Nine thirty pm in Cairo and sounds of intermittent explosions come through the living-room window. Most people can identify them, but I can’t – yet. They might be gunfire, or teargas – or fireworks. And fireworks might be people celebrating a wedding, or fighting the police, or setting off fireworks for fun. So I carry on with what I’m doing: writing a letter that a young prisoner’s sister may be able to give to him when she visits him tomorrow. It’s just a comfort letter, really, to remind him that he’s not forgotten, that many of us on the outside have made it our mission to get him and others like him out of jail.
Since 30 June 2013, some 40,000 people have been arrested and 16,000 of them remain in prison. The majority probably belong to the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, of whom some will have committed acts of violence; most will not. The rest, maybe 8,000 or 9,000, are split between revolutionary activists and bystanders caught up in police dragnets and used to make up required figures.
The state is commandeering every resource to establish control over the country. And even establishments that had their own intifadas during Mubarak’s time – for example, the judiciary, the universities, the media – have scampered into the fold. It’s not quite that they’re toeing the government line, but more that they have identified their own interests with “stability” and against “revolutionary change”.
A shocking manifestation of this confluence of interests is how judges and prosecutors work seamlessly with the ministry of the interior. Police drag people into custody, prosecution charges them from a now famous menu of “destructive” activities, judges decree their imprisonment on remand, postpone their trials month after month and then pass ridiculous and patently unjust sentences.
Most of the political prisoners are young. An estimated 1,000 minors, for example, across nine governorates, are in prison. And an estimated 2,000 students. Every case has its individuality, its absurdity, its heartbreak. Together, it adds up to a war on the young.
In a country where 50% of the population is under 25, the guardians of the state are afraid of the young. They spent the summer pulling back the political gains the universities made from 2011 and when the kids turned up at the university gates on the first day of term they found private security firms waiting to frisk them and comment on their attire and confiscate young women’s cosmetics. At dawn that same day, police had taken 57 students into detention.
This is all done in the name of the war on terror. And it’s true that terror exists in Egypt. On Wednesday, an improvised explosive device went off by the railings of the supreme court in downtown Cairo injuring 12 people. On Thursday, two went off in Tanta – the biggest provincial city in the delta – in the heart of an annual festival, injuring 11. Later that night, two IEDs exploded in Arish, in Sinai, killing three soldiers and wounding nine.
The Cairo-based Democracy Indexreports that during September, 32 bombings were carried out using IEDs. We, the people, have absorbed these into our “normality” along with the power cuts, news of children abducted and held to ransom, deadly gun battles breaking out between whole villages, rising prices, a hike in the numbers of suicides and road accidents and so forth.
The government ignores all the signs of distress and breakdown and concentrates on its largely unsuccessful war on terror to clamp down on freedoms and delegitimise demands. “Look around you,” is the mantra, “and be grateful that Egypt isn’t Syria/Iraq/Libya.”
A central mistake of the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi was that it tried to act as though it had inherited the Mubarak mantle of patronage and repression – but with its own beneficiaries and victims. But it made the wrong allies and misjudged its strength and the mood of the people. Now the country knows in its heart, and for the moment has accepted, that it’s gone back into autocratic mode. Mr Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is an elected and, so far, popular president, and the usual bargain seems to have been struck: we’ll give up on our freedoms in return for security and to get the economy going. The great slogan of the revolution – “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice” – has been whittled down to grateful for a crumb and a quiet corner.
So why the heavy-handed insistence on stamping out every bit of independent energy? Why the war against the young? Why the threatened war against the civil society organisations that have been the tributaries and the bulwark of the revolution? The government has given them until 10 November to accept security supervision or be outlawed.
The regime wants it both ways. It cannot outright disown 25 January, or it would have to wheel the Mubaraks & co back into the presidency. But it hates everything and everyone to do with 25 January with a vengeance. So while its official discourse twins 25 January and 30 June, the regime persecutes all the figures of 25 January and retracts all the gains of the revolution in the name of stability and security and a strong state. And every time the smoke clears, all we can glimpse of the state is more tanks on the streets, more army construction going up and more billboards advertising private security firms.
The Mubarak regime had grown old and fat and complacent. In its last years, it didn’t seem much bothered about what people said or did as long as its business interests were untouched. The regime we have now is far more touchy. It’s not content with starting huge, questionable projects and passing unconstitutional laws to protect them; its state needs to be protected from terror and from assorted plots but also from attempts to tarnish its image, from jests, irreverence and foul language, from students, artists, trade unions, graffiti, football fans, journalists and photojournalists.
It needs to be protected from ever being called to account for the crimes it has committed against the people.
– Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian novelist, short story writer, political and cultural commentator who regularly writes for the Guardian (UK) and al-Shorouk in Egypt, and is the founder of the Palestine Festival of Literature.