Hero of Egypt's revolution now a pariah

Egyptian activist Esraa Abdel-Fattah co-founded the April 6 Youth Movement, which became a driving force of the 2011 street protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak. Today, she is shunned or insulted by her countrymen. She remains undeterred, however
Egyptian activist Esraa Abdel-Fattah co-founded the April 6 Youth Movement, which became a driving force of the 2011 street protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak. Today, she is shunned or insulted by her countrymen. She remains undeterred, however, and takes heart from the uplifting message in a poster her friends made for her.PHOTO: REUTERS

CAIRO • In 2011, activist Esraa Abdel-Fattah helped ignite revolution on the streets of Egypt and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize that year. Five years after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, she is shunned or insulted by Egyptians on those same streets.

"They say I am a traitor and foreign agent and that we are the people who destroyed the country. I hear it when I am passing people in the streets," said Ms Abdel-Fattah. "Some people still ask, 'What was wrong with Mubarak?' "

Ms Abdel-Fattah, 39, and a small circle of fellow activists were once seen by many in Egypt as the best hope for an end to corruption and repression and the dawning of an era of free speech and respect for citizens by the state.

Nowadays, the journalist cuts a lonely figure in her small flat, hoping Egyptians will rise up again to demand democracy despite the fiercest crackdown on dissent in the country's modern history.

"I don't know if people will take to the streets tomorrow, or next year, or the following year," she told Reuters at her home in the Sheikh Zayed suburb of Cairo. "The revolution is people demanding freedom, bread, justice and dignity. People will keep demanding them."

Ms Abdel-Fattah helped organise the protests that began on Jan 25, 2011, and ended Mubarak's 30-year rule 18 days later, only to see Egypt return to what human rights groups call an authoritarian state after years of upheaval.

The Muslim Brotherhood was elected after Mubarak's departure. A year later, the Islamist movement was overthrown by then military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi following mass protests against its rule.

Ms Abdel-Fattah co-founded the April 6 Youth Movement, which became a driving force of the 2011 street protests.

Known as "Facebook Girl", she and other social media activists launched a Web page that urged young people to join a strike to support workers in an industrial town. She was arrested as a result, but not held for long.

Ms Abdel-Fattah, who is banned from leaving Egypt, said it does not pay to be as daring under General Sisi, who went on to become elected President, the latest man from the military to rule the country.

Security forces have arrested about 40,000 political activists, Islamists and liberals alike, under Gen Sisi, human rights groups say.

Protesting without police permission is a crime, a clearer penalty than the situation during Mubarak's rule, one of the reasons Ms Abdel-Fattah gives for not planning any demonstrations for the foreseeable future.

Many Egyptians, craving stability after years of political turmoil, backed Gen Sisi's crackdown, described by the government as an effort to stamp out Islamist militant terrorists.

"Anyone who protests is locked up. Even people who write their opinions on Facebook or Twitter are questioned about their writings," she said.

The powerful state media brands Ms Abdel-Fattah and others who were instrumental in the 2011 demonstrations "enemies of Egypt". Those who are not behind bars feel like pariahs.

Ms Abdel-Fattah has not lost hope, however, saying: "No one in the world knew that the revolution of Jan 25, 2011, would look like it did. I see in the eyes of younger generations the idea and dream of a revolution are still there.

"I am ready to play any role, big or small, to complete this revolution. I could be jailed for a tweet, or anything I write."

Pro-government Egyptians say she and other activists received funds from abroad to incite protests and conspire against the state. The activists deny the allegations, which have not been tested in court.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'Hero of Egypt's revolution now a pariah'. Print Edition | Subscribe