in northwest Egypt, were sentenced to 11 years in prison last month for demonstrating in favor of deposed President Mohammed Morsi and handing out balloons bearing the Muslim Brotherhood's yellow four-fingers symbol. The symbol commemorates the bloody August clearing of a Brotherhood sit-in outside Cairo's Rabaa el-Adaweya Mosque.

"These women and girls should have never been arrested," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, in a postverdict statement. "They are now prisoners of conscience and must be released immediately and unconditionally."

Though the women's sentences were quickly reduced on appeal in early December — the seven minors received three months' probation, the rest suspended one-year sentences — the incident is perhaps the most disturbing example of a crackdown being carried out against supporters of the former president and his organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

With much of the Brotherhood's leadership, including Morsi, locked up or in exile, authorities have in recent months rounded up thousands of alleged members in mass arrests. On Dec. 10, Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie made his first in-court appearance, along with other senior Brotherhood officials. Like Morsi before him, Badie questioned the legitimacy of the court and accused the state of persecution.

"Why aren't you investigating the murder of my son and the burning of my house and the group's offices?" said Badie, referring to his 38-year-old son, who was killed in August during clashes sparked by the violent dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in by police.

On Dec. 25, when a police station was bombed in Mansoura, a city 75 miles northeast of Cairo, rioters retaliated by attacking Muslim Brotherhood property and businesses. Despite another organization claiming responsibility for the attack, Deputy Prime Minister Hossam Eisa declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. A second blast occurred on Thursday on a Cairo bus, but the Brotherhood denied responsibility.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to endorse the crackdown in a Nov. 20 speech. With words that seemed to signal a major shift by Washington, Kerry said the Brotherhood had "stolen" the revolution and hijacked Egypt's postrevolutionary transition by virtue of being "the one single most organized entity in the state."

But human-rights organizations remained critical of the government's actions. "The ongoing political persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood — its breadth and its extent — is something that hasn't been seen in a long time," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch. "Egyptian jails are teeming with thousands who have been arrested because of a presumed affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party."

The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood — and the divisive and chaotic year under Morsi that preceded it — has prompted a sort of Egyptian national patriotic hysteria, one that leaves little room for dissent. Public support for the Brotherhood, even gestures of sympathy for the group's massive losses by students, athletes and comedians, have drawn attacks and swift punishment. That response has been bolstered by both state-owned and private media and by a repressive new anti-protest law that expands the definition of illegal political activity to include secularist dissent. In this environment, it has proved easy to stir up controversy. 

Some people took what I did as a political statement. It was a humanitarian gesture. There were lots of accusations that I am not patriotic. Why? Just because I had Egyptian friends who died (in Rabaa)?

Mohammed Youssef

Martial arts gold medalist

In late October, Mohammed Youssef thrust himself into the spotlight after winning a gold medal in a martial-arts tournament in Russia. He appeared on the medal stand wearing a yellow four-finger Rabaa T-shirt and flashing the Rabaa hand sign. The previously obscure athlete quickly gained a degree of notoriety well out of proportion to his sports accomplishments. He was vilified in the media, with one television commentator calling him "a foolish boy dabbling in national politics."

The Egyptian Kung Fu Association suspended Youssef for a year, and his team was investigated for Brotherhood sympathies. Youssef, however, said he had no regrets, apologizing only to his teammates for any hardship he may have caused them.

"I had personal friends, friends since childhood, who died in Rabaa," he said in an interview with Al Jazeera. "Some people took what I did as a political statement. It was a humanitarian gesture. There were lots of accusations that I am not patriotic. Why? Just because I had Egyptian friends who died?"

A few weeks later, Egyptian officials faced a much bigger problem when Ahmed Abdel Zaher, a striker for Ahly Sports soccer club, flashed the four fingers while celebrating a goal at the nationally televised African Champions League final on Nov. 10. Compared to Youssef, Abdel Zaher was far more contrite, issuing an apology through his agent and giving no interviews. He was suspended nonetheless by his club, which announced it would sell his contract to another team as soon as possible. He has since been banned for three months from domestic competition and for one year from Egypt's national team.

Shadi Hamid, research director for the Brookings Doha Center, said such gestures of support are partially a result of the ban on pro-Brotherhood activity in Egypt following Morsi's ouster.

"Anti-coup or pro-Morsi opinions aren't being aired in the public sphere. So (live) sports events provide access to this," he said. "The interesting thing would be if more sports figures are going to try this or if the punishments will deter others (from) stepping forward this way."

Officials with the Brotherhood and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party have watched the athletes' protests with undisguised satisfaction. Islam Abdel Rahman, a member of the FJP's foreign-affairs committee, said the backlash against any expression of sympathy for the Brotherhood will strengthen the group's resolve.

"It backfired. It will always backfire," said Abdel Rahman, who is currently living outside of Egypt out of fear of arrest. "People forgot about the result of the match and just focused on the Rabaa sign. If they had just ignored it, that would have been smarter. That's what a smart and secure regime would have done."

There's a massive culture of intimidation in Egypt, where people are pressured to conform to acceptable views. Some of this is coming from the government, but some of it definitely isn't.

Shadi Hamid

Brookings Doha Center

Despite the crackdown, Muslim Brotherhood supporters have continued to stage rallies and marches throughout the country. Graffiti declaring powerful Defense Minister Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi a traitor and a killer covers much of Cairo.

College and high-school students, like the Alexandria schoolgirls, have formed the backbone of the Brotherhood’s response. In Kafr al-Shiekh governorate, which forms the northernmost hump of the country, near the Mediterranean Sea's eastern end, a high-school student was reportedly detained by police earlier this month after his teacher turned him in for allegedly owning a ruler bearing the Rabaa four-finger symbol. On Dec. 14, arrest warrants were issued for the boy's father and two teachers at the school for allegedly encouraging the student.

Religious as well as secular activists and commentators have been targeted by the current military-backed government. Famed political comedian Bassem Youssef's much-hyped return to television earlier this year lasted exactly one show. He was suspended, apparently over a never-aired segment that mocked local talk-show hosts for their praise of the government — including some on his parent network, CBC.

"The message this would send is that you want to silence people," Youssef said in a December interview with the ONTV channel. His program lampooned President Morsi many times without being banned, Youssef said, adding, "We keep saying that we won't go back to the old ways. But this is worrying."

A new law passed by the interim cabinet that governs the country essentially outlaws unauthorized protests. A demonstration against that law was broken up by security forces, who arrested its leaders, including Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher, who came to fame as part of the April 6 Movement, one of the groups credited with sparking the 2011 revolution.

Perhaps the greatest concern of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters is that the restrictions on freedom of expression have apparently not been the work of the government alone. Bassem Youssef, for example, believes the privately owned CBC channel suspended him without any pressure from the government or military. Instead, it was the result, he said, of a thin-skinned, groupthink mentality now common in Egypt.

"The official story stands that it's a legal and financial issue," Youssef told The New York Times. The network, meanwhile, issued a statement saying Youssef had failed to fulfill his contractual obligations and offended viewers with "insults of Egyptian symbols."

Hamid, of Brookings Doha, agrees that there was more to the suspension than one commentator's on-air performance: "Overall, there's a massive culture of intimidation in Egypt, where people are pressured to conform to acceptable views. Some of this is coming from the government, but some of it definitely isn't. Under Morsi … the opposition was never blocked. Now the opposition is definitely blocked. If you oppose this government, there's really no recourse.”

Whitson, of Human Rights Watch, compared the current political moment in Egypt to that of the post-9/11 United States — a time of national hysteria that restricted dissent.

"There are often moments of mass hysteria, mass nationalism, mass confusion in many, many countries," she said. "One hopes that it passes, and one hopes it passes with knowledge and information and deep breaths, where people return to thinking with a clear head about … what legacies they're going to leave for their nation."

She said, further, that there is still hope that Egypt would carry out the revolutionary ideals expressed in the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak: "There has been an unbelievable and unprecedented moment of hope in Egypt and I pray that that hasn't been entirely thwarted or twisted or erased."

But as 2013 draws to a close, efforts to muffle the revolutionary spirit seem to be increasing. On Dec. 18, just before midnight, police ransacked the offices of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights — a prominent human-rights organization founded by former presidential candidate Khaled Ali. It reminded observers inside and outside Egypt that it wasn't just Islamists who would be the targets of the crackdown.

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