In Translation: April 6's Ahmed Maher on Egypt under Sisi

Last month, Huffington Post launched its Arabic edition in London to great fanfare. Like other spin-offs of the American website, HuffPo Arabi is a joint venture, not under the direct editorial control of the original. It is not the first Arab world edition to launch – HuffPo Maghreb has French-language Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan sites – but it is the first Arabic edition one. It has generated some controversy already (update: meant to link to this critical Buzzfeed piece), in part because the site is far from the liberal leanings of the HuffPo mothership, but also because of its pro-Islamist leanings. One of the key people behind HuffPo Arabi is Wadah Khanfar, a former director-general of al-Jazeera known for his support of the Muslim Brotherhood trend. The site has predictably taken the kind of positions generally associated with the Qatari-funded media (i. e. anti-Assad, anti-Sisi, pro-Erdogan, etc.)

Among one of its early coups is to secure an interview with the imprisoned leader of the April 6 movement, Ahmed Maher, sentenced to prison last year for violating the draconian protest law approved by interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour and enforced with gusto under President Abdelfattah al-Sisi. The interview does show some criticism of the Brotherhood, even  if most of the vitriol is reserved for Sisi, and paints an alarming picture of the radicalization taking place in Egypt's over-flowing prisons.

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Ahmed Maher to Huffington Post Arabic: Every Justification Now Exists for a Revolution against Sisi

Moataz Shamseddin, Huffington Post Arabi, 29 July 2015

For more than 20 months, Ahmed Maher, the general coordinator of the April 6 Movement, has been locked up in solitary confinement on the charge of violating the protest law. Despite the possible dangers, he has agreed to answer questions for Huffington Post Arabic and speak about his broken dreams and regrets.

In this interview, Maher states that all the reasons that justified revolution against Mubarak exist for Sisi as well. He believes that the Arab Spring is not dead, and that the period we are going through is the start of change and not the end. It resembles to a great extent the intellectual transformations before the Renaissance in Europe or before the French Revolution.

Maher describes here the harsh conditions of his solitary confinement and what occurs during his occasional encounters with Muslim Brotherhood members. He insists that Egypt’s prisons will be an incubator for radicalism and that the “autocratic” regimes of the Arab world – and not the uprisings of the Arab Spring – are what gave the impetus for ISIS, while casting blame on Western nations for backing these regimes.

First off, we would like to know about the conditions of your imprisonment currently. Have you suffered from any rights violations?

I haven’t suffered any physical violations, but the hardship is increasing day by day because of the increasing psychological pressure on me. Things have gone from bad to worse over the 20 months or so that I have spent in prison. I have been in solitary confinement for around 20 months. This in itself is a sort of psychological pressure. Isolated from the outside world, I live in complete isolation under maximum security and deprived of personal contact and correspondence with anyone, including family and friends. Newspapers, TV, and news sources are forbidden, and sometimes even food, on the pretext of emergencies in the prison or the country. It’s also forbidden to pray the Friday prayer. I was also forbidden from breaking the fast or eating sohour with the others during Ramadan. My personal belongings were also stolen.

Up until a year ago, [prominent young revolutionary activists] Alaa Abdel Fattah, Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma were in the same building as me, and despite the fact that we were all in solitary confinement, we would meet for several hours every day and talk. But then about a year ago, each one of us was suddenly transferred to a different prison and I don’t know anything about them. Currently, I’m in intense isolation under maximum security and deprived of the most basic rights. Meanwhile, felons have much better conditions and enjoy rights that I could only dream of, such as TV, letters, newspapers, Friday prayer, and listening to music.

Does Sisi’s regime deserve a revolution or attempts at reform?

From the start of his rule, Sisi rejected any path toward reform, and he rejects any advice. He doesn’t respect democracy, politicians or political parties. He wants to lead by himself like in the army. Anyone who tries to draw his attention to any error is accused of treason because they dare to criticize him.

Sisi is ruling in the same manner and with the same rules as Mubarak. Mubarak was actually more flexible, whereas Sisi is driving people away from him and the anger against him is mounting, even if it is muffled now. Sisi is ruling in the same manner, with the same stubbornness and with the same stupidity as Mubarak – but worse.

What are the chances of and conditions for a reconciliation between the regime and the revolutionary youth?

The current regime, structured as it is around the military and security apparatus, is cutting all ties with youth and treating them with hostility. The current regime is under the control of a number of Mubarak’s cronies who want revenge against young people and especially anyone who had a prominent role in the 25 January 2011 revolution – even though most of these youth also rose up against Mohammed Morsi in 30 June 2013, and I was among them.

However, those in power now don’t want a rapprochement with young people; they just want revenge. The current regime is the one who started the hostility with the revolutionary youth and with everyone. The proof of this is that it imprisoned the revolutionary youth, then harassed them inside the prisons. It refused to repeal or amend the anti-protest law or pardon young people, even though they are not terrorists and did not bear arms. All they did was defend their right to freedom of expression and opinion and freedom to protest peacefully. These are things that the military regime considers a crime.

Is there a chance that the revolutionary forces will come together once again and work to change the situation?

Some groups that played a major role in the 25 January 2011 Revolution are coming together and they still do stand by the demands of that revolution, such as freedom, dignity and social justice. However, the past few years have caused changes, fissures and deep transformations in concepts and positions.

I don’t think that anyone who is calling for a religious state could join the revolutionary youth, nor could anyone who supports authoritarianism, military rule or who dreams of a return of the oppressive Nasser regime join the revolutionary youth. The revolution was not launched for religious rule or authoritarian rule, and so there are a lot of deep divides that have emerged after all these events.

Before talking about rapprochement, we have to re-define who are the revolutionary forces, which revolution are we talking about and what are its goals, so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes that were made after Mubarak was ousted.

Is there anything that you regret on the personal level that you wish you could change?

Of course there are things that maybe I would decide to do differently if I knew the outcome. For example, I think that trusting the military and the Muslim Brotherhood was naïve, because each of them have a plan and their own interests. They each tricked us and broke all their promises. Each of them are authoritarian and think that they have the absolute truth.

When I re-read about the events or read about the history of revolutions, I realize that the radical demands were sometimes excessive, romantic or unrealistic, especially since our camp was not united and did not have sufficient power. Many revolutions only succeeded in agreeing on peaceful transition between two sides or after transitional justice, or after agreement on a gradual transition of power. I’m not speaking about a specific situation, but I think I was very romantic and a dreamer. I think that if I knew that truth about the regime or the truth about certain people, I certainly would have thought differently.

Have any politicians or participants in the revolution lost your respect? If so, why?

Certainly, there are those who have lost my respect. I don’t want to mention current figures, but I have lost respect for all those who claimed to support the January 25 Revolution who now support authoritarianism and repression, who support the anti-protest law, who take part in lying and obfuscation, who distort the January 25 Revolution, who promote sick conspiracy theories, or who circulate rumors against us knowing that they’re false, anyone who justifies authoritarianism and human rights violations, or who used to defend human rights but after the military took power dropped everything they were calling for and started to justify human rights violations in order to curry favor with the authorities. I have lost respect for all young people, academics and human rights activists who have changed their stripes and now started to defend authoritarianism and human rights violations.

Have you had any discussions with the Muslim Brotherhood in prison? Do you see any benefit in dialogue?

Despite the extreme isolation imposed on me, sometimes I am able to speak with some members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In general, they refuse to recognize that they made any mistakes while in power. They are saying that the protests of 30 June 2013 were not due to popular outrage but to a Western Crusader conspiracy against Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are still in denial about what happened. On the whole, I don’t think that there is serious reflection or any flexibility among the Brotherhood. This means that the solution is still far off. How can there be a solution without serious reflection – not just about their practices while in power, but also a reconsideration of the theory itself? This is what they refuse to do. They claim that they did not make mistakes but rather that the world conspired against them.

The Muslim Brotherhood is talking about human rights violations against them inside the prisons – did you see any of that?

Violations against the Brotherhood and the Islamists are taking place every day in all prisons. I met some of them by chance and I heard many stories of torture, maltreatment and harassment in every prison. In general, the treatment of political prisoners is bad, and there is psychological and physical punishment, but the treatment of Islamists is worse.

Has prison become a breeding ground for extremist ideas?

Prison has really become a breeding ground for extremists. It has become a school for crime and terrorism, since there are hundreds of young men piled on top of each other in narrow confines, jihadists next to Muslim Brotherhood members next to revolutionaries next to sympathizers. There are also a large number of young people who were also arrested by mistake and who don’t belong to any school of thought.

Everyone is suffering oppression and punishment inside the prisons. Everyone is accused of being either a terrorist or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is turning the people arrested by mistake who don’t belong to any movement into jihadists. Moreover, Muslim Brotherhood members are gradually becoming radicalized, since they suffer from inhumane treatment in the prisons. The authorities treat the prisoners like slaves, and this inspires a thirst for revenge, not to mention the undignified treatment that the families face when they visit.

The Arab Spring is dead, while ISIS is thriving – who is responsible, in your opinion?

The Arab Spring isn’t dead. I think this phase is the beginning of a change, not the end. It is similar to the intellectual transformations that took place before the Renaissance in Europe, or before the French Revolution. Concepts of democracy are still new in the region, and there are those who are resisting it in order to stay in power.

Meanwhile, ISIS has exploited the situation. The Arab uprisings are not the cause, but rather the bloody authoritarian regimes that resisted change and resisted democracy, true justice, and concepts of tolerance, co-existence and freedom. This is what gave rise to ISIS and continues to drive it.

ISIS found fertile ground because of Bashar al-Assad’s brutality in Syria, Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarianism in Iraq, Iran’s ambitions in the region, and the oppression and authoritarianism that people are suffering from. So long as authoritarianism and sectarianism exist, you will find extremism as a response.

Extremism found a foothold in Egypt because of Sisi’s brutality and authoritarianism. The more the oppression and authoritarianism increased and the more freedom and democracy vanished, the more justifications ISIS and al-Qaeda have. ISIS is saying that your regimes are corrupt, unjust failures and we’re the alternative. This is a disaster, because injustice generates extremism. For this reason, neither the coalition’s strikes nor Sisi’s raids will stop ISIS. Defeating ISIS requires freedom, democracy, justice and a culture of tolerance, co-existence and acceptance of the other.

But I also do not excuse the revolutionary youth from the mistake that they made, since they rose up against oppression without putting forward an alternative project to the authoritarian regimes. We now face two choices, each of them disastrous: either religious fascism or a return to authoritarianism.

The West is warmer toward Sisi despite the violations. Do you have a message for US President Barack Obama and Western governments about this?

Western governments are now warming to Sisi because of economic or military interests. In my opinion, this is short-sighted and a repeat of past mistakes. US support for Mubarak over 30 years did not stop the spread of radicalism or lead to stability. The West’s support for authoritarian regimes and dictatorships is damaging its credibility. The West should not repeat the same mistake of backing authoritarian regimes, since supporting military regimes in South America, Africa and the Middle East has only led to popular outrage against the US and the West. It has only increased radicalism and violence due to the repressive climate. This is what causes instability. I’m saying to government leaders: Don’t support authoritarianism in Egypt just to preserve old economic and military interests with the regime, because the perseverance of authoritarianism and repression is what leads to violence, extremism and instability. The Egyptian government has signed agreements to respect human rights – so why do you reward authoritarians in Egypt despite flagrant human rights violations, especially against young people? International treaties and international values of human rights make clear that basic rights may not be violated, rights such as freedom of opinion, belief, expression, decent and humane treatment, and a refusal to use torture regardless of the emergency or exceptional situation. Thus, the war on terror is not a justification for the violations committed by the Sisi regime. It actually creates terrorism through oppression, corruption and injustice.

It appears that the April 6 Movement has been completely absent from the streets lately. How do you explain that?

I am not up to date on all the details due to my isolation in prison, but in general, the political climate in Egypt is more stifling than during the Mubarak era. It has become easy for the authorities to abduct or kill any young opposition member without any legal accountability. Also, in the absence of a parliament, the post-July 30 regime has also modified the laws so that young people spend years in prison under investigation just for a trivial police report or on mere suspicion. Then there is also the anti-protest law, under which I have been sentenced to three years in prison. Some of my colleagues were sentenced to five years or more just for opposing the anti-protest law. Meanwhile, some were abducted and still have not resurfaced. On the whole, we are going through a period of repression worse than anything under Mubarak. We feel like we’re back to square one and we have to start from scratch and develop mechanisms according to developments.

The April 6 Movement, for its part, will continue to work for democratic transformation, even though the idea of starting a political party and engaging in conventional politics is not feasible right now. The current authorities do not respect political parties, and all means of creating change through parties or conventional political activity are blocked.

The current authorities do not respect the constitution or the law – not to mention the fact that we currently don’t have a parliament. The current authorities, which are just an extension of the Mubarak regime – have arranged it so that the next parliament will not be a source of trouble or an effective opposition.

Was the April 6 Movement organizationally affected by the arrest of its leaders?

Of course the imprisonment of its leaders affected the movement’s performance, but the movement is carrying on despite repression, imprisonment, torture, slander in the media, the spread of false rumors about it and its founders, harassment, terrorism, persecution, and the lack of either local or foreign funding. The fact that it continues to persevere is cause for hope. The April 6 Movement has not been broken despite this dirty war waged against it.

Why have the members of April 6 been singled out for special treatment in the prisons and isolated from everyone else?

The harassment and isolation in the prisons is so that we don’t think together and so that we can’t come up with any new ideas. It’s also so we can’t access any news, communicate with members or plan any new events.

Another reason for it is so we can’t rally together and demand our basic rights inside prison, or encourage others to demand their rights.

Being together made it easier for us, since when we were together our worries were shared. It seems that the authorities want to inflict the greatest possible psychological harm on us, to the point that even meeting people who have the shared interests is now a luxury.

Finally, support for civil, democratic values is the solution. Support for democratic transformation is what will stop the spread of radicalism and jihadism and not the reverse. If authoritarianism and tyranny continue, it will lead to the spread of ISIS’ ideology as an alternative or a reaction.