Egypt Shuts Door on Dissent As U.S. Officials Back Away

On June 20, 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped onto the arabesque campus of the American University in Cairo, built around a former pasha’s palace, and delivered a call to action that overturned decades of American policy in the Arab world.

“For 60 years,” she said, “my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” For five paragraphs of her speech, diplomatic niceties made way for a series of declarative “musts” directed at Egypt’s government: It must give its citizens the freedom to choose, Egyptian elections must be free, opposition groups must be free to assemble and participate. The Egyptian government, Rice said, “must put its faith in its own people.”

The language was black-and-white, but America’s relationship with Egypt — with President Hosni Mubarak and with the reform movement — never is.

Nearly two years later, the legacy of Rice’s words is intimately tied to the fate of Egypt’s democracy movement, divided and withering under unrelenting repression by a government that remains one of America’s key allies in the region. What began as a test of American mettle ended in failure to bring about far-reaching change in a country that has received more per capita U.S. aid than Europe did under the post-World War II Marshall Plan. In the eyes of activists and, at times, the government itself, that failure stands as a narrative of misperception about the people Americans sought to court, and of naivete about those the Americans wanted to reform.

In the end, they say, pragmatic priorities triumphed over promises.

“The Americans now prefer stability over democracy,” said George Ishaq, a demoralized opposition leader.

He fell silent, then narrowed his eyes. “I will never trust them again.”

Shaped by Contradictions

In the more optimistic weeks after Rice’s speech in 2005, Abul-Ela Maadi, a founder of the opposition movement Kifaya, saw a flicker of hope in the secretary of state’s words. “Most of it was good,” he said. “Most of it.” And the rest? He shook his head.

Contradictions mark almost every facet of America’s relationship with Egypt. The country has served as a linchpin of U.S. policy in the Middle East since it signed a treaty with Israel in 1979. Generous aid followed that agreement, in part as a reward, although never matching the totals for Israel. The U.S. Agency for International Development has given $28 billion since 1975. Military aid over the past quarter-century has totaled $33 billion. Yet today, opinion surveys almost always rank anti-American sentiment higher in Egypt than in any other Arab country.

In a way, those contradictions shaped the sentiments of the activists who coalesced around Kifaya. In contrast to members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, they were largely secular (with the exception of figures such as Maadi), steeped in the language of human rights and typically socially liberal. Maadi admitted freely, as others did grudgingly, that the pressure the Bush administration exerted in 2004 and 2005 helped curb government repression, providing crucial space for their work. At the peak of the pressure, protesters gathered unmolested, as they did the day Rice spoke. As it receded, the brutishness of Egyptian police and state-supervised thugs mounted proportionately.

But a striking irony underlined America’s relationship with the movement: The activism that flourished in 2005 was spurred less by the Bush administration’s support and more by opposition to its politics — in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and even Egypt. As activists negotiated government repression and tepid popular backing that year, they had to grapple as well with their stance toward avowed U.S. support. Maadi said he and his colleagues in Kifaya often felt an urgency to act before their agenda was tainted by association with U.S. aims.

“Any relationship with any foreign power, but especially the Americans, is the kiss of death,” he said. “We don’t need this kiss.”

At almost every turn in the movement’s evolution, U.S. policy was a story of unintended consequences. Rather than inspiring change, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq prompted people to pour into the streets in paroxysms of anti-American resentment. Rice’s statements, while welcomed in some quarters, suggested to many a teacher scolding a pupil, another humiliating image for a country seized by perceptions of its own weakness and what many view as Egypt’s slavish obedience to U.S. policy. “Give Mubarak a visa and take him with you, Condoleezza!” protesters shouted.

“The Arab spring is happening because of Bush’s policies,” Alaa Seif, a young blogger, said at the time, a cup of coffee next to his computer. “But it’s not the way they think about it. It’s the other way around. They did mobilize people, and they still are.”

A Show of Raw Power

In the fall of 2005, as the novelty of Kifaya’s anti-Mubarak protests faded, Egypt entered a season of elections that Rice had called a barometer of official intentions. Mohammed Kamal was one of the government’s point men.

A tall, affable political science professor at Cairo University, Kamal always seemed a little out of place in the drab, politburo-style politics of the ruling National Democratic Party. Some party leaders were known to quip: “Why reform? We’re already in power.” Kamal, 41, lived for five years near Dupont Circle in Washington, earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and worked as a congressional fellow. And in a series of votes in Egypt — for president in September, then for parliament — he and younger officials grouped around Mubarak’s son wanted to make their mark. They envisioned a face-lift for the party as it ran a modern campaign.

That aspiration was on display in November and December, as Egyptians began voting in three rounds for the new parliament. Under a white tent the size of a soccer field, 350 youths worked dozens of phones atop 30 tables, each with a computer. Orders over loudspeakers and clocks on the wall paced their efforts. Kamal and other senior staff, in sharp suits and ties, sat at tables in front, monitoring 11 television screens. They spoke in consultants’ language, deploying polling, focus groups, television advertising and slogans of reform, change and the promise of jobs.

On a blue banner behind them was the campaign’s motto: “Crossing to the future.”

But as results came in around midnight, in a din of ringing phones, they crossed into a different future than the one they had in mind. Candidates affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood were winning most of the races in which they had run. There was anger in the room, tinged with shock. Party officials didn’t even recognize some of the names of Brotherhood candidates capturing their seats.

“I was just surprised,” Kamal said, shaking his head in disbelief. “We were all surprised by these results.”

In the second round, the government’s security forces stepped in with a show of raw power so brazen that officials, speaking privately, don’t even deny the tampering. Paramilitary men clad in black, with truncheons and helmets, blocked people from voting. Elsewhere, with method that suggested specific orders, hired thugs wielding machetes and knives chased voters away from polling stations as police idly watched.

When crowds grew angry, security forces responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. In video footage shot by election monitors, protesters clutched onions, hoping to fend off the searing fumes of the gas. “Give us our rights!” they are heard shouting.

“I haven’t been to Gaza, but it looked like the intifada,” said Ghada Shahbendar, 44, a mother of four who had founded one of the leading monitoring groups, Shayfeencom, or “We Are Watching You.”

When the elections ended Dec. 7, the Brotherhood had won 88 seats, five times the 17 seats they won in the 2000 elections, but still just a fraction of the 454-member parliament. Independent monitors complained of “a systematic and planned campaign” to block opposition voters from casting ballots. Fourteen people were killed, and hundreds of Brotherhood supporters were arrested.

“No parliamentary seat justifies that kind of violence, that kind of brutality,” Shahbendar said.

The United States later criticized the vote, but many in the opposition were struck by the comments Dec. 2 of Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman. He said that the United States had “not received, at this point, any indication that the Egyptian government isn’t interested in having peaceful, free and fair elections.” Less than three months later, with the Brotherhood forming the biggest opposition bloc and the Islamic group Hamas having scored a victory in Palestinian elections in January, Rice struck a far different tone than in her address at the American University of Cairo.

“We have to realize that this is a parliament that is fundamentally different than the parliament before the elections, a president who has sought the consent of the governed,” she said. As she stood in Cairo next to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, there were no more musts. “We can’t judge Egypt,” she said. “We can’t tell Egypt what its course can be or should be.”

“It takes time,” she added later. “We understand that.”

To Shahbendar, who had helped train 200 election monitors for the parliamentary vote, the message was clear: Fearful of the Brotherhood’s success and irritated by the tenor of Kifaya’s protests, the government was closing the door on dissent, and the Americans were not going to stop it.

“The party is over,” she said.

’They Were Turning Ugly’

On May 12, 2006, Gamal Mubarak paid what Egypt’s ambassador called a private visit to Washington, where he joined Vice President Cheney at the White House. As those talks went on, Seif, the blogger, sat in prison. So did Wael Khalil, the activist who heard an anti-Mubarak slogan being shouted for the first time in 2001.

Before his arrest, Seif, always casually dressed, had helped design Kifaya’s Web site, 20 blogs for opposition colleagues and home pages for Kifaya candidates. Soon, in what emerged as the last gasp of a retreating movement, he helped organize protests in solidarity with two Egyptian judges who faced expulsion from the bench after they had called for judicial independence and criticized the parliamentary balloting. The security forces arrested hundreds of people, particularly after the Brotherhood joined the demonstrations. Seif was detained May 7, when 300 police moved on a few dozen protesters outside a courthouse.

They blindfolded him tied his arms behind his back and took him to a police station. Among the charges: insulting the president, illegal assembly and obstructing traffic, the latter offense difficult to define in a city whose streets are snarled in distilled anarchy. From there he was taken to prison, where his hair was cut, a gesture used to humiliate prisoners. For a day, he was in solitary.

“I knew they were turning ugly,” Khalil said. “It was clear they were holding us captive until the movement subsided.”

Khalil had been arrested earlier as he drank sugar-cane juice in front of the courthouse. He was released the same day as Seif, on June 22.

As his friends sat in prison, Wael Abbas, a 32-year-old goateed blogger, heard word that he was wanted, too.

He went home and removed hard disks from two desktop computers. He hurriedly stuffed them in a bag, along with his laptop and cameras, where he had saved two years of videotapes and photos. He went to a friend’s house for two days, then caught a first-class train to Alexandria, on the Mediterranean. “On first class, they’re not looking for suspects,” he explained. Once there, he sneaked into Internet cafes to post entries on his blog.

A week later, lawyers told him it was safe to return.

“That’s the life of a blogger in Egypt,” he said.

As Abbas recounted the story in Groppi’s, a storied cafe in downtown Cairo, a sonorous song by Abdel-Halim Hafez played, its wistful riffs bouncing off the worn marble floors. Waiters in smart but worn uniforms delivered small cups of bitter coffee.

“I’m nervous now,” he said. “I feel like I’m standing alone. I feel like I’m facing the whole regime on my own.”

What Kind of Alternative?

Six years after Khalil heard the anti-Mubarak slogan near the Mugamma in Cairo’s Liberation Square, Egypt is a different place. Independent media have emerged — newspapers such as al-Masri al-Yom and programs such as “10 in the Evening” and “Cairo Today.” The leftist opposition newspaper el-Arabi respects few red lines anymore: “The secret wealth of Mubarak,” one banner headline in red declared. Bloggers like Seif and Abbas write as they want, in their own war of attrition, as do others. In January 2005, there were about 30 or 40 blogs in Egypt; in just two years, Seif said, the number has grown to 4,000. And a rash of videos detailing brutal abuse by security forces have been made public on the Internet.

“Search for Egypt on YouTube,” Seif joked, “and all you’ll find is tourism and torture.”

But a government that seemed to have lost its step in 2005 has its swagger back.

At word of a small protest in February near the Press Syndicate’s headquarters, legions of black-clad security forces effectively shuttered downtown Cairo, barring even pedestrians from a perimeter around the colonnaded building, the banners now torn down. The state has launched its most serious crackdown in a decade on the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting hundreds, sending 40 of its members to military courts, with no right of appeal, and freezing the assets of wealthy patrons. In Alexandria, the government sentenced a blogger, Abdel-Karim Nabil Suleiman, to four years in prison for, among other things, defaming the president.

Residents speak about corruption in superlatives, and anecdotes swirl about the wealthy buying the services of police to intimidate rivals.

“We can’t just go out and say the government is bad. Everyone agrees with that. We won that argument,” said Khalil. “Now we have to start telling the people: ’Now what? What kind of alternative are we talking about?’ “

So far, that alternative has yet to emerge. The Brotherhood is hunkered down, hoping to weather this crackdown as it has done so often over three generations. The movements for change that seemed to grip every profession in Egypt are moribund. Kifaya is in shambles. In November, leading figures resigned, angry over a statement by Ishaq skeptical of the veil; Ishaq himself stepped down, amid whispers of corruption and dictatorial style.

As episodes of unrest erupt — a sit-in by parents at a school, a protest by drivers along the road to Ain Sukhna, strikes at sprawling industrial sites — Ishaq and others wait on the sidelines, blunt in their self-criticism that most Egyptians are more worried about jobs, education and health care than slogans denouncing Mubarak.

Missed opportunities, Khalil said glumly, as he nibbled on a salad at a faded downtown restaurant called Estoril.

“The simple issue is that we have to make ourselves relevant to the issues, not the other way around,” he said.

The ever-optimistic Maadi was even blunter: “We don’t have a vision.”

And across town, Ishaq sat in Kifaya’s threadbare office, no longer leading a movement that he once, a little arrogantly, called his own. Pessimism is what the government wants, he insisted. He smiled. “The quiet has to precede the storm.”

But he turned glummer when asked if he would see democracy in Egypt in his lifetime. He shook his head.

“No,” he said, tentatively. Then he repeated the word, this time more conclusively. “No.”