Egypt activist out of prison but still only half free

2017-02-22 11:30
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Cairo - It's that time of day — just before 18:00 to be exact — when Ahmed Maher must leave his family and spend the night in a tiny room in the local police station. It's a grim routine that will likely define the life of the iconic "revolutionary" for the next three years.

In his final moments at home, Maher quickly put on sneakers and a tracksuit. He took the dinner packed for him by his wife, Riham. He assembled a bag with books, a transistor radio with extra batteries and a clock.

Then he rushed to kiss his wife, hug his 5-year-old son Nidal and briefly disappear into the children's bedroom to say goodbye to Miral, his 9-year-old girl.

His nightly detention is a potent example of how far the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is willing to go to not just to crush dissenters but also ensure their silence.

Maher was released in early January after serving a three-year prison sentence for breaking a law that effectively banned street protests — a law under which dozens of secular, pro-democratic activists have been jailed. Most of that sentence he spent in solitary confinement.

'We want more democracy'

Now he must serve three years of "police observation." Normally, that means the convict must report to a police station each day, sign a log and leave.

But authorities imposed on Maher the harshest version. He must stay in the station every night from 18:00 until 06:00. Failing to show up or arriving late could bring full detention, criminal charges and possibly imprisonment.

"My children have been really happy since my release, but they are frightened every time I leave home," Maher, 36, told The Associated Press in an interview. "It is because when I left home three years ago, I did not come back." He was alluding to the day in late 2013 when he surrendered to prosecutors for questioning over an unauthorized protest only to be immediately arrested.

Maher, a founding member of the pro-democracy April 6 Movement, was an icon of the 2011 uprising that toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak. He then was part of the protest campaign calling for the removal of Mubarak's successor, Islamist Mohammed Morsi. After the military, then led by al-Sisi, ousted Morsi in 2013, Maher and other activists quickly turned against what they saw as increasing authoritarianism.

"We opposed and rose against Morsi because we felt that his Muslim Brotherhood wanted to create a theocracy when we wanted more democracy," he said. "But what's happening now is worse than everything that the Brotherhood did."

"We did not remain silent and that's why I and others were jailed."

'We are all captives here'

After Morsi's ouster, security forces killed hundreds of Islamist protesters and arrested thousands more. Hundreds of secular activists were jailed, dozens more have been banned from traveling abroad.

Sisi and government officials frequently argue that now is not the time for dissent, that all must buckle down while the country tries to rebuild a deeply damaged economy and fight Islamic militants. The president and loyal media constantly warn that Egypt could fall into the sort of chaos seen in Syria and Libya and that foreign powers and domestic agents are weaving conspiracies to destabilize the country.

The April 6 Movement, established in 2008, has been banned by court order, accused of illegally receiving foreign funds and threatening national security. Its first- and second-tier leaders have all been jailed or fled the country, and the rest have largely gone silent.

They are "vulnerable to being detained at any time for whatever reason", Maher said.

"We are all captives here," said Negad Borai, a rights lawyer who last month joined the ranks of those banned from travel.

"Today, the lowest-ranking policeman can just walk in here now, arrest me and take me to the station. Just like that," Borai said.

Nervous and disoriented 

Maher spent most of his three years in prison in solitary confinement. To survive it, "I tried to cheer myself up with little things, like listening to a song I like, reading a letter from my wife that was smuggled to me, eating a good meal I received during her visit or working out," he said.

It left him with a fear of crowds. When he visited a mall with his wife after his release, he had to rush out in a panic.

Now he tries to fit his life into the 12 hours of freedom he has every day before he must submit to the police station of the Cairo suburb where he lives. There, he is confined each night in a tiny room underneath the stairs.

In January, Borai and several other lawyers visited the station to lobby for an improvement in Maher's conditions.

Maher appeared nervous and disoriented when brought to the office of the station's commander. The commander gave chocolates to his visitors and ordered tea and coffee for everyone, as senior policemen explained to the lawyers how they are doing everything they can to make his nightly stays comfortable.

"We've made it like a five-star hotel for him," said one officer. "He is one of us between sunset and sunrise," chipped in another.

'I need to know what is allowed'

After the pleasantries, Maher spoke up with some requests. "Can I have a wall socket in my room?"

"Granted," a senior Interior Ministry official answered over the commander's objections.

"A laptop?" Not allowed. "A mobile phone?" No.

Nearly a month later, Maher said he never got access to a wall socket. The commander did reluctantly meet his request for some leeway in detention hours so he can have time in the evening for medical checkups needed after his time in prison.

But they added a new indignity. Now he has to ask for permission to use the bathroom.

"A policeman escorts me to the bathroom and if I am too long, he knocks on the door and asks if I am using a mobile phone," Maher said.

The prison time and police observation have colored Maher's life. His mother's cancer had been in remission but it recurred, and he's convinced that is because of stress over his imprisonment.

Maher, a civil engineer, has searched in vain for a job. "No one seems to want to give a job to someone like me," he explains.

And he has stayed well away from politics, which is likely the ultimate aim of the punitive measures.

But he has not given up. He is holding off, waiting to see what the red lines are.

"I need to know what is allowed," he said. "Party politics? Social activism? Or is the public sphere completely blocked."

Read more on:    egypt  |  north africa

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