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The war of attrition against revolutionaries

Published in Al Jazeera on January 25, 2017

By Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, writer and blogger. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He blogs at

With the world’s attention on Washington and the new administration’s open assault on the media and journalists, whom Donald Trump described as “among the most dishonest human beings on earth“, few eyes are turned to Egypt, where “alternative facts” have been a reality for some time, and its continued clampdown on the press and civil society.

Among the recent victims to fall afoul of the regime’s crackdown was Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who was detained earlier this month on the boilerplate charge of “broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos“.

Another victim was Hossam al-Naggar, a union activist and member of Strong Egypt Party, who was taken from his home to an undisclosed location in yet another “forced disappearance“, according to his party.

Although Strong Egypt was established by Muslim Brotherhood dissident and former presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh in declared opposition both to his former party and the military, Hussein reportedly stands accused of belonging to a “banned organisation”, which is often code for the Brotherhood.

As the Muslim Brotherhood is now regarded by the regime in Egypt as a terrorist group, al-Naggar runs the risk of being added to a “terror list”, which involves a ban on travelling abroad and the freezing of personal assets, as occurred to the legendary retired Egyptian footballer Mohamed Aboutrika, who is alleged to have provided funding to the Brotherhood.

Strong Egypt’s al-Naggar is also accused of calling for protests, which is a democratic and constitutional right (article 73). However, protests are effectively outlawed by Egypt’s draconian anti-protest law, parts of which, though not all, were recently deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Crackdown on civil society

And al-Naggar is not an isolated case. Last month, for example, authorities arrested and subsequently released on bail the prominent feminist and grassroots activist Azza Soliman, who, like many other activists, was already the victim of a travel ban and the freezing of her assets. The unfolding case against Soliman was described as “a chilling escalation against independent civil society in Egypt” by Mohamed Lotfy of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.

Egypt is experiencing a continued and intensifying war of attrition against opposition figures, revolutionaries, grassroots activists and NGO workers – not to mention journalists and media professionals – in a bid to deprive civil society of its most vital resource: its dedicated and hard-working human resources. This has led to fears that Egypt’s once-vibrant civil society is under “existential threat“.

“The state of civil society today is infinitely worse than during the early days of the revolution, or even during [Hosni] Mubarak’s dark years,” asserts Khaled Fahmy, the prominent Egyptian historian who was not only an active participant in the revolution of January 25, 2011 but also led efforts to document it for future generations.

“Civil society cannot be shut down,” the acclaimed novelist and activist Ahdaf Soueif told me defiantly. “Civil society is myriad. And it will continue to resist and to proliferate.”

Souef has an intimate awareness of this. Her family has sacrificed a great deal for the revolution, with numerous members in and out of prison. Her nephew Alaa Abdel-Fattah, one of the icons of the revolution, still languishes behind bars.

Souef points to media organisations which refuse to be intimidated or silenced, such as Mada Masr and el-Badil, and human rights groups which refuse to shut their doors even after they have been shut down and had their assets frozen, such as the Nadeem Centre. And speaking truth to power in periods of severe repression and deception is, in and of itself, a revolutionary act, as George Orwell once suggested.

A crumbling regime

But why is the state cracking down so ferociously? “The overall logic is to eviscerate these organisations and to subject society in general to the state agencies, and to allow the army and its companies a bigger role to play in society and the economy,” Fahmy told me.

This crackdown, as well as the rise of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as a kind of Mubarak-on-steroids, has led to widespread disillusionment and disenchantment among revolutionaries, as well as the population at large. “Before, I was ready to die for this country, now I just want to leave,” one Egyptian who took part in the January 25 demonstrations was quoted as saying. His words are echoing a sentiment I have heard from quite a number of Egyptians who took part in the revolution.

This despondency, coupled with the weakening of civil society and the disarray it has created, mean that Egypt is unlikely to experience, though it is still possible, on the sixth anniversary of the revolution the kind of mass mobilisation it witnessed in 2011 and 2013.

However, even without a public uprising, the writing appears to be on the wall for the status quo. Not only is Egypt’s economy in tatters and its currency in dire straits, but the regime is proving to be its own worst enemy.

“What the army and intelligence are doing by getting at the forefront of the political scene is similar to what happened to the Muslim Brotherhood during their year in power,” Fahmy points out. 

He adds, “More and more people are seeing the state for what it is: corrupt, inefficient, and deeply despotic. And this is happening without any significant work from the opposition.”

In short, Fahmy is convinced that the army and its allies are “shooting themselves in the foot”.

These self-inflicted wounds are likely to pave the way to the next chapter of the Egyptian revolution and, though weakened, civil society is ready to retake the reins when the dams break once again.

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