The Conscience of Egypt, Silenced but not Lost

Ahmed Maher could have filled an auditorium. He could have given an hour-long speech about the importance of democracy and the rule of law, answered a handful of inane questions from whichever audience members lined up at the microphones fastest. Or he could have skipped us altogether, spent his whole short early-November trip to America talking to officials or NGOs or supporters from the Egyptian diaspora.

But instead he spoke for ten minutes, then opened up to questions from the 20 or so people in the audience—he came on only a weekend’s notice, and I was lucky to be on the right mailing list. It was a degree of closeness I’d hoped for, but never really expected, in the three years since spending January 2011 glued to the limited window of al-Jazeera.

He told us why he’d come, that a discussion with students was more important than a discussion with officials because his movement (April 6) was a student movement, and in any case he’d had enough of official duplicity and broken promises—Egyptian, yes, but also American.

He gave us the basic narrative of April 6: protests beginning in 2005 (two arrests) which became explicitly anti-Mubarak in 2007 and 2008 (another arrest, this time with torture). Helping plan the first protests in January 2011; being called “heroes of the revolution” at first by the post-Mubarak military government but then criticizing them, too, when they began to restrict media and protect the old, corrupt business establishment. (“At the time, the Islamists supported the military against us,” he recalls with a touch of irony.) Pivoting from an independent stance in the first round of presidential elections to an endorsement of Mohammed Morsi in the runoff, because Ahmed Shafiq was unacceptable and a boycott was the wrong choice for a first stab at democracy. Turning against Morsi when he overstepped his mandate (another arrest, in May 2013). Joining the call for Morsi’s ouster in the June 30 Tamarrod protests, then again criticizing the overreaches of the resulting interim government.

“Again the government has started to control the media, and we’re in square number zero.”

“We want to be the third alternative—besides Islamists and the military—but we know it will be hard.”

Will [current military head Gen. Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi win the next presidential election? “I don’t think he’ll even run, because he doesn’t need to hold the presidency in order to run Egypt.”

What mistakes did the revolutionary forces make? “Our two  big mistakes: We trusted the military and left Tahrir Square after Mubarak fell, and we didn’t form an alternative: we said we wanted to build a new regime but we didn’t answer the question of how.”

How can Egypt move away from a military-dominated economy? “I don’t think any political faction will be able to transform the economy away from the military model for at least 5 years, but the first steps are to increase foreign investment and improve education.”

How did you balance activism with your family and your job as a civil engineer? “Before the revolution, it was difficult. After the revolution, very very difficult. During the revolution, completely impossible.”

He told us that, maybe, a third revolution would be all it takes, and expressed optimism that one would be forthcoming—but after the meeting he talked to a techie friend of mine about developing a private communication tool for the movement, now that (for the first time since he started using it to organize in 2007) Facebook was too risky.

Indeed he was so focused on the future of his movement and his country that those of us who were listening could easily forget that his own future was less certain than ever, that his record of personal triumph which seemed to exist in a myth-world had to fall to earth.

It’s unclear how much he knew then. But these are the facts: he never mentioned it to us at the meeting, but just before leaving Egypt he had turned the reins of April 6 over to a young activist named Amr Ali. A few days after he returned, he was indicted after defying the draconian new protest law, then turned himself in to Cairo police—wearing sunglasses, surrounded by a crowd of hundreds, chanting “Down, down with military rule! I’ll write on the prison wall that army rule is shameful and a betrayal!” (It rhymes in Arabic.) He was released after a few hours, but then arrested again on another charge of inciting protest—the protest that gathered when he turned himself in the first time. While in custody awaiting trial, he was refused paper but managed to sneak out a snark-filled statement on toilet paper disparaging a government-run “Human Rights Council” that is anything but.

On December 22, he was sentenced to three years in prison, along with both other co-founders of April 6. These are the first convictions handed down under the new protest law, and are unlikely to be the last.

Ahmed Maher knows the contours of three years—how much can happen, and how little can change. The next three years will probably bear that out yet again. But if we are ever led by the setbacks of the hour to despair that the light of the revolution has gone out; that not even a candle is left burning in Egypt—there is still a torch in Tora Prison.

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