During his first two weeks in Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison, Ahmed Maher was able to smuggle out a few letters that he had scribbled on toilet paper. Maher is the soft-spoken 33-year-old civil engineer who co-founded the April 6 Youth Movement and was a crucial behind-the-scenes operator during the 2011 protests that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak three years ago today. Maher has now been in prison for 72 days. His family is having difficulty getting information about his wellbeing, although he has occasionally dictated letters to visitors, including this one, published last week by the Washington Post, and this one, sent to me yesterday.
In one of his earlier messages, Maher wrote of conditions in the jail, joking that his food, at least, would stay well-preserved. "I don’t think there is a refrigerator anywhere colder than this cell.” For the most part, however, his letters have been scathing indictments of Egypt’s military and warned of catastrophic social unrest if the “police state” continues its campaign to dismantle the groups that came together for the 2011 Revolution.
That dismantling has gone largely unnoticed by the West. Outside of Egypt, news about the country suggests a binary struggle. On one side: the Muslim Brotherhood, angered over the ouster of President Mohammad Morsi and pushing back against oppression, real or perceived. On the other side: The military-led government of Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who appears poised to run for president.
The election, conflict between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Morsi’s trial are all obviously newsworthy. (Soundproof cage? Seriously, Egypt?) Squeezed out of most coverage, however, is the fate of secular activists, many of whom are now behind bars: Maher, Mohammed Adel, and Ahmed Douma of the April 6 Youth Movement, as well as organizers like Alaa Abdel Fattah. Others have been expelled from politics with the help of smear campaigns (Wael Ghonim and Asmaa Mahfouz), or face changes and prohibitions on travel that effectively neutralize their political influence (Mostafa Al-Naggar and Amr Hamzawy). And there are others.
Three years ago, we cheered for these activists, humbled by their courage and dazzled by their ability to mobilize peaceful demonstrations with the use of new and old technology alike: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, secret meetings, messages written on banknotes, patriotic songs, flowers, and an occupied public square that captivated the world.
When Mubarak finally stepped down, Egypt’s daring revolutionaries became activist rock stars, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and taking meetings with Prime Minister David Cameron, Sen. John McCain, and other world leaders. A stable democracy for Egypt was no sure bet, but thanks to people like Maher and the everyday citizens who took to the streets, the despot was gone. We could at least exhale—and change the channel.
When we did, Mubarak regime holdovers began a systematic crackdown on leading dissidents, while smothering unfavorable press coverage. In 2013, Egypt made the Committee to Protect Journalists’ top-10 list of countries that jail reporters, and was the world’s third deadliest country for journalists, behind Syria and Iraq.
Last fall, realizing it could do better than merely quash media coverage of politically inconvenient voices, the interim government decided to simply ban public protests. That brazen new law is what is being used to justify Maher’s incarceration. "It should be clear to all by now,” Maher wrote, "that we are dealing with a military dictatorship that rejects any opposing views that do not serve its interests, and that deals with peaceful expression of opinion with tragically familiar tactics: swift detentions, torture, and even murder."
Washington was late to the party in 2011—on the wrong side of history, as President Obama might put it, if not now than in some future memoir. The question today is whether Egypt and the world will stand with the people who put so much on the line three years ago, or accept what is looking more and more like a redux of the Mubarak regime. In the letter received yesterday, Maher put it this way: "To say that the U.S. and the rest of the world are turning a blind eye to oppression is an understatement.”
But he has not lost hope. Keenly aware that he occupies the moral high ground, Maher wrote in one of his smuggled letters that reversion to iron-fisted methods of old is doomed to fail. “There will come a day when everyone will wake up.” Wake up again, that is, more determined than ever to do away with the old guard.