By Maajid Nawaz
It is no wonder that we find ourselves once more witnessing a frustrated civilian population trying to shake off a Soviet-era dinosaur dynasty. Like their former boss, Hosni Mubarak, the ageing generals of Egypt’s Supreme Council for the Armed Forces remain oblivious to the message that Egyptians sent to the world in February.
A staggering 50 per cent of Egyptians are under the age of 20 and they are more “connected” and globalised than ever. The more they are pushed the harder they will fight back and they have no shortage of grievances.
By once more extending Egypt’s 30-year state of emergency, the military has made the mistake that made Mr Mubarak so unpopular. In place since 1981, this suspends Egypt’s constitution and allows for the arbitrary detention of political opponents for unlimited periods. It is because of such a law that 12,000 civilian critics of the council have faced military tribunals since the February uprising alone. At least 13 have been sentenced to death. As if this was not enough, in September the military expanded the emergency law to cover offences such as disturbing traffic, blocking roads, broadcasting rumours and an “assault on freedom to work” – presumably by protesting.
It cannot be overstated just how despised this law is by the average Egyptian. As an Amnesty International adopted prisoner of conscience in Egypt, I witnessed first-hand the suffering of some of the 25,000 political prisoners who languished in jail for more than 10 years uncharged.The old regime of torture by electrocution – used so effectively in my own case – has continued. The council has added a new and worrying practice. On March 9, 17 female protesters said they were subjected to forced virginity tests in detention, conducted by male military personnel on young women who had been stripped. Later, a general offered his absurd justification for the practice, saying these women “were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters”.
My friends inside the “April 6th” leadership – one of the main youth groups that helped spark the uprising earlier this year – tell me the protesters unified around four demands: that presidential elections be held no later than mid-2012; that the interim government be dismissed; that a national salvation government be set up representing all national forces; and that there should be a prompt investigation into human rights violations. The first three have been accepted but we should be under no illusions: the generals’ mindset has not changed.
Since taking over from Mr Mubarak, the council has been using the same old tired “threat” of Islamist extremism as an excuse to curtail civil liberties and hold on to power. In doing so they have failed to learn that the “dictatorship or Islamism” dichotomy peddled so enthusiastically by every Arab despot will no longer hold.
The simple fact is that though Egypt does indeed face a serious challenge with extremism, it was these repressive state policies that were largely responsible for the rise of such extremism in the first place. Closed societies will breed closed minds. In recent years, and due in part to the effects of social media, many of Egypt’s younger Islamists are moving to the more democraticTurkish model.They have joined past protests, as well as this current one, against the wishes of their leadership. However, Egyptian society will not be given a chance to evolve if democracy is not allowed to emerge and tragically it is clear that the military does not understand this.
The writer is a former prisoner of conscience in Egypt, and chairman of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam.
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