Egypt in Year Three

But for many at the polls, the referendum was more about rejecting the Muslim Brotherhood and supporting the army and its chief, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, whose face beamed from posters stuck on the walls of the school. "Whatever Sisi says, we do," said Islam, a 24-year-old grocery shop worker after emerging from the polling station. "He is the only person who can lead the country. We need a military man."

The outcome of the referendum was never in serious doubt. The Brotherhood had opted for a boycott, and the only political party actively campaigning against the constitution, the Strong Egypt Party, suspended its campaign shortly before the plebiscite and switched to a boycott after several of its members were arrested for hanging up fliers urging a "No" vote. The constitution ended up passing by a whopping 98.1 percent, with a turnout of 38.6 percent. At least nine people were killed in clashes and more than 400 arrested over the two-day referendum.

The next stages in the transition are parliamentary and presidential elections, slated to take place within the next six months, although the order has not been determined. The question that has dominated newspaper headlines and TV commentary is whether Sisi will run for president. A slew of leading politicians and public figures have all fawningly called on the army chief to enter the race.

Sisi's star has steadily risen in the context of his "war on terror." The rise in Islamist militancy and attacks on security forces that have spread from the Sinai to the capital have only buttressed the role of the army and security forces in government. Indeed, the current regime is largely defined by what it is not — its raison d’être embodied in its commitment to crush the Brotherhood.

The government has offered little in the way of solutions to deal with the country’s deep socioeconomic problems. For now, Egypt's rulers have succeeded, at least temporarily, in reviving the often unacknowledged bargain of the Mubarak era: repression in exchange for stability.

As January 25 approached this year, the army and police invited Egyptians to fill the streets to commemorate the anniversary of the "glorious" revolution. Several opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, called for protests.

Yet there are deep cleavages among the opposition, and Tahrir Square will likely be a contested space. The Brotherhood issued a statement inviting revolutionary forces to unite on January 25 and made a tepid apology for siding with the army in the period after Mubarak’s ouster. "Though everyone made mistakes, we do not absolve ourselves of our mistake when we trusted the military council," the statement said.

Activist groups refused the offer. One of the largest, the April 6 Youth Movement, issued a statement rebutting the Brotherhood: "The revolution for you is about power. Sorry, our revolution is not the same as yours; you revolt for your own interests, we revolt for the demands of the people. This is the difference between us. How can we stand on your side?"

Indeed, activists have not forgotten last year’s anniversary, which was marked by widespread, often violent clashes and seething anger directed at the Morsi government and his group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Those confrontations were followed by a vicious, weeks-long campaign by Morsi’s newly appointed interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, against demonstrators. More than 800 were arrested, including over 250 children. The Brotherhood encouraged the crackdown.

Many now lament that the tide has shifted decisively away from revolutionary change, and that the country is headed toward an order even more regressive than the one people rose up against three years ago. Some of the most prominent figures who helped launch and sustain the revolution are now behind bars, including the founders of April 6, Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, as well as the blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah.

Targeting Alaa has almost become a rite of passage for Egypt's successive governments. He was imprisoned both under Mubarak and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces that replaced him, and Morsi’s public prosecutor issued an arrest warrant against him. This past November, two dozen armed men came to his house at night and dragged him away, beating him and slapping his wife when she asked for a warrant. Their 2-year-old son was asleep in the adjacent room.

Alaa has been in prison for nearly sixty days now, held in solitary confinement for twenty hours a day. He faces charges of organizing a protest, yet no trial date has been set.

In the past, Alaa's arrests had caused widespread outrage — his supporters were given a platform on television to call for his release, while politicians and public figures denounced his imprisonment. This time, his jailing has been applauded, and the few advocates who have tried to speak out have been muted by the cacophony of jingoism gripping the country.

A prison letter from Alaa to his two younger sisters last month was finally delivered to his family this week. It is imbued with a sense of despair, reflecting the national mood:

"What is adding to the oppression that I feel is that I find that this imprisonment is serving no purpose. It is not resistance, and there is no revolution," he wrote. "The previous imprisonments had meaning, because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for a positive gain. Right now, I feel that I can’t bear people or this country, and there is no meaning for my imprisonment other than freeing me from the guilt I would feel being unable to combat the immense oppression and injustice that is ongoing."

Tags: cairo, egypt, egyptian revolution, morsi, mubarak, muslim brotherhood

    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous
    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. For eight years he served as a senior producer, co-host, and correspondent for Democracy Now! and he remains a frequent contributor to the program. Originally from Cairo, he returned to Egypt in 2011 to cover the Egyptian revolution. He has written for The Natio...

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