Taking a Back Seat as a New Generation Emerges

“In prison, a woman guard stripped us naked for the search. She put her hand where she wanted. Those who objected or cried were searched again. She told us, ‘You brought this on yourselves and now I have to search you again’,” Salsabeel El Gharbawy, a 20-year-old Al-Azhar student told me in a hushed voice in a crowded room full of men and women her age. An earlier press conference for her and other recently released young detainees had eased some of her inhibitions, but she shied away from describing her entire ordeal over forty days of detention, sometimes gesturing with her hands rather than using audible words.

Prior to her release in February, she shared a cell with twenty-six other women, mainly Al-Azhar students from different political affiliations. Behind prison walls, Muslim Brotherhood students discussed their differences with members of groups who were opposed to ousted president Mohamed Morsi. Abuse and the cramped cell deemed political differences irrelevant. “The cell friendship is like no other,” she said, pointing to cellmate Ayat Hamada who sat next to her.

“I can’t recall everything. I wrote it down, but they took away my papers,” Hamada said. She remembers threats of rape and the screams of male students as they were beaten by the police. “They enjoyed making us listen to their screams,” she said.

Harrowing accounts of torture and abuse have emerged, among them reports of in-detention fatalities. They come as part of a deadly crackdown on protests that peaked on August 14, when hundreds were shot dead during the dispersal of two pro-Morsi sit-ins. According to a field doctor, pro-Morsi protests staged on the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution were immediately met with gunfire in Matarreya and Alf Maskan, after police fired no more than three to five teargas canisters. Over fifty were killed that day, many in these two eastern Cairo neighborhoods. Eyewitnesses said gunfire was exchanged, but at the morgue the following day, families said their sons were protesting peacefully. El-Gharbawy, who lives in Alf Maskan but was in prison at the time, says the buildings in her street still bear the signs of bullet holes.

In many of these instances, the sound of gunfire translates into panic in neighborhoods within earshot. As the sound fades, panic finds fertile soil among the government’s supporters, with an appetite for a simplistic good-versus-evil narrative, devoid of details specific to each incident. It blooms into justifications, acceptance, and encouragement of the practices of the security state and further unconditional support for the military.

Voices pained and angered by street killings and alarmed by the rising indiscriminate violence are muted or rendered inconsequential when they no longer have the chance to be heard. The recently reinvigorated campaign against arbitrary arrests, extended detention, and torture of non-Islamist detainees has not managed to garner public support nor propel government action. Some within the pro-Morsi camp accuse these campaigners of acting only when their friends get a taste of what they have been subjected to for months.

The initial disenfranchisement of these activists can’t be denied. Immediately after Morsi’s ouster, many of them chose initially to sit out on the fight between the Brotherhood and the military – a fight between two giants that had previously banded together against them. Feeding on fear and shock, this disenfranchisement quickly turned into paralysis.

 “We stood like corpses; watching the massacre; the blood on our chests. Are we winning? Or in line for slaughter?” read a poem penned by Mahmoud Ezzat and recited over the footage of the bloodied dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins on August 14, 2013.

The video of Ezzat’s poem, “A Prayer of Fear”, was produced by Mosireen, a media collective that has documented Cairo’s protests over the past three years. The videos released since last July are a fraction of the extensive archive they built in the two years prior.

“Spare us this trial. The battle is terrifying,” the poem ends.

The brutal deadly force used by the police was compounded by nationalistic fervor that translated into further street violence. Journalists covering confrontations were shot at, arrested or attacked by mobs. General acceptance of brutal force has upped the level of civilian violence on the street. Mobs operating with security consent run rogue to the point where policemen are barely able to interfere when they want to.

Shock and hysteria have robbed those who want to act of the traditional tools that were once successful in influencing public opinion and pressuring the government: media campaigns and street action. There have been few success stories over the past eight months. Eleven year sentences handed to fourteen women arrested at a protest were quickly overturned, amid public outcry and pressure from the media.

The predominant story for this camp, however, is an unhappy one. Failure feeds guilt, and both mar any pursuit of normalcy or mere self preservation. Speaking of personal experience, my attempts at breaking a tormenting circle of failure, depression and helplessness usually result in more guilt. Bubbles of denial are quickly burst with news of friends and colleagues arrested and facing lengthy prison time, of rampant abuse and injustice, and of voiceless youth who dare challenge the status quo or happen to unknowingly pass by a site of protest only to end up in jail

“If you insist on walking against the flow of people, the answer will be in bullets. People are dancing while others are dying. And the loudest voice at the party is the sound of silence,” Egyptian band Cairokee sang this February.

This camp could emerge later on in a new form, armed with different strategies. Their potential influence is debatable but meanwhile, a different generation is undergoing their own metamorphosis.

Hamza al-Sarwy, the spokesman of the pro-Morsi Anti-Coup Alliance, served on Morsi’s presidential team but says he was not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the affiliation with the alliance makes the twenty-two year old a prime target for arrest. He has many tales of narrowly escaping armed civilians at protests. He is undeterred, seeing his job in reaching out to media as an important role he has to play.

 “We are like all humans, we get scared and we get terrified. The sight of blood is hard to digest,” he says. “But there’s a change in your psyche after a number of accidents and massacres. … I replay the dispersal of the [Raba’a] sit-in in my head and all of those who I saw fall; they are not better than me.”

His brother, Ahmed, a physician who set up field hospitals to treat protesters during crackdowns, has been in jail for six months on charges of robbery. Hamza describes the charges as preposterous. His brother’s imprisonment has fueled the sense that he has nothing to lose, helping quell his fears.

“They think they are disciplining us,” Gharbawy said of her imprisonment, “but we came out stronger than before.” Two days after her release pending the trial, she was out protesting. “I’m going to prison anyway. I might as well do what I love and believe in,” Hamada said. The day before we met, a group of their colleagues were sentenced to five years in prison. They expect a similar verdict for “five pages of charges.”

It seemed irrelevant to ask about their political affiliation. Their imprisonment has blurred the conflicting lines that separated them before. “I’m pro-revolution and against the coup,” Gharbawy said. Their fighting spirit could carry them on to a future where they fathom change away from concurrent conflicts. Concerning the helplessness those around them feel, they could be fighting this battle alone. But like many others, they could languish in prison. 

Sarah El Sirgany is a Cairo-based independent journalist and a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: A student of Al-Azhar University, who is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, throws a stone during clashes with riot police and residents of the area at the university campus in Cairo's Nasr City district on January 8, 2014 / REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany