TOPICS > World > 5 Years On

Egypt’s opposition forcibly muted five years since revolution

February 10, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
Five years after the revolution that toppled the government, Egypt has yet to achieve the movement’s democratic ideals. But there are no more protests because protests are illegal. Freedom of speech curtailed, McCarthy-esque fear pervades under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, with opposition parties persecuted and former revolutionaries jailed. Special correspondent Nick Schifrin reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Five years ago today, Egypt stood at the edge of tectonic changes. The protests that began January 25, 2011, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square would soon cause the military-led ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

It was the culmination of the so-called 18 days, and a high point of what became known as the Arab Spring. In 2012, Egyptians elected Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood president. The next year, he was deposed by the military and its top general, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Sisi was then elected president in 2014.

It has been five years of upheaval and tumult. And, today, the picture from Cairo is much changed from those days of protest.

Special correspondent Nick Schifrin begins tonight our series of three reports, 5 Years On.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Take me back five years ago.

WOMAN: We kept crying from happiness. I couldn’t believe it, we were saying. We did it. We made it. It was a dream that came true.

MAN: All Egyptians are happy.

MAN (through interpreter): I cried. I cried. I was ecstatic. We laughed, jumped, hugged my colleagues, shouted. We did everything.

NICK SCHIFRIN: How exciting was that time?

MAN (through interpreter): After the revolution, we felt the highest stage of freedom and expression in our lives.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Five years later, the revolution’s protagonists still revel in 18 days they call utopia. But, today, the square that toppled a dictator is empty. There are no celebrations and no protesters, because protests are illegal.

AMAL SHARAF, April 6 Movement: During Mubarak, at least we had the chance to speak. Now we are ruled by weapons. We can’t open our mouths. If you go into the street, you can get shot.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Today, Egypt is tense. Above Cairo’s streets, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and his government keep a close watch. They have forcibly muted almost all opposition.

When a state TV anchor criticized him, she was suspended. When a comedian spoofed police by blowing up condoms like balloons, a politician called for him to be assaulted, forcing him to go into hiding.

Adding to the fear, an Italian student was found dead just last week, his body tortured. In total, 40,000 political prisoners fill Egypt’s jails. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more have disappeared into secret prisons.

The government crackdown peaked last month in downtown Cairo. This has long been the epicenter for people who oppose the government. And this used to be full of cafes. You can see they have all been closed now, clearly designed to send the message that nobody was allowed the space to meet or organize.

In today’s Egypt, is there freedom of speech?

MUSTAFA MAHER, Egypt (through interpreter): It’s completely disappeared. Either you’re a Sisi supporter and you can freely talk, or you oppose him even in a limited way, like a Facebook profile picture or on Twitter, and you will be brought to justice.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Mustafa Maher is the brother of Ahmed Maher, one of Egypt’s best-known activists. Ahmed Maher helped lead the revolution. On the streets, he became an icon, mobbed wherever he went.

AMAL SHARAF: “Dear Ahmed Maher, we call for your immediate and unconditional release.”

NICK SCHIFRIN: But, today, Maher’s admirers can only write him letters. Two years ago, he and many of the revolution’s leaders were arrested for protesting a new law that banned protesting. He has spent every day since in solitary confinement.

Amal Sharaf worked hand-in-hand with Maher. Will Ahmed see any of these?

Reham Ibrahim is Maher’s wife.

REHAM IBRAHIM, Wife of Ahmed Maher (through interpreter): They don’t allow anything written, not even personal messages. Anything that will provide any hope, they block.

AMAL SHARAF: They know he’s a symbol for the revolution. And he’s paying the price now. For what? For saying the truth, for opposing the oppression.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Maher’s daughter, Meral (ph), is 8. Each time she visits her dad in prison, she draws him a portrait. Last month, the portrait was of her crying.

REHAM IBRAHIM (through interpreter): I never imagined years would pass this way, and I don’t know when they will end.

So what’s her name?

Tariq El Khouly was also a member of the April 6 Movement. He painted the group’s flag and demonstrated in Tahrir Square. He protested with Maher, but Khouly gets to celebrate his daughter’s birthday in person, because he chose a different path.

So, we’re in your office. And this is a photo of you and the president. What is the significance for you of this photo?

TARIQ EL KHOULY, Egyptian Parliament Member (through interpreter): Egypt needs a president that can unite Egyptians in a dangerous time, when the society is vulnerable and could become another Syria.

NICK SCHIFRIN: El Khouly might still call himself a revolutionary, but he’s not protesting anymore. He’s a member of parliament.

TARIQ EL KHOULY (through interpreter): We left the political zone empty. We should now be filling this space.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The opposition complains that space has been co-opted, because even President Sisi praises the revolution. El Khouly defends the president by arguing lawmaking is the revolution’s next step.

TARIQ EL KHOULY (through interpreter): It’s time to protect the revolution through politics and to build strong parties in parliament and government.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But what kind of government? And what are those parties’ priorities?

ABDEL RAHIM ALI, Egyptian Parliament Member (through interpreter): When the matter has to do with national security and Egypt’s place in the world, we will act as one man, called Abdel Fattah El-Sissi.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Abdel Rahim Ali is a member of Parliament in the same coalition as Tariq El Khouly. They are supposed to check presidential power. But he and hundreds of colleagues hastily approved Sisi’s campaign.

Rahim Ali broadcasts that support. He is a popular TV anchor who indicts the government’s opponents on national television. That’s a recording of Ahmed Maher’s private phone conversation. Ali airs tapped phone calls, in order to paint revolutionaries like Maher as disloyal Western spies.

ABDEL RAHIM ALI (through interpreter): The devil Ahmed Maher is plotting to get loads of money from abroad and destroy Egypt.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Your critics accuse you of McCarthyism.

ABDEL RAHIM ALI (through interpreter): McCarthyism is something else. We referred to a group of parties that want to kidnap the whole country on behalf of foreigners.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Ali supports the kind of nationwide surveillance he performs in his own office. His main target? The most organized opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Three-and-a-half years ago, the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president. When the military overthrew him, and when Sisi took power, the Brotherhood was labeled a terrorist group.

They’re the government’s primary culprit, even for natural disasters. When heavy flooding killed seven people in Alexandria, the government released this video of alleged Muslim Brotherhood members and accused them of clogging the sewers.

ABDEL RAHIM ALI (through interpreter): The conspiracy is still there. They are trying to achieve tomorrow what wasn’t achieved yesterday using the counter-revolution powers from the Muslim Brotherhood.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But right now, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members are in prison. And the leaders who aren’t jailed are in exile.

AMR DARRAG, Muslim Brotherhood: The media and the black campaigning has managed to cultivate some sort of fear inside many Egyptians.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Amr Darrag is the most senior Muslim Brotherhood leader not in prison. He Skyped with us from Istanbul.

AMR DARRAG: Sisi right now, what he’s doing, he’s trying to close all room for work, not just for the Brotherhood, but all of the political and social players in Egypt.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And that means Muslim Brotherhood supporters still in Egypt need to hide; 22-year-old Mahmoud, not his real name, comes from a Brotherhood family. In 2013, he joined protests against the military takeover, demonstrations that ended with a massacre of Brotherhood supporters. Today, he stays quiet. He would only speak to us if we hid his face.

MAHMOUD, Egypt (through interpreter): You can never feel comfortable about your security. The leaders are either imprisoned or killed. Many supporters have been disappeared. There is no Muslim brother still free.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And the secular activists aren’t free either. They stay inside, knowing they lack public support.

AMAL SHARAF: No public protests, not because we are afraid, because we have been through a lot of demonstrators, and a lot of people got killed because it will do nothing. People are not with us.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Perhaps the only activists keeping the faith are the very ones the Egyptian government has silenced.

In 2013, “PBS NewsHour” interviewed Ahmed Maher.

AHMED MAHER, Activist (through interpreter): I am convinced that January 25 was the beginning of the revolution, not the whole revolution.

NICK SCHIFRIN: We played the clip for Maher’s family.

AHMED MAHER (through interpreter): That’s why the results of the revolution are not known yet.

REHAM IBRAHIM (through interpreter): My reaction to the video was not to what he said, but to Ahmed himself. For most people, he is just a figure, but, for me, he is my life.

MUSTAFA MAHER: That instead of longing to move — is already our home, where I as a citizen have dignity and freedom in my country.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But, today, Maher has no freedom. And his dream of the revolution is a dream deferred.

Nick Schifrin, “PBS NewsHour,” Cairo.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tomorrow night, Nick Schifrin will look at the central role of Egypt’s courts in the revolution.