“There are no supermen”

Opinion by James Bradbury
May 1, 2014, 7:20 a.m.

Six months ago, I had the opportunity to meet Ahmed Maher, the seemingly unstoppable activist behind Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement and the closest thing the country’s 2011 revolution had to a guiding force. He could have given an hour-long speech about the importance of democracy and the rule of law and answered a handful of inane questions from whichever audience members lined up at the microphones fastest. Or he could have skipped us altogether, spending his whole short early-November trip to the United States talking to officials or NGOs or supporters from the Egyptian diaspora.

Instead, he spoke for ten minutes in a small room at the Haas Center for Public Service and then opened up to questions from the 20 or so people in the audience. He came on only a weekend’s notice, and I was lucky to be on the right mailing list (SIG-friends, if you’re curious). It was a degree of closeness I’d hoped for, but never really expected, in the three years since January 2011, which I spent glued to the limited window of al-Jazeera.

He told us why he’d come: that a discussion with students was more important than a discussion with officials because his movement (April 6) was a student movement, and in any case, he’d had enough of official duplicity and broken promises—Egyptian, yes, but also American.

He gave us the basic narrative of April 6. The first protests beginning in 2005 (two arrests) became explicitly anti-Mubarak in 2007 and 2008 (another arrest, this time with torture). Helping plan the protests of January 2011. Being called “heroes of the revolution” at first by the post-Mubarak military government, but then criticizing the military, too, when it began to restrict media and protect the old, corrupt business establishment, of which it was itself a part. (“At the time, the Islamists supported the military against us,” he recalls, with a touch of irony.)

Maher continued his narrative: Pivoting from an independent stance in the first round of presidential elections to an endorsement of Islamist Mohammed Morsi in the runoff, because the other candidate—Mubarak’s old prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq—was unacceptable and a boycott was the wrong choice for a first stab at democracy. Turning against Morsi when he overstepped his mandate (another arrest, in May 2013). Joining the call for Morsi’s ouster in the June 30 Tamarrod protests, then criticizing the overreaches of the resulting interim government: “Again the government has started to control the media, and we’re in square number zero.”

At times he was prescient: “We want to be the third alternative—besides Islamists and the military—but we know it will be hard.”

At times he was wrong: “I don’t think [army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi] will even compete [in this spring’s elections], because he doesn’t need to hold the presidency in order to run Egypt.”

He told us that, maybe, a third revolution would be all it would take to create a free Egypt with a lasting democracy, and expressed optimism that one would be forthcoming—but after the meeting he talked to a techie friend of mine about developing a private communication tool for the movement because, for the first time since he started using it to organize in 2007, the vulnerabilities of social media outweighed their advantages. Facebook had become too risky.

He was so focused on the future of his movement and his country that those of us who were listening could easily forget that his own future was less certain than ever, that his record of standing up for his values and criticizing government after government was bringing him more enemies every day.

Indeed just weeks later, a few days after he returned to Cairo, he was indicted after defying a draconian new protest law implemented by al-Sisi’s interim military government. He turned himself in to the Cairo police—wearing sunglasses, surrounded by a crowd of hundreds, chanting, “Down, down with military rule! I’ll write on the prison wall that army rule is shameful and a betrayal!” (It rhymes in Arabic.) He was released after a few hours, but then was arrested again on another charge of inciting protest—the protest that gathered when he turned himself in the first time. While in custody awaiting trial, he was refused paper to write on but managed to sneak out a snark-filled statement on toilet paper, disparaging a government-run “Human Rights Council” that is anything but.

On December 22, he was sentenced to three years in prison, along with another co-founder of the April 6 movement and a supporter. These were the first convictions handed down under the new protest law.

Since December, the military government has pushed through a constitutional referendum (98 percent voted in favor, though the Muslim Brotherhood and April 6 both pushed for a boycott). Field Marshal al-Sisi has stepped down from his official military post and announced a presidential campaign that is all but guaranteed to win, and thousands more activists have become political prisoners.

This week, the Egyptian government attracted international condemnation again for banning activities of the April 6 movement, sentencing 491 Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated protesters to life imprisonment and 37 to death, and referring 683 additional death-penalty sentences, including that of Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, to a higher court for final approval. For the moment, American military aid to Egypt is on hold as we attempt to exercise what is perhaps the only remaining bit of leverage we have in Cairo.

Like many who have followed post-revolution Egypt from the English-speaking world, I turned to Bassem Sabry—a brilliant, bilingual Egyptian journalist of unparalleled insight and honesty—for information, analysis, and solace after this, as after every piece of disheartening news from the country. But the world is cruel, and Sabry—one of the last prominent Egyptians to constructively engage with all sides in a political environment polarized almost beyond imagining—died on Tuesday, at age 31, in a tragic accident.

He left a straightforward policy guide for whenever the Egyptian government decides to begin confronting the hard problems, rather than pushing them further into the future, and a personal manifesto—entitled, with typical low-key erudition, “Eleutheria,” Greek for “freedom” –which has been exchanged countless times these past two days over Egyptian social media.

“I have learned that there are no infallibly great supermen in the manner we used to see them once from a distance or when we were children … And I have learned, in contrast, that there are astoundingly extraordinary human beings. If you asked such individuals if they could obliterate a mountain with a spoon, they would respond that everything was possible.”

Ahmed Maher is such a human being, and no one has come closer to obliterating the mountain of the corrupt, unfair, and oppressive Egyptian establishment from as modest and unassuming a position as him.

It will take a level of optimism in the face of unceasingly bad news that perhaps only Bassem Sabry was really capable of, but there is a way forward. The one constant in the last three years of Egyptian politics is that public expectations have consistently been unreasonably high; that each government, upon failing to meet those expectations, has received more blame for the country’s problems than it deserves.

Maher, Badie and the entire leadership of April 6 and the Brotherhood are in prison; Bassem Youssef, the massively popular TV host who drew comparisons to Jon Stewart, has seen his show suspended yet again; and liberal icon Mohamed El-Baradei is in exile. And whatever the benefits to stability, counterterrorism and perhaps foreign investment of a Sisi presidency, no man who spearheaded the systematic exclusion of every one of these liberal and progressive political forces from the Egyptian public sphere will meet the expectations of a country that still believes in pluralism.

Like the Islamist Salafi al-Nour party, which saved its political rights by promising not to field a presidential candidate for the next decade, Ahmed Maher has always taken the long view. He knows the contours of three years—how much can happen, and how little can change. The next three years will probably bear that out yet again. But if we are ever led by the setbacks of the hour to despair that the light of the revolution has gone out—that not even a candle is left burning in Egypt—there is still a torch in Tora Prison.

Contact James Bradbury at [email protected].

James Bradbury is an international politics opinion columnist for The Stanford Daily. His goal for "Outside the Bubble" is to provide accessible, (hopefully) informative and slightly opinionated context for the week's world news headlines. James is a sophomore from McLean, Va. majoring in linguistics. To contact him, please email jbradbur 'at' stanford.edu.

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