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Alaa Abdel Fattah and Egypt: Justice is smarter

Alaa and his generation have paid a substantial price, as have many others in Egypt, for their desire to simply give Egyptians a better future

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

Yesterday, an Egyptian court sentenced Alaa Abdel Fattah to five years imprisonment. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. It’s familiar because pro-revolutionary activists have been facing sentences like these for several years. A vendetta is underway – but it’s nothing new.

Before the military ousted the Islamist President Mohammad Mursi in 2013, the institutions of the state were involved in what was, essentially, an internal civil war. It didn’t start like that – the Interior Ministry, for example, was willing to take orders from the presidency for months after Mursi became president. The military and the presidency co-operated full until quite late into Mursi’s presidency – and the tensions that existed until the end didn’t result in any sort of the relationship. July 3rd, of course, changed the relationship between the military and the Brotherhood – but until that point, the Brotherhood was very clear, privately and publicly, that they and the military were on the same page.

But there were, and are, other elements in the Egyptian state. Some state elements were co-opted by the Brotherhood before it was forced from power in the summer of 2013. That could never be said for the pro-revolutionary activists that were at the heart of that uprising in 2011. (You know, the one that no one really believes ever happened anymore.) Different elements in the different political dispensations that have arisen in the past four years have often argued and disputed with each other. But when it came to the revolutionary activists, the only disagreement was about how and when to neutralize them.

It’s ironic. While some elements of the Egyptian establishment compete in showing disdain for the incapacity of the revolutionary camp (who never ruled, nor asked to), others appear to harbor a virulent vendetta. There will be those that focus on the almost two dozen pro-revolutionary activists being sentenced to several years in jail yesterday, including Alaa. Their offence, it is claimed, relates to participation in an ‘illegal protest’, though their defense lawyers and others dispute that. But any degree of inspection into Egypt’s current political environment shows that it is not merely a case here or a case there that typifies the treatment revolutionary activists receives. On the contrary, there is widespread evidence that relates to their treatment – in terms of court cases that are brought against them; the sentences they receive; and the general media narrative about the revolutionary activists.

Alaa and his generation have paid a substantial price, as have many others in Egypt, for their desire to simply give Egyptians a better future

H.A. Hellyer

There are rare voices indeed within the media that have withstood the pressure to castigate, insult, and smear the activists that were at the core of the Jan. 25 revolutionary uprising in 2011. Otherwise, such treatment is par for the course – and the judiciary’s treatment of these activists ought to be seen in light of that broader paradigm. If they continued to believe that change was necessary after Mubarak was forced from power, they are a problem. And for some within the system, they’re not simply a problem: but a threat.

Identifying a threat

Of course, there are many whom the authorities identify as threats. First and foremost among are different types of Islamists – the group known as ‘Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis,’ which is now ISIS affiliate, for example. Then there are other militant groups, such as Ajnad Masr – and, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. All such opponents have their own goals and reasons (which often conflict) – but they are either after ruling Egypt, or utilize violence, or both.

The irony of the pro-revolutionary activists is that they are guilty of neither. They’re not a militant group – nor do they seek to rule or govern the country. Indeed, they were criticized in some quarters for precisely that – for being merely agitators, as opposed to being a political group with a realistic plan.

But for all the dismissals that so many have made vis-à-vis the importance of the likes of Alaa and others, claiming they are essentially so unimportant they ought to be ignored: well, the Egyptian judiciary does not agree. If the judiciary thought Alaa and others were that insignificant, they would have been released – not sentenced to years in jail.

Yet, even these activists are targeted. Because they challenge, through their discourse and political positions, the very nature of the Egyptian establishment. They don’t wish to co-opt the establishment – they want to completely reform and restructure it. The authorities are obviously well aware of that – and while it would be in the interests of the Egyptian state to actually reform itself, it has chosen a very different route. It does not appear the vast majority of the Egyptian population seems to mind very much – most Egyptians are concerned about a variety of other issues, it seems. But the generation that rules Egypt is fading away – and it will be a new generation in the not so distant future that will take up the reins.

Alaa and his generation have paid a substantial price, as have many others in Egypt, for their desire to simply give Egyptians a better future. It’s likely they are going to pay more of one in the months ahead. But in a very short time, they already have a legacy – and it’s a legacy that continues to inspire young Egyptians, even today. Egypt’s presidency said the day before the verdict in this trial came out “some innocent youth may have been wrongfully imprisoned in the midst of events that unfolded in Egypt”, and that a ‘first group of these youth’ would soon be released. It would be abundantly smart to ensure that of those youth, these activists were included. It would also, incidentally, be just. Unfortunately, justice is not always, Egyptians have painfully learned, in ample supply. Ultimately, it is far more intelligent, though.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

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