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12:28 pm
Tue December 3, 2013

The High Price Egyptians Pay For Opposing Their Rulers

Originally published on Tue December 3, 2013 5:11 pm

Mohamed Yousef is a tall, handsome practitioner of kung fu. In fact, he's an Egyptian champion who recently won an international competition.

But a month ago, when he collected his gold medal at the championship in Russia, he posed for a picture after putting on a yellow T-shirt with a hand holding up four fingers.

That's the symbol of Rabaa al-Adawiya, the Cairo square where Egyptian security forces opened fire in August on supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Hundreds were killed, including seven of Yousef's friends.

"I wanted them with to be there with me," Yousef says. "I wanted them to rejoice when I won the tournament. The least I could do was remember them. They died because they wanted to see Egypt better."

He says the military-backed government is doing everything it can to make people forget.

Yousef paid a price for his decision that day in Russia. He was suspended from the national team, summoned home and barred from representing Egypt in future tournaments for the next year.

Some people in Egypt are calling him a traitor. And his story is not unique.

Many Have Been Punished

There are the young girls in Ismailiya who were arrested and strip-searched just for passing out yellow balloons. A soccer player who was suspended for flashing the four-fingers symbol after scoring a goal. A high school student arrested for having a ruler with that same symbol. The list goes on.

"Any sign of Rabaa al-Adawiya reminds the military of their crime," Yousef says. "It's a sign of solidarity, and when you hold up four fingers, the army won't let it go."

There is a battle these days over who gets to tell Egypt's recent history — and democracy activists say Egypt's military-backed leaders are quickly trying to rewrite it.

Since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, very few security forces have been convicted for killing protesters. And the memories are slowly fading for many Egyptians.

In Cairo's Tahrir Square, the government erected a monument to honor those killed during the uprising against Mubarak. Later that night, the circular brick structure was destroyed, picked apart by angry demonstrators.

Activists say the monument insults their memories and their cause. They say police killed these protesters, the officers weren't held accountable, and now they are being celebrated as heroes.

Cleaning Up The Square

In Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, all signs of the mass killing that took place there on Aug. 14 are gone. The graffiti is painted over. The mosque that was the center of the protest movement is a pristine white again. And a monument has been erected: a ball surrounded by two metal structures that are supposed to represent the police and the army protecting the people.

Army tanks now secure the square.

"There's no acknowledgement of any wrongdoing on the part of the government," says Karim Medhat Ennarah, a criminal justice researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

He says police brutality has steadily gotten worse over the past three years of transition. And now, after so many Egyptians turned on the Muslim Brotherhood over its poor leadership, the police are no longer public enemy No. 1 — and the security forces, along with the military, feel emboldened.

"Obviously they're going to lie about the history of what happened in the last two years, about what their position was in it, and they're going to create their own narrative," he says.

Every government before did the same — Mubarak's regime, the military leadership, Morsi. But this time, Ennarah says, the military-backed leaders have enough public support to control the story.

"Right now they can get away with it," he says. "Right now they don't feel public pressure."

Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been protesting for months. More than a thousand are dead, and thousands more have been detained. Now the government calls the brotherhood "terrorists," and says that they are trying to destabilize the state and must be crushed. The crackdown is widening to secular and leftist political activists angry over a protest law that suppresses dissent.

Sentenced To 11 Years

One of the most shocking cases recently occurred in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria.

Bishr Mohamed's daughter Sumaya is just 18. Last week she was sentenced to 11 years and one month in prison along with 13 other young women. Why?

Because, her father says, she was near a peaceful protest where demonstrators carried the yellow poster that symbolizes the mass killing of brotherhood supporters, and passed out yellow balloons.

She was convicted of joining a terrorist organization and inciting violence. On the day she was convicted, she stood in the prosecution cage with other young women, the youngest just 14.

Before her arrest on Oct. 31, she'd never spent the night outside her father's home.

It took days to get access to Sumaya, her dad says. At one point, he was arrested as he tried to see her. When he finally did, she asked him, "Are you proud of me?"

"I said, 'Yes, of course,' " Mohamed says. "I was surprised the girls themselves were steadfast and strong. I told Sumaya, 'Be strong. You have a cause.' "

He reflects on the arrests and the monuments in Cairo lauding the army and the police — the same police who arrested his daughter; the same police who killed protesters during the uprising against Mubarak and successive battles with demonstrators that followed; the same police who the nation now celebrates as heroes.

"It's like having the person who kills you attend your funeral," he says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The Arab Spring of 2011 triggered turmoil across the Middle East. In Egypt, thousands died in clashes with security forces. Analysts say the country has never been this divided, so it's not surprising that there are sharply competing narratives of recent events. NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo reports on claims that the Egyptian government is trying to rewrite history.

MOHAMED YOUSEF: (Foreign language spoken)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Mohamed Yousef is a tall, handsome practitioner of kung fu. In fact, he's an Egyptian champion. But a month ago, he made a fateful decision. When he collected his gold medal at the world championships in Russia, he put on a yellow shirt with a picture of a hand holding up four fingers. That's the symbol of Rabaa al-Adawiya, the Cairo square where security forces opened fire on supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Hundreds were killed, among them, seven of Yousef's friends.

YOUSEF: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: I wanted them with me that day, he says. I wanted them to rejoice in my win. I wanted them to be remembered. He says the military backed government is doing everything it can to make people forget. Yousef paid a price for his decision that day in Russia. He was suspended from the national team, summoned home and stripped of his medal. Some people here are calling him a traitor, and his story is not unique.

There are the young girls in Ismailiya who were arrested and strip-searched just for passing out yellow balloons, the soccer player who was suspended for flashing the four-finger symbol after scoring a goal. The high school student arrested for having a ruler with that same symbol. And the list goes on.

YOUSEF: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Mohamed Yousef says his T-shirt is a sign of solidarity aimed at reminding the Egyptian army of its crimes. There is a battle these days over who gets to tell Egypt's recent history. Democracy activists say Egypt's military backed leaders are quickly trying to rewrite it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

FADEL: In Tahrir Square, the government erected a monument to honor those killed during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. That night, the circular brick structure was destroyed, picked apart by angry demonstrators. Activists say the monument insults their memories and their cause. They say police killed these protesters. They weren't held accountable, and now they are being celebrated as heroes.

And in Rabaa al-Adawiya, all signs of the mass killing that took place there on August 14th are gone. The graffiti is painted over. The mosque that was the center of the protest movement is a pristine white again. And a monument has been erected: a ball surrounded by two metal structures that are supposed to represent the police and the army protecting the people.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

FADEL: A young man walks by. At this rate, he says, Egypt's written history probably won't even include the mass killings that happened here. Karim Medhat Ennarah is a criminal justice researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

KARIM MEDHAT ENNARAH: There's no acknowledgement of any wrongdoing in part of the government.

FADEL: He says police brutality has steadily gotten worse over the past three years of transition. And now, after so much of Egypt turned on the Muslim Brotherhood over its bad leadership, the police and the military feel emboldened.

ENNARAH: Obviously, they're going to lie about the history of what happened in the last two years, about what their position was in it, and they're going to, you know, create their own narrative and enforce it.

FADEL: Every government before this one did the same. But this time, Ennarah says, the military backed leaders have enough public support to co-opt the narrative.

ENNARAH: But right now they can get away with it. And right now they don't feel public pressure.

FADEL: Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been protesting for months. More than a thousand are dead and thousands more detained. Now, the government calls the Brotherhood terrorists, says they are trying to destabilize the state and must be crushed. Perhaps the most egregious example of injustice recently occurred in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria.

BISHR MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Bishr Mohamed's daughter Sumaya is just 18. And this week, she was sentenced to 11 years and one month in prison along with 13 other young women. Why? Because, her father says, she was near a peaceful protest where demonstrators carry the yellow poster that symbolizes the mass killing of Brotherhood supporters. She was convicted of joining a terrorist organization and inciting violence. Before her arrest on October 31st, she'd never spent the night outside her father's home.

MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Bishr says: When I visited her, she asked me if I was proud of her. I told her, yes. These girls are resilient and strong. They're standing up for all our rights.

MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He reflects on the arrests and the monuments in Cairo, lauding the army and the police. He says it's like having the person who kills you attend your funeral. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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