CAIRO — Ahmed Ammar figures it is only a matter of time before the Egyptian government comes looking for him.
Three weeks ago, soldiers arrested his 17-year-old brother after they caught him trying to hide a flier supporting deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi as he waited to pass through a military checkpoint. Riot police threw him in a prison cell with other suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the northern city of Kafr el-Sheikh. There, according to Ammar, they told him: “You will never see life again.”
That same night, riot police arrested his older brother in Cairo’s Nasr City for taking part in an anti-government protest. With both of his brothers now behind bars and tainted by supposed links to the Brotherhood — which has been branded as a terrorist organization by the military generals who preside over Egypt — Ammar is resigned to the seeming inevitability that he may soon join them.
“This government is more oppressive than Mubarak,” Ammar tells The WorldPost, referring to the dictator who ruled Egypt for three decades. “Anyone can be arrested.”
Three years after the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak and seemingly launched a new era of democracy and rule of law, Egypt has essentially landed back at the beginning. Today, much like before, anyone who dares challenge the government invites swift arrest — suspected Brotherhood members, secular activists, and even journalists.
Before mass protests ended his autocratic rule, Mubarak maintained power — even in the face of economic weakness and social ferment — by relying on a formidable security apparatus to crush any hint of opposition. The revolution enabled the Brotherhood to rally popular support, culminating in the elevation of Mohammed Morsi to the presidency. But Morsi’s popularity proved short-lived as he granted himself sweeping powers and drafted a controversial Islamist-dominated constitution.
“Morsi’s mixing of politics and religion doesn’t work with me,” says May Mohamed Kamel, a 59-year-old housewife who protested against Mubarak in the 2011 revolution. “I am religious. I went to Mecca. I know my religion. But if I argue with the Muslim Brotherhood, they say I’ll go to hell.”
Today Morsi awaits trial on charges of high treason and incitement of violence, while his Brotherhood followers scramble to evade the same state security apparatus that dominated Egyptian life before the revolution. The generals who propped up Mubarak are again firmly in control, with supreme leader Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi even saying he may run for president.
Much of the Egyptian public seems to have accepted this state of affairs, regardless of the democratic ideals that drove the revolution. The once-popular battle cry of “bread, freedom, and social justice” has seemingly been forgotten, trumped by the military-backed regime’s promise to restore security.
Egyptians line up to vote in the country’s constitutional referendum in Cairo on Jan. 15, 2014.
Indeed, a referendum held earlier this month on a new constitution that effectively affirms the military’s dominant role passed with overwhelming support — albeit in an atmosphere of fear and pressure.
Many here now credit Gen. Sissi with having “saved Egyptians from befalling to the fate of the Brotherhood-led Islamic state,” says Hafsa Halawa, a former employee of the National Democratic Institute, an advocacy group that was prosecuted by the military regime that ruled after Mubarak’s ouster.
Pro-military propaganda has become ubiquitous, broadcast on television and across billboards showing soldiers holding smiling infants.
By Halawa’s account, the military has effectively co-opted the protest movement that ended Morsi’s presidency last June. They have “capitalized on fear, exhaustion and frustration with the Muslim Brotherhood-led government,” she says. “Through the propaganda, the original message of those protests has been skewed.” In short, public revulsion at the prospect of Islamist rule has been manipulated into tacit acceptance for a crackdown antithetical to democratic rule.
For Ammar, popular support for the military has not stopped him from speaking his mind. Even after security forces took his brothers away, the 22-year-old civil engineer refuses to hide. He is unabashed in acknowledging that he writes news stories for the pro-Muslim Brotherhood online news website Rassd, which is frequently re-printed on the Brotherhood’s official website. And unlike many critics of the government, he refuses to silence himself. His brothers’ arrests have only deepened Ammar’s commitment to the cause, while reinforcing his belief that the generals ruling Egypt have hijacked the revolution.
“The government is planting the seeds for civil war,” he says, scoffing at Egypt’s decision to ban the Brotherhood, and raising his voice defiantly. “The Muslim Brotherhood is all over Egypt! They are part of society. Are neighbors just supposed to start calling each other terrorists?”
Egyptian police fire water cannons on Nov. 26, 2013, to disperse a protest by secular anti-government activists in Cairo.
Over the last six months, amid the crackdown overseen by the government and the military, more than 1,000 Brotherhood sympathizers have been killed. Thousands of others have been jailed, according to Human Rights Watch. Some land in prison merely for raising four fingers — a salute in solidarity with victims of a deadly crackdown in August at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo.
The same combination of ills that catalyzed the revolution remains — poverty, joblessness, disgust over corruption and anger over human rights violations — yet the public yearning for stability appears to be the paramount concern.
“I don’t accept going against the government now,” says Kamel, the housewife who joined the protests against Mubarak three years ago. “We have to build our constitution. We have to put things in order.”
She sees the scores of arrests as realities of Egypt’s current tumult. Rules are rules, she insists, even rules limiting the ability to protest.
“If your house is ruined, you have to build pillars first, and then you hire guards outside your building,” she says, analogizing this to the military’s roadmap for Egypt. “And then things come in order.”
Ammar and his family have become acquainted with the human costs of that order: potentially lengthy imprisonments and uncertainty.
Though he may be outspoken, he is also inclined to stay on the right side of jail. Ask him if he or his relatives count themselves among the Brotherhood and he hesitates before saying no.
Of the three brothers, he is known as the diplomatic one, the quiet one, the one who avoids trouble and solves problems.
“They say I’m lucky because good things come to me,” he says. “Even now, I’m the lucky one.” His voice bears a tinge of guilt.
Ammar does not consider himself as religious as his older brother, but he says Islamic, or Shariah law, should be a leading factor in Egyptian politics. It’s the country’s “moral compass,” he adds, maintaining that Islam and democracy easily mesh.
His older brother, Mohamed, a 25-year-old medical equipment engineer, is considered the most traditional of the trio. Always fascinated with politics, he grew up telling people he wanted to be president one day. In college, he threw himself into Brotherhood-affiliated student groups. And when Morsi came along, Mohamed saw a man he could relate to. He was a leader who combined conservative Islamic beliefs with Egyptian politics. He represented a Brotherhood whose members had been driven underground and imprisoned under Mubarak.
Mohamed married right out of college and now has a young son — a child Ammar fears will never know his father.
Mahmoud, the youngest of the three brothers, is known as the fun, rebellious and spontaneous brother.
“He’s more like a westerner than an Egyptian,” Ammar says. “Sometimes he’s much more religious, other times he’s not into it. Just like any other kid.”
Mahmoud always told his mother he wanted to be an engineer, but when he hit his teen years, he secretly got his diving license. If he gets out of prison, he hopes to be a diving instructor, teaching and traveling all over the world.
Ammar contemplates these aspirations and fears his brothers will spend their lives in prison. He fears he will land there, too.
“Since Rabaa, all the men in my family have been running away from home,” he says. “My nation is stolen from me.”
This is far from an idle threat. In the Egypt of the moment, concerned citizens are encouraged to report suspected Brotherhood members by calling into hotlines run by Egypt’s National Security Agency. The numbers are broadcast on television screens across the country. Homes are raided, and many Morsi supporters have gone missing or fled underground.
The Egyptian government has labeled the Brotherhood responsible for a string of attacks on security offices across the country. Buses full of young conscripts have been hit by roadside bombs, police headquarters blown up, and officers shot to death. Sinai-based militants claimed responsibility for many of the attacks, while the Brotherhood denied involvement.
The government has also accused the Brotherhood of violent sectarian attacks following Morsi’s ouster in July, with many Copt’s rallying behind the military, fearful of what lasting Islamist rule could mean for their minority religious group.
Worshippers attend Christmas Eve mass at a church in Cairo where several people at a wedding party in October were killed during a drive-by shooting.
Bold letters reading “Islam” have been spray-painted on churches following pro-Morsi rallies. Residences and homes of Coptic families have been torched. In late October, masked gunmen on motorcycles gunned down a Coptic wedding in Cairo, killing several people, including an 8-year-old girl. While the government said it arrested Brotherhood members who carried out the attack, the group denied any connection.
When asked about the attacks and political rhetoric targeting Copts, Ammar professes ignorance.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” he says. “Nothing stands out in my mind.”
Reports of violence have only fueled more violence. On Jan. 10, editor-in-chief of Daily News Egypt, Maher Hamoud, tweeted: “Old friend in Damietta stabbed, held in intensive care, his company looted for suspicion of being [Muslim Brotherhood]. Whoops, he’s not!”
When Ammar’s brothers first went missing, he feared he would never hear from them again. For five days, their mother took food and water from prison to prison in Kafr el-Sheikh, searching for her youngest son. When a lawyer finally tracked Mahmoud down in a riot police camp, the teenager told his mother that he had not been fed or given water for three days, Ammar says.
Mahmoud described unbearable conditions inside the jail: Every day, riot police threw cold water on the inmates while telling them they would never be allowed to return home.
Over the decades, Egypt’s prisons have gained a reputation as places where torture is considered standard procedure. Mubarak’s regime tortured political opponents, according to human rights advocates and victims. So did the interim military leadership, and so did Morsi’s government, these sources say. Ammar does not know what is befalling his brothers in prison, but he fears they are the latest in a long line of Egyptian detainees to suffer such treatment.
His brothers have yet to be formally charged, Ammar says. On Jan. 11, the youngest, Mahmoud, received a renewed detention of 15 days pending investigation, and his family was informed he would be moved to a juvenile facility with only one or two family visits allowed every month.
Ahmed Maher, center left, the leader of the April 6 Movement that had a leading role in the 2011 revolution, tries to turn himself into prosecutors on Nov. 30, 2013, over an arrest warrant that charges him of inciting demonstrations against a new protest law.
Landing in prison without charges places Mahmoud in crowded company. Leading revolutionary secular activists like Alaa Abd El Fattah and Ahmed Maher, as well journalists like the Al Jazeera crew of Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, have recently captured headlines for such imprisonments.
Abd El Fattah and Maher — both heavily instrumental in the 2011 revolution — have been in prison for more than two months after breaking the protest law instituted in late November that requires police approval of protests. The three Al Jazeera journalists have not been charged, though the prosecutor general accuses them of terrorism.
Under the terms of the new military-backed constitution that Egyptians approved in mid-January, detainees must be interrogated within 24 hours of their arrest, and a lawyer must be present. If a week passes without gaining the right to appeal their detention, detainees are supposed to be freed.
Actual conditions in Egypt stand in stark contrast to such principles, as the constitutional referendum itself underscored: Many of those who urged Egyptians to vote “no” — challenging the government’s aggressive campaign for “yes” votes — were rounded up and detained, have not been formally charged and are routinely denied access to lawyers.
Ammar fears joining that group, yet he cannot bring himself to stay underground.
After his brothers were taken to jail, his mother pleaded with him to cease his own protesting. He made no promises, he says. He is half ashamed and half intent.
“The people in prison will never see daylight again,” he says, “unless we make noise for them.”
This story appears in Issue 85 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Jan. 24 in the iTunes App store.