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“Chronicles from Egypt: not only afraid to talk… Total state of fear un today Egypt »

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Art. 3 recites.

This appears not to be the case in today’s Egypt, where reinforced security measures have increasingly been constricting Egyptian citizens’ life, liberty and security in the last years.

The government’s reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019 does not but confirm the presence of a policy of total repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

Equally, the measures adopted to prevent any popular mobilization on the occasion of the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25th, 2020 is highly indicative of the imposition of a state of total fear in the country.

A closer look into some everyday life stories of Egyptians cannot leave us indifferent.

Rather, it signals a worrying oppression leading to a deterioration, if not complete neglect, of human rights under what Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Deputy Director for Policy, Andrew Miller, has called “the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history”.

Among the several stories that could clearly illustrate this scenario, we chose to present in a series of episodes the example of Hossam, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. His vicissitudes since September 2019 stimulate a number of reflections on the current situation in a country that strongly prioritizes its national security but where citizens can hardly feel secure.

 

Episode 1 – From a simple walk to detention

On Saturday, September 21, 2019, Hossam was walking in the street, near Tahrir Square. He just traveled all the way from 6th of October in order to deliver delicious home-made food kindly prepared by his 53 year-old mother for a foreign friend living in Cairo. 

He was supposed to be back home soon after that brief meeting. His mother was waiting at home, but the son did not show up. His elder brother now living abroad was trying to reach him, but to not avail. He had two phones, both of them mysteriously unreachable.

This is how the story of most Egyptians who get arrested begins.

Later, the family would know that he was kidnapped near Mohamed Mahmoud Street, one of the centers of the 2011 revolution widely renewed for its collection of graffiti filling the walls of the area at the time.  As the National Security Service brutally took him from the street and conducted him first to a police station and then to prison, Hossam suddenly turned from a free man walking in the street to a potential criminal confined in detention.

In the meanwhile, his family would have no official information on the reasons for his detention.

Talaat Harb Square. Downtown Cairo, December 2019. Photo by Veronica Merlo

Downtown Cairo transforms into a police state

This episode might not be surprising to any person who has recently lived in Cairo.

Visibly, “Wust el-Balad”, the downtown, and its surroundings have become sensitive areas under tight security control.

Plain clothes, police vehicles and soldiers perceptibly dominate the space around main streets, squares and bridges, as if the state would be either at war or ready to fight one. In a tweet from September 27th, 2019, BBC Arabic Correspondent in Egypt and Middle East, Sally Nabil, describes an unprecedented security deployment in the Egyptian capital and concludes: “Tahrir Square looks more like military barracks!”.

As I was living in Cairo at the time, I could myself witness a reality where “Egyptians are treated as criminals simply for peacefully expressing their opinions” in Naja Bounaim’s, Amnesty International North Africa Campaign Director, words.

Not only did people get used to be extremely cautious when speaking, but they equally feel vulnerable while simply walking or even staying in their own homes. In addition to “spot checks” of peoples’ phones, looking for content that might deem political, visits of people’s apartments from the “Mabaheth”, State Security Service Investigations, increased in frequency and degree of intrusion.

On a Sunday morning, I opened the door of my apartment in Mounira neighbourhood and I found myself in front of two people with civilian clothes accompanied by the “Bawab”, the doorman. After asking for the contract of the apartment, they did not hesitate to enter the rooms of my two flatmates and I. After a thorough search through our books, laptops and phones accompanied by precise questions on our identity, they proceeded to the nearby apartment.

Beyond urgent security measures: normalization of intrusion of people’s privacy

Undoubtedly, the September protests sparked by the publication of a series of videos by Egyptian former army contractor Mohamed Ali denouncing the corruption of the government from Spain provided the justification for the regime to take urgent actions. The measures adopted were conceived as part of the higher “battle against terrorism” which has been on the top of Al-Sisi’s agenda since his takeover in 2013.  The words from Al Sisi’s official account on Twitter on September 27th show the adoption of a reinforced discourse on the necessity for the nation to fight terrorism, a battle that, he states, “has not ended yet”.

While we could consider this exponential crackdown as a temporary reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019, the observation of the reality in Cairo in the following period tells us otherwise.

The aforementioned reinforced measures to preserve the country’s stability have uninterruptedly been in force in the last months, with only slight differences in degree of intensity depending on the week. As Egyptian Human Rights activist Mona Seif explains on a twit on October 13th, 2019 :  “Every week a new activist gets kidnapped from the street, from home, from work”.

Photo by New York Times in Egypt

In January 2020, the very same atmosphere of last September characterized by total control over people’s movements, words and life was re-newly manifest in the capital. On the anniversary of the 25th January revolution -now exclusively referred to as the traditional celebration of  “’Aid al Shurta”, “The Police Day”, in the official government’s discourse- downtown was unsurprisingly shut down. 

Cairo-based journalist for The Wall Street Journal, Amira el-Fekki, reported that day on Twitter: “In what is becoming a normalized assault on privacy, police searching people’s phones around downtown #Cairo, #Tahrir. Some restaurants aren’t delivering to that area today to avoid harassment of their delivery guys”.

In the article “Your guide to surviving downtown during the revolution anniversary crackdown” published by the independent online newspaper Mada Masr on January 21st, the testimonies of people describing their experiences of arbitrary arrests, raids and random searches suggest a repeated scenario of total control to which any Egyptian citizen can be subject.

Downtown between past and present

Without forgetting the extension of similar security measures to numerous cities all around Egypt, the scenario in downtown Cairo from where Hossam was kidnapped last September best exemplifies the current government’s policy of total control over the public and private space.

Paradoxically, a place historically associated with intellectual development, cultural exchange and artistic creativity, looks now like a police state. The principles of “Aysh, Hurriya wa Adala Ijtimaiya”, “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”, circulating in that same area in 2011 have rapidly been substituted by an atmosphere of constant fear, where any activity, movement and word is under tight control.

The question remains whether the government’s repressive measures in a space that was once the symbol of Egyptian’s fight for freedom will succeed in redefining its past distinguished identity.

Zahrat al-Bustan, Local Cafë in Downtown Cairo with graffiti of prominent Egyptian figures. Photo by Veronica Merlo

For now, we can only silently observe the changing environment and society animating the area. A process of transformation where the concept of “the square” as formulated in the Egyptian revolution has merely become a memory, or rather “a story to tell in narrations”, as Egyptian rock band Cairokee warned in its famous revolutionary song “al Midan”, the Square.


O you the square, where were you long ago? […]

sometimes I am afraid that we become just a memory

we get away from you then the idea dies and fades away

and we go back to forget what happened

and you become a story to tell in narrations

يا يا الميدان كنت فين من زمان

ساعات بخاف نبقي ذكري

نبعد عنك تموت الفكرة

ونرجع تاني ننسي اللي فات

ونحكي عنك في الحكايات


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