The sentencing of political activists in Egypt has raised fear of Mubarak-era repression

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Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston.
In Egypt, the hope was that the Arab Spring would usher in a new era of democracy. But it's not looking good on that front. Over the weekend, an Egyptian court sentenced three prominent pro-democracy activists to three years in prison. The verdict has sparked fears that Egypt is sliding back, toward the same kind of oppression that was common before the revolution. To get the latest on that, and also look back at Egypt in 2013, we turn to the Financial Times' Borzou Daragahi.
First, Borzou, tell me who these activists are and why they were sentenced.

Borzou Daragahi: Well, the most famous of them is Ahmed Maher, all three of them were co-founder of a movement called "The April 6th Movement." This was launched in 2008, out of a labor strike that took place in the Nile Delta town of Mahallah. And from this movement, they created this type of activism, this type of peaceful, non-ideological political activism that ultimately led to the 2011 revolution. It could be said that these people were some of the pillars of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

Hills: Now, they were each sentenced to three years in prison. What does this mean, that they were given these three year sentences, and what exactly are they being accused of?

Daragahi: You know, I gotta say, it's kind of absurd. They are accused of organizing and participating in demonstrations that were not authorized. If you think about that, something like that in New York City, well, you know, it's probably a misdemeanor fine that you pay, maybe you spend a couple days in lockup. Taking part in a demonstration that didn't have a police permit. It's not that big of a deal, and these guys got a three year sentence. In addition to that, we're talking about a legal system that sometimes takes up to ten years to resolve a civil case. That take years and years to prosecute anyone. And somehow, when it comes to these three activists, these courts become a model of efficiency and sentence these guys a month after they've been arrested. So it's, you know, what many would consider a gross miscarriage of justice here.

Hills: Now, what I read was that the law that they were convicted of, is in fact a law that was created after Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in the coup. Is that correct?

Daragahi: Yeah, absolutely. This is what many people see as an attempt by the military to consolidate its control. I think many people also consider it ironic. This government, this interim government, came to power over--because of a series of unauthorized, illegal protests, so to speak, and then they move to legislate protests so that no more can happen. So many people see irony in that.

Hills: Now, I mean, let's look back over the entire year, I mean, how would you sum up the events, really in a nutshell, in Egypt during 2013?

Daragahi: Well, I think a lot happened over the last year. I think in the end, what you're going to get out of the last year, what historians and political scientists will look at, is the way the Egyptian elite, the intelligencia, face with the prospect of a imperfect, flawed democratic process, dominated by political Islamists, instead went back into the arms of the deep state, and embraced them.

Hills: And when you say Egyptian liberals, are you talking about the people in the interim government, or are you talking about the secularist liberals, who initially embraced the coup against Morsi and thought, "we need this sort of military government."

Daragahi: When we talk about Egyptian liberals, we're talking about the secularists to a large extent, you're talking about, for example, the Social Democratic Party, you're talking about more educated, wealthy elites, who did well under Mubarak, but you know, have connections to the West, and so said that they aspire to Western values, and paid lip service to the democracy and human rights. When it came down to it, they ultimately didn't support it because they were on the losing side of democracy.

Hills: So where does it leave Egypt at this point?

Daragahi: There was a really insightful editorial in the New York Times today, about how things couldn't look any bleaker, right now, for Egypt. I think politically speaking, it's becoming somewhat of a backwater again. Whereas once it was a, sort of, inspirational role model for democratic-aspiring people around the region and around the world, now it seems to be a people turning inward. And you know, that's never an exciting story to cover, it's never an inspiring narrative.

Hills: The Financial Times' Borzou Daragahi. Thanks so much, Borzou.

Daragahi: It's been a pleasure.