Activists once dubbed heroes for sparking the 25 January Revolution that ended the 30-year-old dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak say they are now being subjected to a major security crackdown and systematic media campaign of vilification.
For two weeks now Abdel-Rehim Ali, a TV show host at Al-Qahera wal Nas, a private channel known to have been close to the Mubarak regime, has been broadcasting recordings of telephone calls made by young activists who played a leading role in the 25 January Revolution, in an attempt to tar them with accusations they took part in a conspiracy orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood and youth groups such as 6 April Movement in coordination with the United States and other Western powers.
Ali, who refuses to disclose how he came by the recordings, has previously boasted of his connections within the security establishment. The broadcasts have sparked uproar among political figures and human rights groups. Last week 50 leading public figures signed a statement delivered to interim president Adli Mansour denouncing the unwarranted breach of privacy.
“This is a crime that violates all laws aimed at protecting the privacy of citizens as well as articles in the new constitution that Egyptians that will vote on in a referendum on 14 January… Secretly recording phone calls without a court order is a criminal act, as is broadcasting them while knowing they were recorded illegally,” said the statement. It went on to add that if Ali really believed his claims that the calls are evidence of some conspiracy “the right place to air such accusations is in court and not on a television programme.”
Many of the recordings are related to the storming of the State Security Investigation (SSI) headquarters in Nasr City by hundreds of angry Egyptians on 5 March, 2011, barely three weeks after Mubarak’s ouster. SSI, renamed National Security following the 25 January Revolution, was the much feared arm of the Interior Ministry that dealt with the regime’s political opponents. During the last years of Mubarak’s rule its activities had expanded to encompass anything deemed a threat by the regime. It rigged elections, had the final say on the appointment of academics, newspaper editors and the leaders of trade and student unions. It also had a reputation for brutally torturing detainees.
When protesters raided its headquarters they were surprised to find departments dedicated to spying on all branches of government, including the army. Soldiers stood outside the gates of the complex watching as more and more people entered the buildings and recovered files and computers.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which assumed power after Mubarak’s ouster early announced a restructuring of the Interior Ministry and hundreds of State Security officers were transferred to other jobs. But in the current highly polarised political atmosphere, and against a backdrop of daily confrontations between the police and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and a spike in terrorist attacks, opposition groups and human rights activists say the security establishment that thrived under Mubarak is making a comeback.
Soon after Mohamed Morsi’s removal Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim announced that he had ordered several hundred former State Security officers back into service.
“There seems to be a clear attempt to rewrite a very recent history,” says Ahmed Abdallah, a leading member of the 6 April Movement. “One of the key demands of the revolution was to put an end to the brutal practices of the security establishment. Now revolutionaries are being portrayed as foreign agents and spies because some stormed the headquarters of the State Security, a symbol of that Mubarak-era oppression.”
On 1 January Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat ordered an investigation after activists whose phone recordings had been broadcast petitioned against the breach of privacy. Days late, however, Barakat announced he was also opening an investigation into following complaints by a pro-Mubarak lawyer that the activists mentioned in Abdel-Rehim’s TV show had “conspired to raid the headquarters of State Security and endangered national security”.
“We had very specific demands during the revolution three years ago, bread, freedom and social justice,” says Abdallah. “When SCAF disregarded those demands we stood up against SCAF. We were in the front lines of Egyptians who demanded the removal of the Brotherhood and Morsi on 30 June for the same reason. Now it looks like we’re back to square one with the return of the Mubarak security establishment seeking to exact revenge.”
Small leftist parties and radical youth groups such as 6 April and the Revolutionary Socialists were alarmed by President Adli Mansour’s approval in late November of the so-called “demonstrations law” which they claim seeks to ban the right to assemble and protest peacefully. When they held small demonstrations against that law they were attacked by anti-riot police. Several prominent activists were arrested, including 6 April founder Ahmed Maher, his colleagues Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Doma and blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah.
Maher, Adel and Doma were handed sentences of three years and fined LE50,000 each after they were convicted of holding an unlicensed demonstration in front of Abdine Court in Cairo in early December. Their lawyers have appealed the sentences and the first court session was due to be held yesterday. Both Maher and Adel were among those whose phone conversations were aired on the TV show presented by Ali.
Abdel-Fattah is currently awaiting trial along with 24 activists who protested on 27 November against an article in the new draft constitution allowing civilians to face trial in military courts. They have all been charged with violations of the controversial demonstration law.
On Sunday Abdallah, Abdel-Fattah and his sister Mona Seif, founder of the No to Military Trials group, received a one-year suspended prison sentence after they were convicted of setting fire to the headquarters of former presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafik in May 2012. Shafik, the last prime minister Mubarak appointed, withdrew his complaint against the three months ago. That the case was subsequently revived has deepened concerns among 25 January Revolution activists that they are being targeted.
“Anyone who now opposes the government and military is accused of being a foreign agent or a member of a sleeping Brotherhood cell by supporters of the old Mubarak regime,” says Ahmed Seif, a lawyer and the father of Abdel-Fattah and Mona. “After opening an investigation over the storming of the State Security headquarters I wouldn’t be surprised if the prosecutor-general soon ordered an investigation into the removal of Mubarak. The third anniversary of the 25 January Revolution is approaching after all.”