CAIRO — His crime was passing out fliers urging Egyptians to vote against a new constitution championed by the military. His punishment was swift and decisive: Security forces arrested him, threw him in a jail cell and branded him a spy, he says, adding that they beat him.
So commenced two days behind bars for 29-year-old Ahmad Badawy, an outspoken political activist who is among the thousands who have been arrested in recent days as the government pursues an increasingly heavy-handed crackdown on dissent of any kind.
Three years after the revolution that ended authoritarian strongman Hosni Mubarak’s rule, some Egyptians are decrying a return to totalitarian control, with seemingly any whiff of dissent crushed by the forces of Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
On Monday, Sissi appeared to further advance his reach for supreme power. Interim President Adly Mansour promoted Sissi to field marshal and hours later, the military generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces publicly backed him to run for president. It is Sissi’s “call to duty,” they say.
“[Egypt] has democratic procedures — presidential and parliamentary elections — but is still authoritarian in its essence,” says Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The basic structures of governance have been placed beyond any mechanisms of challenge or accountability.”
Badawy’s experience in detention sheds light on the intensity and breadth of the crackdown under this new political order. Anyone who speaks up is at risk of imprisonment in often torturous conditions. The prisons are bursting at the seams with academics, revolutionaries, prominent activists and suspected supporters of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Behind bars, prisoners regularly face beatings, starvation, even “virginity tests” — an invasive procedure Sissi said in 2012 was to “protect the girls from rape.”
But Badawy, program manager at the Egyptian Democratic Academy (EDA), a Cairo-based democracy development NGO, says that despite the relentless government crackdown, he, his fellow co-workers, and a small group of political activists haven’t given up on Egypt’s revolution. And he is firm on his goals: He wants a secular, democratic government.
“People get tired fast,” he says, sitting in his office in downtown Cairo. “They want an easy solution. But things take time. You plant a seed and wait until it gets bigger.”
Badawy radiates optimism. In person, he is polite and soft-spoken, conscious of the political implications of every word he says. But in a recent post on his blog, he slammed the government for limiting freedom of speech: “This world is made of shit,” he writes, roughly quoting the Vietnam War movie “Full Metal Jacket.” “But I’m alive and ain’t afraid.”
He insists that given the right tools, Egypt can transform into a democratic state, despite its history of strongman leaders.
Since 2009, when Egypt was ruled by Mubarak, the EDA has organized small workshops and classes teaching the basics of democratic nation-building: how the voting process works, how different countries elect and form governments, how international organizations play a role in domestic politics.
Two years after its creation, revolution swept up Egypt in a passionate and hopeful frenzy. EDA’s Cairo office served as a communal sleeping area for many protesters who regularly demonstrated in Tahrir Square at dawn. When Mubarak’s reign crumbled, Badawy thought real democracy was right around the corner. But then the military generals of SCAF came to power, and human rights groups blasted them with torture accusations. Badawy describes what happened next — the election of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi — with one word: “disaster.”
The military-backed government, which ousted Morsi last year, has now grabbed hold of the revolutionary narrative as its own, much to the chagrin of human rights groups and foreign governments like the United States. In a recently published report, Amnesty International wrote that it’s concerned “the Egyptian authorities are utilizing all branches of the state apparatus to trample on human rights and quash dissent.”
Much of the Egyptian population, fueled by very real fears of insurgency, is supporting the military and its “fight against terrorism.” To mark the anniversary of the revolution on Saturday, thousands of Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square, chanting Sissi’s name and calling for the assassination of all Brotherhood members. The posters of revolutionaries who died fighting for freedom were replaced by photos, T-shirts and masks plastered with the military general’s face. Those who protested against the military were immediately suppressed: By day’s end, more than 1,000 people were arrested and 49 killed in clashes with security forces. On Sunday, families swarmed Cairo’s main morgue, searching for loved ones who were killed.
“Revolutionaries say they want freedom and dignity,” Badawy says. “But normal people say they want stability and good development. They don’t care if it’s elected.”
The government says its actions are all in the name of security. As there are more brazen attacks against the government and security forces, like the four deadly explosions in Cairo on Friday and the shooting of a top Interior Ministry official on Tuesday, support for the military swells.
Democracy may be a long way off now, Badawy says, chuckling at his own naivety. “But Egyptians are evolving,” he insists. “Nobody can make the process go backwards.”
Still, he often finds himself at odds with family and friends who say his cause is utterly pointless. “They think I’m crazy,” he says, shrugging. “And vice versa.”
Growing up in Cairo’s Nasr City and attending a school with children of Brotherhood members and supporters, Badawy recalls how students were made to memorize texts and taught not to question authority, a reality across much of Egypt’s crumbling education system today. He remembers refusing to memorize Quranic verses, and later, dropping out of college after his professor accused him of being part of the Brotherhood because he sported a beard.
Badawy blames much of Egypt’s struggle with democracy on how youth have been programmed to think.
“If you really want revolution, you need to start with the schools,” he says. “We need an educational movement.”
Badawy prides himself in EDA’s more avant-garde approach to education. He doesn’t want people to just regurgitate information, he says, but rather, discuss, debate and above all, question. Last week, the EDA even showed “In the Mood For Love,” a dark and romantic Hong Kong film about a man and a woman betrayed by their unfaithful spouses — a stark contrast to Egypt’s often conservative and censored film scene.
But as he works tirelessly to educate Egyptians on democratic values and nation-building, it seems his country may be on an entirely different path. As Peter Greste, one of four Al Jazeera English journalists arrested in December for “spreading false news,” warned in a recent letter written from Tora Prison: “Anyone who applauds the state is seen as safe and deserving of liberty. Anything else is a threat that needs to be crushed.”
Alaa Abd-El Fattah, known by many as a prominent voice of the revolution, wrote in a recent letter from Tora Prison that he feels powerless. He has been targeted or imprisoned by every regime since Mubarak, and most recently was locked up for breaking a law that requires demonstrators to receive approval to protest.
“The previous imprisonments had meaning because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for positive gain,” he writes. “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.”
When widely-respected activist Nazly Hussein, who has devoted her life to aiding families of political detainees, was released Saturday after protesting military rule, she took to Twitter and demanded one thing: freedom.
In Badawy’s opinion, the urge to live freely, an urge that ignited a powerful revolution, won’t go away anytime soon. As his colleagues and fellow activists find themselves behind bars, he maintains that it’s essential to keep fighting, even if it takes decades before his dreams of a democratic Egypt are realized. Even if he ends up in prison again.
In his office, a photo of young Khaled Said hangs as a silent reminder. The 28-year-old, beaten to death by two plainclothes policemen in 2010, became of symbol of the people’s rage over Mubarak’s police state and helped spark the revolution.
While many Egyptians have desperately grabbed hold of the state’s promise for security, rationalizing mass arrests and seemingly forgetting the revolutionary cry for social justice and freedom, Badawy sees the revolution as far from over.
An army of little blue and green toy soldiers surrounds his computer. Their guns are hoisted, aiming right at him.
“[The government] has their military,” he says, as a coy smile spreads across his face. “But I have my own army.”