Egypt’s campaign to crush the culture of protest

Marc Lynch writes: "Constructing democratic institutions and political infrastructure cannot be done overnight," intones Amr Moussa, head of the drafting committee for Egypt’s new constitution. Perhaps. But you know what can be done overnight? Releasing the vast array of political prisoners being held in horrific conditions as part of a concerted effort by Egypt’s resurgent security state to criminalize dissent and silence critical voices.

For all of the nationalist and anti-American posturing in its state-backed media, Egypt’s military-backed government keenly desires international approval for its new constitution. Nothing of the sort should be granted as long as non-violent political activists like Ahmed Maher and independent journalists like Mohamed Fahmy suffer in prison. Washington, the European Union, and every self-respecting electoral observation NGO should make the release of these political prisoners an absolute condition for bestowing any recognition or legitimacy upon next week’s constitutional referendum.

The trial of three leading activists, Mohamed Adel, Ahmed Douma, and Ahmed Maher, was postponed yesterday. So was the show trial of former President Mohamed Morsi. Neither hearing was likely to produce anything resembling justice from the transparently politicized courts anyway, any more than did the trials of Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mona Seif or Maheinour al-Massry and Hassan Mustafa — or legions of less famous activists. Canadian citizenship hasn’t helped the well-respected journalist (and Foreign Policy contributor) Mohamed Fahmy against absurd charges of terrorist conspiracy. And that’s not even counting the untold number of members of the criminalized Muslim Brotherhood being held on trumped up terrorism charges — with their assets frozen, their passports confiscated, their charities

Egypt’s security services were able to tap into well-cultivated mistrust of the Muslim Brotherhood at home and abroad to justify its initial crackdown. But the intense animosity between the Brotherhood and many activists shouldn’t mask the reality that the campaign against the "terrorist" Muslim Brotherhood and the campaign against other political activists and independent voices are manifestations of the same political project. Both aim at crushing the culture of protest which overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak and restoring the "normality" of a carefully managed authoritarian regime. The arrests and public defamation campaigns aimed at restoring the fear and disengagement which has always been so vital to maintaining authoritarian regimes. The architects of the coup hoped to rebuild that barrier of fear which had been so famously shattered by the January 25 uprising.

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