20th Mar 2018


Why is Egypt jailing my friends?

  • Tahrir Square in central Cairo five years ago (Photo: Globovision)

My telephone rings in the middle of the night. It’s the Egyptian number of one of my friends. “Ayman is arrested”, says my friend.

Still sleepy I ask him “Ayman who?” He responds: “Ayman Abdel Meguid, your friend”. I am immediately awake and I ask him why, where?

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  • Sisi is sowing precisly what he’s trying to eradicate: the seeds of a new revolution (Photo: Mahmoud Saber)

It was 28 December, an otherwise quiet day between Christmas and New Year. Ayman was arrested by 10 plain-clothed security men in his sleeping room, in front of his wife and daughter.

In panic, his wife Dohha asked the men for a warrant. They ignored her and took her husband to a police station in Cairo. She followed him, fearing he might disappear like thousand others have done.

Ayman was not the only one who was arrested that night. His friend Mohamed Nabil was arrested at exactly the same moment.

The security people didn’t even bother to knock on his door. They just broke into the house and started searching everything before they took Mohamed from the arms of his son.

A few hours later I got another call saying that the police were on the way to arrest another human rights activist, also a friend. It was becoming a pattern.

On 19 November 2015, Ahmed Said was arrested: an Egyptian doctor who works in a hospital in Germany. He was visiting Egypt with his German girlfriend.

On the anniversary of the deathly clashes in 2011 in Mohamed Mahmoud street, next to Tahrir Square, he held a sign to commemorate the 42 people who died there.

Yes, he didn’t do anything else than holding a sign a few hundred metres away from Tahrir Square. Protesting is forbidden in Egypt. Even if you do it on your own.

On 13 January, security forces arrested the administrators of 47 Facebook pages.

The interior ministry spokesman, Abu Bakr Abdel Karim, said that they are accused of calling for protests against state institutions ahead of the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution on 25 January, and for “inciting against state institutions and spreading ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood”.

A few months after president Mohamed Morsi was ousted in 2013, an Egyptian court ruled that the Muslim Brotherhood was a terrorist organisation and, therefore, that every member was a terrorist.

Ayman and Mohamed Nabil were also accused of being member of a “banned organisation” - in this case the April 6 Youth Movement, and of “attempting to overthrow the government”.

April 6 was the movement which triggered the revolution in Egypt - five years ago today - against the Hosni Mubarak regime.

The leader of April 6, Ahmed Maher, is already spending his third year in jail for “breaking the anti-protest law”. I was there when he gave himself up to justice on 29 November 2013.

The police didn’t like the crowd that accompanied him and attacked it immediately. Within 15 minutes, tens of people had had their arms or legs broken.

Unmaking history

Why is Egypt so brutal towards the boys and girls who made history in 2011?

Why is the regime of president Abdel Fattah Sisi so afraid of a few young people who want to commemorate the fifth anniversary of what the Egyptian constitution calls “the unique Jan 25 and June 30 revolutions with its high density of popular participation - estimated to be in the tens of millions - and the prominent role of youth aspiring for a brighter future?”

The only reason possible is that the current government and the current president are terrified by the idea of a new revolt. The question is if this fear is justified?

In June 2014, field marshal Abdel Fattah Sisi was elected president, with 96.1 percent of the vote. Even though large parts of the population didn’t participate, it was still considered by many as a sign of massive support for the current leader.

That this support would decline with time was predictable. The promised economic miracle after the opening of the new Suez canal in 2015 did not happen. On the contrary, revenues went down.

The terrorist attack on the Russian plane in September struck another huge blow against tourism - Egypt’s other most important source of income. But few blame Sisi directly for the country’s pains.

Even though Egypt is doing much less well than people had expected when Sisi took power, there seems to be little will to take the streets again.

Opinion polls show that Egyptians crave stability and security first and foremost. After five years of near-anarchy people are tired of protests.

They also see what is happening in Syria and Libya and want to avoid any such scenario. It seems the only people who believe in the possibility of a new revolution live in the presidential palace.

This is, for me, the most worrying part of the current wave of arrests in Egypt.


After two years in power, Sisi seems to have already lost touch with the street.

His paranoia led to the conviction of 26 military officers for an alleged coup attempt last year; the jailing of 23 journalists; and the detention of at least 41,000 other people for being members or sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, the police has started to kidnap and arrest young political activists. The result could lead more Egyptians to view Sisi as a new Mubarak.

Where the ground for a new revolt has been almost non-existent so far, Egypt’s regime is well on its way to creating a new atmosphere of discontent and resistance.

With the latest wave of arrests, Sisi is sowing precisely what he’s trying to eradicate: the seeds of a new revolution.

As the advisors of Sisi don’t seem to able to tell him that, it’s time for the European and American leaders to tell the Egyptian president this crackdown must stop.

Koert Debeuf lives in Cairo where he is political analyst and visiting research fellow, CRIC, Oxford University

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