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5 Years After Revolution, Activist Condemns Political Climate In Egypt


Five years ago today, the Arab Spring came to Egypt. Protesters took to Cairo's streets to demand more political and economic freedoms, as demonstrator Adel al-Sharif (ph) told NPR at the time.


ADEL AL-SHARIF: This is the exact thing that moves everybody. The status quo is too much, too much not doing anything. We're not progressing. So we need this change.

CORNISH: Things did change. The country's longtime president Hosni Mubarak stepped down.


Egyptian scholar Amr Hamzawy was part of that process, mediating between the government and protesters. Later, he was elected to Parliament, and today, he has left Egypt for Stanford University. In Cairo, another military backed ruler is in place, and Hamzawy describes a political climate there that's similar to what Egypt had five years ago before the revolution.

AMR HAMZAWY: A repressive environment in which dissent is not tolerated, a repressive environment in which, once again, Egypt is falling back to autocratic times, a repressive environment in which unprecedented human rights violations are happening. The numbers are shocking when you look at the number of imprisoned Egyptians - anywhere between 40,000 and 50,000 Egyptians. So it's an environment similar to what we had in Egypt prior to 2011.

SIEGEL: If you were pressed to say what went wrong, what do you say? What's the short answer to that question?

HAMZAWY: Short answer is that the military establishment never warmed up to a democratic Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood and different Islamist groups were too eager to get it their own way and not to cooperate with secular forces. And secular forces, liberal and leftists, were ready to call on the military to interfere in politics once they lost an election. So in a way to get rid of the Muslim Brothers, they were willing to get the military back in.

SIEGEL: Well, a cynic might say, after you've listed the groups that were not insistent upon a functioning democracy, there's not much left. I mean, is it just liberal intellectuals like yourself? Is it a small minority that hope for real democracy?

HAMZAWY: It's not the liberal minority of writers and intellectuals. Most of us have left the country. No, it's much more about students, young Egyptians and workers who have been protesting in the last two years. Only in 2015, we had over 1,000 protest event happening in spite of the repressive environment.

SIEGEL: Do you count yourself a political exile from Egypt right now?

HAMZAWY: I hate to say it, Robert, but I am. I opposed the military coup of July 2013. I was banned from travel for a year based on trumped-up charges. During 2014, I was not allowed to teach in Cairo University. My work was stopped in different manners. So in a way, after trying to resist, I did not have any choice but to leave, which I did a couple of months ago.

SIEGEL: What do you see as your role now? What can you and other people like you - you in Stanford, in this case - what can you do at this point for Egypt?

HAMZAWY: What I continue to do is to write for an Egyptian newspaper. I face censorship, but I insist on writing. It's my contribution from afar. I try to help shape public debate in which the value of democracy is obscured in which Egyptians not only listen to the government rhetoric on, well, I mean, you tried democracy, and you failed; listen to us. We offer you security. We offer you bread and butter. Forget about civilian politicians. You are more secure with us.

So to offer an alternative to that narrative which really looms large in the Egyptian public space - what else can be done is a question which will have to be answered domestically. Now it comes down to Egyptian students, young Egyptians and workers who are protesting peacefully. And they are going to push the envelope gradually, or we will have an accumulation of anger and a momentum not identicle but similar to January 2011 once again soon.

SIEGEL: Amr Hamzawy now of Stanford University, thank you very much for talking with us.

HAMZAWY: A pleasure, Robert. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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