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5 Years Later, Egypt Government Crackdown On Dissent Persists


It was the spring of 2011. The Arab Spring protests in Cairo deposed longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak from power. After that, there was talk of change in Egypt, a new political opening that would lead to real democracy. Now, five years later, many Egyptians say that opening has slammed shut under the leadership of the new president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Most notably, anyone who speaks out against the government risks going to prison. Last week, a prominent lawyer in Cairo who represents imprisoned or missing Egyptians himself went missing. To talk about all this, we're joined now by NPR's Leila Fadel from Cairo. Thanks for being with us, Leila.


MARTIN: We mentioned this human rights lawyer who was - who has disappeared along with hundreds of other Egyptians. Why is this happening? Why are people being arrested?

FADEL: Analysts are talking about a government in a state that seems to feel out of control. They're trying to keep control at the time where the country's in a financial crisis. They're dealing with an insurgency in Sinai. And so the answer is to keep people in line through this type of political repression that we're seeing, these mass arrests, these mass sentencings in court and the many cases of security forces basically disappearing Egyptians.

MARTIN: I imagine this has got to have a broader chilling effect, even on just daily life there.

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, you definitely feel a difference in the city. Cairo was always a very lively, fun city, chaotic. And even under Mubarak, who was an authoritarian leader, there were always known red lines - what you could say and what you couldn't say. And nowadays, that's really changed. People don't really know what they can and can't say anymore. And one of the biggest examples of that was the death and torture of an Italian Ph.D. student here who was found on the side of the road with stab wounds and cigarette burns on his body, signs of awful torture. And that is being attributed to security forces. And it's not unusual to have people disappear and then show up dead. But it is unusual for it to happen to a foreigner from a country that's closely allied with the Egyptian government. And so people just don't know where the red lines are now.

MARTIN: What's the government's explanation for this crackdown? Do they give one?

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, the government says that this is a time of instability. They don't want Egypt to become like Syria, like Libya. And people are very afraid of becoming like Syria or Libya. And so that is what is said every time there's any type of crackdown - that this is what's best for Egypt. But I think that excuse is starting to run dry a little bit. For the first time, there's what feels like a moment happening in Egypt where there is more people speaking out despite the risks.

MARTIN: Is it better or worse, daily life in Egypt, than it was under Hosni Mubarak before the Arab Spring?

FADEL: I think it's unquestionably worse. That's what you hear from observers and people who live here. And so not only are you seeing mass arrests, mass death sentences, police repression, but you're also seeing a country that has a major financial crisis. There's no foreign currency really available for Egyptians. Their purchasing power is down. And so life is worse without the benefits of the stability of what they thought an authoritarian regime would bring.

MARTIN: NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo. Thanks so much, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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