Four years after Egypt revolution, jails clogged with activists

Zyad el-Elaimy was among millions who rallied to overthrow Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but four years later he is visiting some of them who are now in jail while the ousted strongman edges closer to release from prison.

The jubilation that had marked Mubarak's toppling — a key event of the 2011 Arab Spring — is dead, and activists say an even more autocratic regime now rules the most populous Arab country.

Since he deposed Mubarak's successor, Islamist leader Mohamed Morsy in 2013, former army chief and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been accused by activists of having installed a more repressive regime.

But Sisi, who won more than 90 percent of votes against a socialist opponent in last year's election, enjoys widespread support among Egyptians weary of political and economic turmoil.

"Bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity," were not just slogans but the aims of pro-democracy activists who converged in their millions on Cairo's Tahrir Square in a movement that drove Mubarak from power.

After he stepped down, Mubarak and his former security chiefs were arrested and put on trial over the deaths of protesters during the uprising.

The charges have been dropped, bringing Mubarak closer to release.

Legal experts have said the court decision on Mubarak and his security chiefs was inevitable because the prosecution had failed to compile a case against the ousted strongman.

And days before the fourth anniversary of the 25 January revolt, Mubarak's two sons walked out of prison pending retrial on separate corruption charges.

Elaimy, a lawyer and former MP, said the Mubarak verdict "is a message to us… that no matter how much corruption and oppression the authorities commit, they will always get away without any punishment. And that is very painful."

Throughout the trial, the prosecution mainly summoned other security chiefs who exonerated Mubarak and his aides.

Meanwhile, dozens of activists who had risen up against the former president are now in prison for holding unauthorised protests.

Settling political scores

"The Egyptian judiciary has shown a double-standard for justice by exonerating state officials from any guilt in committing human rights violations on the one hand; and on the other, by issuing hefty prison terms against those who exercise their civil and political rights," said the International Federation of Human Rights group.

A lower court jailed the Mubaraks last May for embezzling millions of dollars from state funds allocated for renovating presidential palaces.

But an appeals court overturned that verdict and ordered a retrial.

"When we used to meet to plan the 25 January protests in 2011, we were expecting to be hanged if the revolution failed…. Today we are paying the price for our political stances," said Elaimy, who was elected to parliament in the first post-Mubarak polls.

Those jailed include leaders of the revolt like Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel — both sentenced to three years. And their April 6 Youth Movement, which spearheaded the uprising, has been banned by court order.

Ahmed Abdel Rabo, professor of political science at Cairo University, said Egypt is experiencing a "settling of political scores with anyone who represented the January 2011 revolution…. What is happening reflects how the state sees the revolution."

The brunt of the government crackdown has targeted Morsy's supporters and members of his Muslim Brotherhood, which posted strong electoral gains following Mubarak's ouster and propelled Morsy to power in 2012.

The crackdown has killed more than 1,400 people, most of them within hours, in clashes as police broke up two pro-Morsy camps in Cairo weeks after the president's ouster on July 3, 2013.

More than 15,000 Morsy backers are also imprisoned, and dozens have been sentenced to death after speedy trials that the United Nations has denounced as "unprecedented in recent history."

On Saturday, a court ordered the retrial of 37 Islamists who had been sentenced to death.

The Muslim Brotherhood itself has been designated a terrorist organisation.

Ammar Motawee, a young Brotherhood member whose sister spent three months in detention, said that "after four years we are now fighting a harder battle against a regime that is more violent, and a public opinion that accepts crushing the opposition."

Sisi consistently defends his regime, and insisted soon after the murder charges against Mubarak were dropped that Egypt was "on a path to establish a modern democratic state based on justice, freedom, equality and renunciation of corruption".

But for Elaimy, "nothing has changed" over the past four years.

Attempts to protest are not only met by rapid police action, but also by shrugs, even hostility, from millions of Egyptians who just want a return to normalcy.

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