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Opinion | Egypt's youthful tragedy

By Jace Smith, Senior, international studies
On March 23, 2014

While the world watches with baited breath as events unfold in Crimea and Ukraine, another country far removed from the situation, which dominated headlines not even sixth months ago, has since sunk into relative obscurity. Life for Egyptians has been nowhere near as quiet as the headlines would have you believe, however. After the coup that overthrew their first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 of last year, the new government under interim President Adly Mansour has to all intents and purposes ended the Arab Awakening that brought hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic protestors to Tahrir Square three years ago. The new regime owes its loyalty to the same cabal of elite Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) officers that once served under former President Mubarak, and represents one of the most successful counterrevolutions in the Arab world.

What has been ignored by many leading media outlets, however, is the underlying generational struggle raging over Egypt's future, with older Egyptians overwhelmingly supportive of the government while the country's youth are more skeptical. Since the July coup, a crackdown of epic proportions has ended any semblance of political plurality as young activists representing Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and secularist, liberal groups alike have found themselves the victims of police brutality far worse than anything experienced during the original uprising. Allegations of mass arrests, arbitrary detentions, torture and rapidly worsening prison conditions are widespread, while the interior minister Mohammed Ibrahim's ridiculous denial that such activities are even taking place perfectly highlights the attitude of the current government in dealing with the youthful opposition.

According to scholars at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, the death toll from political violence in Egypt has reached over 1,400 people since July, with more than 20,000 activists detained. This includes over 1,000 imprisoned and 49 dead in one day on the third anniversary of the Uprising.

Some 16 Egyptian and foreign human rights organizations signed a letter on Feb. 12, which brought attention to the ferocity of the crackdown and the seeming lack of concern on the part of the authorities regarding the damning allegations. Activists one after another have been brought before judges and where they explained in detail according to the letter, often showing the courts physical evidence of their bruises and scars - what exactly was happening during their time in custody.

Describing meticulously the state of their captivity and the ruthless physical and psychological abuse, activists often found that their judges won't even allow their testimony to show up in the court records, striking it as irrelevant. An excerpt from the letter sent by the group of organizations provides a chilling description of what many hundreds, if not thousands, of young people are currently experiencing throughout prisons and police stations nationwide as the EAF tries to crush all dissent.

"'Al-Sayyed spoke in detail about the torture endured by many detainees who were arbitrarily arrested and taken to the Azbakiya police station. He said that a security force at the station put the known political activists in the room where the torture took place and blindfolded them, forcing them to listen to the screams of detainees who were being beaten and electrocuted. The activists were repeatedly told things like, 'You revolutionaries are to blame for what's happening to these kids. If not for you, we would've let them go already, they'd already be home.' More than one person who was returned to the detention room after torture claimed they had been sexually assaulted and electrocuted on various parts of their bodies," Stated the Egypt Rights' Organizations' letter to the Interior Ministry on Feb. 12.

These claims are supported by the sheer quantity and diversity of the people reporting them. Liberal and leftist forces, which have a significant influence amongst the young and initially supported the coup that ousted the Islamist President, have since joined Islamist-oriented youth groups in condemning the government's assault on freedoms of speech, association and assembly that immediately followed the coup's success.

Additionally, secular activists, politicians and journalists have found themselves the targets of the government's ire even as they tried to defend their suffering Islamist counterparts from persecution. According to analysts at the Brookings Institution, the repeated abuse and the utter indifference of the courts, prosecutors and National Council of Human Rights, which is supposed to fight these abuses but is controlled by EAF officers, is leading to a widespread political disillusionment among young Egyptians - a prospect which is tragic at best and dangerous at worst.

 Examples of recent abuse abound, but the most disconcerting might be the courts' exceptionally cruel practice of putting activists on trial for the murder of their own friends and colleagues. Oftentimes, these are the same friends who were shot to death during peaceful marches in front of the office of the High Court right before the surviving activists were arrested and imprisoned, cut off from their families, tortured, and sexually assaulted, or worse.   

The brutality of the authorities and outsiders' indifference have contributed to the transformation of peaceful activist groups into more violent and radical organizations. Though the Muslim Brotherhood has shown admirable restraint and refuses to endorse the use of violence, other Islamists aren't so patient. Groups have sprung up like "Molotov Against the Coup" and "Ajnad Misr", which are advocating violence as the only remaining option for disillusioned youth tired of not fighting back. Their compelling message is spreading beyond Islamists, and at recent demonstrations the now famous phrase that once adorned signs at practically every protest during the Uprising: "Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets", has been replaced by two other phrases which accurately capture the mood of young people in Egypt: "Our peacefulness has killed us" and the even more chilling: "Our peacefulness is stronger with bullets".

In the face of this dramatic turn of events, the U.S. appears to casual observers as indecisive, but the Obama Administration's response has demonstrated a well researched and implemented, if still reactive, approach. U.S. policymakers saw to it that both the Brotherhood and the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) were allies of the administration, and defended key American interests in the region in the midst of spectacular upheaval, an impressive feat by any standards.

But the current approach could bring negative consequences in the long-term if not managed very carefully, as an entire generation of young Egyptians has watched their hard won achievements from three years of unrest disappear, drowned in the blood of their friends and comrades. 


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