An Egyptian court handed out a 15-year prison sentence to one of the icons of the Tahrir revolution today. This is just the latest blow to the country’s critical voices in the midst of a worsening climate of political repression that rights advocates billed “a human rights crisis as dire as in any period in the country’s modern history.”
Alaa Abdel-Fattah and 23 other defendants were sentenced in connection with an anti-government protest last year. Abdel-Fattah — one of the leading figures of the 2011 uprising — was convicted of demonstrating without permit and assaulting a police officer.
'Egyptian authorities have spent the last year engaging in repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history.'
He was slammed with one of the heaviest sentences to come down on Tahrir activists yet, and the first since newly installed president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took office on Sunday. The defendants were also fined nearly $14,000 each, in trials that critics said lacked due process.
"The verdict against Abdel-Fattah and the others and the harsh sentences show that Egypt’s courts are content to enforce an outrageous law that effectively prohibits peaceful protest," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in response to the verdict.
In recent months, Egyptian courts have also handed out mass death sentences to hundreds of members or supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
With mass sentences, arrests, and torture — as well as unlawful killings and other abuses by security forces — the 11 months since the ousting of former president Mohamed Morsi have been the most repressive in Egypt’s modern history, human rights watchdogs Amnesty International and HRW said in a joint statement yesterday.
“Instead of addressing the urgent need for reform, Egyptian authorities have spent the last year engaging in repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history,” Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty, said in the statement. “Now that President Sisi has formally taken the reins of power, he should put an end to these rampant abuses.”
Abdel-Fattah, who comes from a family of well-known activists and was a prominent blogger and social media presence during the Tahrir revolution, was sentenced in absentia, which means that under Egyptian law means he is entitled to a retrial. The convictions can also be appealed.
He later showed up at the court and was detained. The other defendants were also sentenced to 15 years in absentia.
The video below shows Abdel-Fattah reuniting with family and friends after his release from jail — on bail — on March 23. According to HRW, he was beaten and arrested at his home on November 28 and then detained for over 110 days before a judge released him. His subsequent trial ended in a conviction and today's sentencing.
In his inauguration speech, Sisi pledged to uphold Egypt’s protest law and said there would be “zero tolerance” for anyone attempting to “disrupt our march toward the future" or seeking "a spineless state,” the Associated Press reported.
In a stab towards activists and critics of the regime, Sisi said all criticism must be objective and not slander. "Anything below that is anything but freedom and instead is anarchy that appears well intentioned on the surface but is not in actual fact," the new president added.
Since the coup that deposed Morsi, Egyptian authorities have severely restricted the freedoms of association, expression, and assembly in the country — a huge step back on gains made since the 2011 revolution, rights advocates said.
Today, Sisi also made an unexpected hospital visit to a woman who was brutally sexually assaulted by a mob of men celebrating his victory in Tahrir Square on Sunday.
Carrying red flowers and followed by camera crews, Sisi reportedly apologized to the woman, saying: “Our honor is being assaulted in the streets… This is unacceptable, and we can’t allow one more incident like this.”
Sisi's visit elicited mixed responses. Some critics said it was an important first step, if hardly sufficient, while others slammed the president for his defense of controversial “virginity tests” on women detained during the Tahrir protests.
Egypt finally passed legislation criminalizing sexual harassment earlier this month — in one of exiting president Adly Mansour’s last acts.
Sexual harassment is disturbingly common in Egypt, where 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have faced it in some form, with 96.5 percent having experienced touching, according to a United Nations report released in April 2013.
'Our honor is being assaulted in the streets… This is unacceptable, and we can’t allow one more incident like this.'
Activists say incidents have soared in the turmoil that followed the overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. But a lot of the abuse came under the watch — if not directly at the hands of — security forces, prompting critics to denounce Sisi’s apology as disingenuous.
"Sisi apologized for street — mob — sexual assault of woman. He must apologize for State — military — sexual assault," Mona Eltahawy, a prominent writer and activist who was herself assaulted by police during the Tahrir protests, tweeted on Wednesday. "Or else hollow words."
Several instances of sexual assault were reported in Tahrir Square on Sunday — with some caught on video. The graphic footage below, showing a woman being brutally attacked by a mob, made the rounds on social media, sparking widespread condemnation.
At least seven people were arrested in connection to the assault. The second video shows officers arresting one suspect, allegedly for sexual assault.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi