Seven Egyptian lawyers who were on trial for charges related to their participation in an anti-government protest last year were found guilty by a court in Alexandria on Tuesday. Their trial, however, is only the latest effort by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime to suppress criticism and dissent since seizing power in the wake of the 2013 military coup that overthrew Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president.
In another recent crackdown on opposition, on July 6, police detained activist and prominent regime critic Mohamed Adel — one of the leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement, which played an important role in mobilizing civil society leading up to the Egyptian revolution in 2011.
According to a source close to Adel, who asked to remain anonymous, the activist was arrested for criticizing the el-Sisi regime on Twitter and Facebook — specifically its acceptance of a controversial $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The loan has led to a devaluation of Egyptian currency and sparked many riots and protests in recent months.
Adel declared a hunger strike after being detained, and was interrogated in Cairo before being released several days later. He already spends half of every day — from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. — under observation in police custody, a condition of his recent release from a three-year prison sentence for violating a protest law during a November 2013 demonstration outside parliament.
The el-Sisi regime has gained a reputation for suppressing critics, including mass trials of journalists, freezing the assets of human rights activists and NGOs, and detaining opposition leaders like ex-presidential candidate Khaled Ali and the lawyer and human rights advocate Tarek Hussein. These incidents have occurred within a wider context of legislative measures to assert government control over NGO operations and enact mass repression against peaceful protests.
On the day of Adel’s arrest, friends grew concerned when he did not answer phone calls or post new tweets after leaving police custody in the morning. They learned that he had been placed under arrest after leaving the police station, and that all the computers and phones had been confiscated from his home.
Adel was investigated by the state prosecutor, who interrogated him about his membership in any political movements and his opinion about the current regime. He and his lawyer told the prosecutor he was not obligated to reply as he has the right to freedom of opinion.
During his arrest, Adel was also accused of using social media to criticize the government’s ties to Hisham Talaat Moustafa, a wealthy businessman who was sentenced to death for the 2009 murder of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim — but then recently pardoned and released by el-Sisi. The billionaire is now back in charge as CEO of Talaat Moustafa Group, Egypt’s biggest listed property developer.
One of the posts provided as evidence by the prosecutor said, “Don’t wait for the release of political prisoners. Only thieves will be released, as the regime isn’t afraid of them.”
Such remarks reflect the difficult reality for dissidents and regime critics. One former activist, who also asked to remain anonymous, said he was pessimistic about the prospect for reform, at least in the short-term. Other conditions must be satisfied, he said, before lasting change can come to Egypt.
“An uprising without organized political structures is pointless. People have to form parties and unions, and clearly articulate demands like a higher minimum wage.”
Nevertheless, the former activist said the repression cannot continue indefinitely. While the el-Sisi regime increases censorship of dissidents like Mohamed Adel and the lawyers in Alexandria, the military dictatorship may be walking into a dilemma of its own making. Inflation and repression could cause it to lose legitimacy, while prosperity and increased civil liberties will fuel more political participation and thus a stronger opposition.
These conditions may lay the foundation for another wave of activism in Egypt’s future, one in which many stakeholders work together to overcome autocratic rule and achieve lasting democratic change.