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Another, Dalia Abd El-Hameed, is working on the internal intelligence apparatus targeting the gay community. Ishaq is documenting the murder of a Coptic Christian priest. The Initiative and groups like it are only ever mentioned in the Egyptian media as dangerous traitors, but something keeps drawing the young to their doors: the organization receives more offers from prospective volunteers than it can make use of. But the money did not come without strings attached. Drawing parallels between the current program and a IMF structural reform package, activists saw a deal with international finance that offers little more than the privatization of public assets, subsidy cuts for the poor, reduced labor rights, and currency devaluation.

These measures proved disastrous for the country when they were applied in earnest in the s.

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Yet in Egypt there was no room for such criticism, of the IMF deal or anything else the government does. Last year, the weekly breakfast at the Initiative was briefly animated by the possibility of a challenge to the Sisi regime that took account of these views. Presidential elections were slated for April , and Khaled Ali, a respected lawyer and stalwart of the human rights movement, announced that he would run against Sisi at a press conference packed with young people desperate to hear him speak.

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It was a rousing affair. In a typically Egyptian moment, Ali was forced to take a recess from defending the activist Alaa Abdel Fattah in one courtroom to defend himself in another. In the end, his presidential bid came to nothing. Under pressure from the state and the public prosecutor, Ali pulled out of the race. Sisi went on to run against a candidate plucked from obscurity at the last minute by the intelligence services probably at the request of the United States and won 97 percent of the vote, the same share he had received in The Middle East contains plenty of undemocratic governments.

The Gulf monarchies are, at least formally, more absolute in their denial of civil freedoms than the Egyptian junta. But in Egypt, the implied bargain offered by the rulers of the United Arab Emirates or Qatar to the people they govern is absent. In the Gulf monarchies, the citizen though not the indentured foreign laborer forgoes civil rights in exchange for a prosperous existence and no income tax. Egypt offers no such bargain. Dissidents there are just as likely to disappear into the maw of the state security services, but even ordinary citizens have no option except to keep their heads down.

As a result, it is a society that is in every way decaying, crumbling in slow motion. The police regularly show up at the Initiative under concocted pretexts to sniff around. The Egyptian state has been steadily eradicating civil society organizations since the coup. With human rights groups run by the intelligentsia, one of the principal weapons aside from arrests has been slander imputing to them a lack of patriotism , combined with attempts to shut down their work by targeting the funding they receive from abroad usually from Europe.

Making a wide range of things technically illegal is a well-known tactic of authoritarian states: when everything is illicit, the authorities can always arrest any individual, safe in the knowledge that they are certain to have technically infringed upon the law in some way. In November , the Initiative was subjected to a cyber attack, in which the hackers attempted to seize electronic copies of its accounts. The attack was part of a larger program of electronic surveillance and disruption introduced by the Egyptian security services, known as Nile Phish.

The Egyptian government is not known for its technological savvy, but Nile Phish showed that things were changing. The hacking attempts were clearly designed to seize files from dissident civil society groups and activists that could be used against them in ongoing court cases. The only reason some human rights groups have survived the raids, attacks, and arrests this long appears to be the small amounts of support they receive from representatives of European parliaments and some UN agencies.

This support has caused the Sisi regime to moderate the speed at which it chokes off activism. In doing so, it has left open a tiny gap between the bars of the cage, for now. For Gasser, this sliver of opportunity also confers a responsibility. In March , a dozen agents of the National Security Agency approached the home of a defense lawyer in the northern Egyptian province of Gharbiya.

Mustafa was an attorney who had represented political activists of various persuasions, but also farmers, regular people. He was kept in a cell for 50 days before the agents came for him again. When they did, they once again blindfolded him, then strapped him to a chair and tortured him relentlessly: they connected electrical wires to both his hands and electrocuted him for 30 minutes; later, they stripped him naked and pushed him to the floor before attaching electrical wire to his feet and genitals and turning up the current. There was no arrest warrant out for Mustafa. And when he was finally released from National Security custody, it was unclear what the security forces had even wanted.

He had been brutally tortured for no apparent reason. The methods vary, but victims are usually blindfolded and stripped. National Security agents routinely use electric current to shock detainees, rip out their fingernails with pliers, hang them upside down by the shoulders, and then beat or rape them. There was once a place where people like Mustafa, who survived these ordeals, could seek help. The state had its sights set on the Center ever since the clinic released a report based on its research detailing mass torture by the Egyptian police in Nadeem was founded in to provide psychological support to torture victims, especially tortured political activists.

The poor and marginalized were more likely to be tortured than well-known activists; such torture was used to intimidate, or to force people off their land, or to appease a third party with connections in the police force. The Center treated any who came to its doors which were always watched by informants, at least when I would visit and campaigned against torture at every level of Egyptian society — that is, until the National Security raid locked the doors and sealed them with masking tape and red wax.

Her father was a lawyer and activist and her paternal grandfather once led a peasant mutiny in Upper Egypt. In , her maternal grandfather briefly declared the town of Zifta in the Nile Delta independent of British rule. Like Gasser Abdel-Razek, she saw friends and colleagues arrested and tortured during the steel strikes and resolved to do something about it.

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Since then, the Nadeem Center has provided health and psychological care for survivors and worked with the families of victims while campaigning against the use of torture. Decades of working with survivors of this network of torture sites led Aida to believe that rehabilitation is about more than medical treatment and counseling. With the clinic shut down and the Egyptian state using torture on a mass scale, the need has never been greater.

Military rule has led to an explosion in the number who need care — so Aida and her colleagues refused to stop treating patients. But without the Center, the clinicians and medical professionals who work with Nadeem have to meet patients more discreetly.

Aida and her colleagues now spend their time traveling between rented private clinics, homes, and even backrooms in cafes to provide care. The underground clinic takes on four to five new patients per week. For Aida, the bodies and minds of those they treat are a testament not just to the brutality of the state but also to its irrationality.

Enforced disappearance, the kidnapping and imprisonment or execution of civilians by the state, is not an entirely new phenomenon in Egypt, but the current regime has taken it to an extreme none had predicted. Aida has done much to support the case of Ashraf Shahada, the owner of a private school in Giza and a well-known government critic. Where once families feared that their relatives would be arrested, now they fear that they will simply vanish, sometimes without their names appearing in any record, without justification, without explanation.

Despair and depression, a sense of helplessness and disillusionment, has gripped the young. By her own admission she has become cynical about overt activism of the kind the uprisings inspired — cynical, but not defeatist. And you have to know that it can get worse — every time we think we have reached the bottom, something happens that shows you it can get worse, because there is no way out for this regime. As the level of repression in Egypt has risen, avenues for public discussion have been cut off. Authoritarian states always pay special attention to controlling the press, and post-coup Egypt is no exception.

Just as under Mubarak, the state-owned broadcasters and newspapers are organs of the government, and private media companies are leaned on heavily. Control of the press is not only a matter of censorship and state pressure. Over the past two years, the state and military intelligence agencies have organized a series of corporate takeovers of television channels and newspapers. Reporting on the daily rights abuses of the state is left mostly to international media, which are given more freedom. As the Sisi order has become more entrenched, however, many international media organizations have slimmed or shut down their Cairo bureaus and turned their attention elsewhere.

Hossam Bahgat is probably foremost among them. Born into an apolitical upper-middle-class family in Alexandria, Bahgat started his career in journalism as a translator for the now-shuttered independent English-language newspaper The Cairo Times. He quickly rose to become a reporter, covering peasant revolts against privatization, the mass arrests of Islamists after the Luxor massacre, and the torture of political detainees. But he grew tired of the detachment reporting demanded and sought a route into activism. It was the beginning of what would be more than a decade of activism, during which he founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the organization now run by Gasser Abdel-Razek.

Bahgat returned to journalism in , after Sisi took power. Each of these stories was artfully done, the facts meticulously laid out. In a different environment, any one of them could have been made into a feature film — if audiences had the stomach for it.

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In fact, there is only one place: Mada Masr , an independent news website set up in Mada regularly depicts, in both Arabic and English, an Egypt that is unrecognizable by comparison with the vision of the country found in the state-controlled press. As a result, its website has been blocked to limit its reach within Egypt, and readers must use a VPN to access it.

Many, despite the trouble, do. Bahgat joined Mada in November precisely because the goal was not the victory of the revolution but honest, quality journalism — a goal Mada has certainly achieved.

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For Bahgat, it was in part a retreat from the horrors of the coup and the massacres that followed, which as a rights campaigner on the front lines had affected him deeply. But it was also an exit from a world of activism that was obviously facing an uphill climb.


Clearly, the new junta planned to run things differently, but too many of the revolutionaries were focused on the fact that Sisi had removed Morsi, and that the Muslim Brothers were getting their comeuppance, to see the danger. Even when the killings started, many more than Hossam had expected were willing to defend what the army was doing. Experienced activists who knew what a coup would mean soon found themselves in disputes with people they once thought of as allies on seemingly obvious moral questions; the feeling of unity among the young that had been built in Tahrir Square felt like it was slipping away.

The story was a challenge not just to the regime but also to elements in the opposition.