Ahmed Maher next to a graffito saying 'resist'. Demotix/Roger Anis. All rights reserved.
On the eve of bilateral talks between the United States and Egypt, the White House issued a statement urging the Egyptian president to abolish the new anti-protest law and release all political detainees. The following day talks were deemed “productive”, with the US ultimately promising to restore military aid to Egypt. Likewise, a presidential visit to Italy and France this week focused on security cooperation and included a meeting with the Pope.
This normalisation of Egyptian-western relations has tacitly implied that human rights abuses can continue back home, risk free. In a rare acknowledgement of double standards, the US State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, was caught on a hot microphone calling her own prepared statement about the acquittal of ex-president Hosny Mubarak ‘ridiculous’.
Ironically, Mubarak’s release from prison this week comes as the youth leader who helped overthrow him celebrates his second birthday behind bars. In 2008, Ahmed Maher co-founded the April 6 Youth Movement, named after the Mahalla protests held on the same day. The movement later played a prominent role in the uprising that put an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule, prompting the Nobel committee to nominate the movement for the 2011 Nobel peace prize.
Last year, under Egypt’s new protest law, Maher and co-founder Mohamed Adel were arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for holding demonstrations. The law grants security forces complete discretion to ban and disperse protests, using lethal force if necessary. It has been criticised as an element of the Egyptian government’s crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and has prompted the United Nation’s Human Rights Council to review Egypt’s record.
Since the military overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013, Egypt has experienced its worst human rights abuses in modern history.
Security forces killed more than 1,000 supporters of the ousted president in the violent dispersal of protests at Raba’a Square in Cairo. An estimated 21,000 political prisoners were detained in the first six months after the ouster, according to one report. A few months later, that number was updated to more than 41,000 according to the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), a non-government organisation.
In April 2014, an Egyptian court delivered the death penalty to more than 700 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood in a single court session. This week, another court in Cairo sentenced to death 188 Morsi supporters, for allegedly participating in an attack against a police station.
As highlighted by Maher’s arrest, the crackdown on political expression has not been limited to members of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood but has expanded to include other prominent activists, human rights lawyers, as well as other members of the April 6 Youth Movement.
These incidents have prompted a nation-wide hunger strike campaign calling for the release of all political detainees, and have led Amnesty International to call on the United Nations to condemn what it calls "the most dramatic reversal of human rights in Egypt's modern history under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi".
Now, with two of its founders behind bars, the youth movement has found cause for cohesion and set aside internal divisions, which, along with security interference, have long hindered the movement’s efforts. All members have agreed to set aside ideological differences and unite in their effort to free all political prisoners in Egypt, and to work harder to reverse the anti-protest law. Now its two main wings regularly issue combined statements and hold press conferences together.
Three months prior to Maher’s imprisonment, the April 6 Youth Movement held its first election to replace its leadership. An elected board of trustees oversees the movement, which operates on the principle of decentralisation. Political decisions are made by a separate committee, which is formed by the board. This structure has helped maintain the movement’s direction despite the recent change in leadership and the imprisonment of its members.
Maher’s vision was to commit to freedom of speech and non-violent resistance. He believed that change would ultimately come from Egypt’s youth.
Today I join countless others to call on western governments to back their words with actions; to demand the immediate release of Ahmed Maher from prison, along with other political detainees; and to demand an end to Egypt’s oppressive protest law, which has incarcerated many of Egypt’s political voices. A return to ‘business as usual’ should not mean that western governments turn a blind eye to the Egyptian government’s violent clampdown on dissent.