January 7, 2014
One night in November of 2011 on a break from a film called GANGSTER SQUAD, my friend Robert Patrick introduced me to a young Egyptian named Ahmed Maher who had come to meet the cast and see the filming. I was told Ahmed was an important figure in the Egyptian revolution, one of the founders of The April 6th Youth Movement, and had been instrumental in organizing the demonstrations that eventually led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
This unusual young man seemed an unlikely fellow to be one of the leaders of a revolution. Hollywood would normally write a forceful, bellicose figure given to fiery speeches, but this quiet, humble young guy was the antithesis. I told him I had always been fascinated by the politics of the middle east. “If you’re ever in Egypt”, he said, “I’ll show you the situation on the ground.”
Through a friend of Ahmed’s I was put in touch with an American living in Cairo named Robert Becker who had worked for the National Democratic Institute and was one of the foreign nationals convicted in Egypt’s crackdown on civil society organizations. Becker was the only American who had chosen to remain in Egypt after his arrest, in solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues, and at the time was awaiting trial. He assured me that he and Ahmed would show me Cairo in a way that few Americans ever get to see it. I arrived in April of 2013 and found out right away what they meant.
One of our first stops was the Bulag, a working class neighborhood that is a traditional stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. The traffic is so heavy we could barely move, garbage was piled at the sides of the roads, and goats walked in the streets. We went to visit the family of a young boy named Mohamed Morsi, who happens to share the same name as the ousted president. He was arrested at seventeen for violating a “curfew law” which was largely ignored by the Egyptian people. I listened as his father explained that his son was returning home from work one night and found the roads were blocked, he heard gunshots and he ran away. The police grabbed him and charged him with breaking curfew and arguing with officers, and a military court sentenced him to fifteen years. The boy was then transferred to a prison hundreds of miles from his family and they didn’t have the money to visit him.They hadn’t heard from their lawyer in over a year. I looked at the mother who was wearing a black burqa with a veil covering her entire face except for her eyes, and I saw in her expression the same sadness I witnessed in my own mother when my younger brother died at twenty-six. It occurred to me that no one was trying to help this family except Ahmed Maher.
From there we went downtown and Ahmed brought me to Tahrir Square, the site of the protests which toppled the dictator. He said to me “Just because Mubarak is no longer in power we can’t rest until there is justice in Egypt.” We walked through Mohamed Mahmoud street and I saw murals of the icons of the revolution painted on the walls. One in particular caught my eye — a young man named “Gika” who held a puppet-figure of Mohamed Morsi . “Gaber “Gika” Salah was the first protester to be killed under Morsi,” Ahmed explained. He led me down the street where Gika lived. It was lined with dozens of beautiful murals of this young revolutionary killed at the age of sixteen. We went to Gika’s house where his father greeted us warmly, welcomed us into his sitting room and offered us tea. We then sat and talked in Gika’s bedroom, which was shrine-like with photographs of the boy covering every wall, and framed letters and awards he had won. Gika’s father explained that the Muslim Brotherhood considered his son an enemy, and the police called him a threat. They asked about him around the neighborhood before they shot him. He handed me a photo album of his son and as I looked through it he said , “More than 2,500 people have been killed and no one has been punished. Every American who pays the taxes that aid this government with billions of dollars should know they are paying a government that murders our children. I miss my son, but he is a hero of the revolution.” Gika was a close friend of Ahmed’s, and as we left the father thanked him for continuing the struggle. It was quickly becoming clear to me the importance of the work that Ahmed and his fellow activists were doing.
The following day we visited the set of the television show El Bernameg and met the host Bassem Youseff and his associate Dr. H.A. Hellyer. Mr. Youseff is a political satirist and a vocal critic of the government whose show was wildly popular all over the middle east. Dr. Hellyer is a distinguished middle east scholar and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. I was now in the company of some of the most brilliant minds in Egypt and I sat and listened as they explained to me the historical context that brought their country to this point and their hopes for the future. I left feeling somewhat optimistic — surely a country with brave, committed people like these working tirelessly would soon see brighter days.
It has not. Bassem Yousseff’s television program has been taken of the air, Robert Becker was convicted and went into exile, and my good friend Ahmed Maher sits in Torah prison with his colleagues from the April 6th Youth Movement, Mohammed Adel and Ahmed Douma.
They have been sentenced to three years of hard labor for violating the military’s new “anti-protest” law. They were the first to be prosecuted under this law which is itself a violation of Egypt’s new constitution, a highly inadequate document that legalizes military trials. Ahmed and his friends are on hunger strike to protest their sentences and what is clearly an attempt by the military to silence political opponents. The ruling includes putting the three under surveillance for three years after they serve their term — an unusual decision, particularly against political activists.
On January 8th an Egyptian court will hear an appeal against the three-year jail term slapped against these prominent activists for staging an “unlicensed protest.” UN Human Rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani has said participation in peaceful protests should not be grounds for detention or prosecution and called for their immediate and unconditional release. “We are closely monitoring the prevailing human rights situation in Egypt, where dozens of individuals, including students, have been arbitrarily detained and some convicted following what appears to be the exercise of their legitimate rights to peaceful assembly and expression,” she said.
There has been insufficient coverage of this story in the Egyptian media, most of which is state-controlled, but even less in the United States where this story deserves our attention. The U.S. State Department has said these sentences “should be reviewed”, and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel allegedly expressed his “concern” in a phone call with Defence Minister Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, but this is not enough — arrests of human rights activists and peaceful demonstrators will undermine any chance Egypt has at establishing a democracy. The “strategic interests” of the United States must include freedom and true democracy in the largest country in the Arab world. Please call your congressional representative and implore them to pressure the State Department and Secretary John Kerry to insist that Ahmed Maher and his associates be released on January 8th and their sentences vacated.
Source: Huffington Post
Photo: Almasry Alyoum