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Egyptians Fear Military Stymies Democracy Push


While the fight for Libya reaches a climax, democratic activists in neighboring Egypt are in a battle of their own. Military rulers have intensified their crackdown on protest leaders who use the Internet to criticize the military's actions. At least five people were summoned to appear before a military prosecutor in the past 10 days. All this has Egyptians nervous that the military will stymie democratic reforms.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was just in Cairo and she filed this report.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Loai Nagati used to blog.

Mr. LOAI NAGATI: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: But these days he spends his time on the phone talking to lawyers. Like here in a downtown Cairo cafe.

Mr. NAGATI: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: The 20-year-old student was arrested during a raucous protest while sending updates to Twitter from his cell phone. Now his lawyers are trying to keep him from ending up in a military prison. Nagati and other young activists who helped spark the uprising here are determined not to let Egypt's military rulers silence them. They say it's important to make sure the rulers follow through on their pledge to help lead the country toward democracy.

But Nagati admits the number of young activists being summoned by the military these days is taking its toll.

Mr. NAGATI: Now we have to be more decent and more calm. You know, we are in serious trouble right now. Activists are in serious trouble. And we won't stop criticizing and we are not afraid of them. But we won't use any more that they may use against us.

SARHADDI NELSON: Such caution, coupled with growing publicity about his case, appears to have paid off. Egypt's military rulers announced on Facebook that they were dropping charges against Nagati and fellow tweeter Asmaa Mafhouz, who was accused of inciting violence against the military. In its Facebook message, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces declared it forgave them because they had been in a, quote, "revolutionary condition that affected their behavior."

But four other activists summoned last week still must face the military prosecutor. A handful of activists are already in military prisons, and the military rulers warned on Facebook that they will not tolerate activists heaping, quote, "abuse and offense" against them.

It's a trend that worries activist Shahira Abouelleil. She is with an advocacy group called No Military Trials that helps Egyptian civilians facing military prosecution.

Ms. SHAHIRA ABOUELLEIL (No Military Trials): What we think is happening is that there is a strong message being sent to the activist community that the army will not put up with opposition.

SARHADDI NELSON: Those familiar with the military disagree, even though some share her view that the rulers are making a mistake by silencing their online critics. Retired Major General Mohamed Kadry Said, a senior analyst with the state-funded Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says he believes the military is trying to end protests and strikes so it can speed up the transition to civilian rule. He adds the military is also deeply sensitive to public criticism.

Mr. MOHAMED KADRY SAID (Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies): Maybe in other countries they took this easily and they looked at(ph) it just as some kind of joke just to smile about it. But now in Egypt there is some traditions or people who are accustomed not to be insulted directly, especially they are under pressure - I mean daily pressures.

SARHADDI NELSON: That pressure is compounded by the increasing power of Islamic fundamentalists here as well as unrest in Sinai, where Egyptian soldiers and security forces are in the middle of an operation to flush out smugglers and militants.

Naila Hamdy, who is a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, believes the military crackdown on activists will backfire. That's because the stories of activists being arrested or summoned are being picked up by TV, which has a wide reach among Egypt's 80 million people. Hamdy adds that targeted activists, like Asmaa Mafhouz, are making the most of it, appearing on many talk shows.

Ms. NAILA HAMDY (American University in Cairo Journalism Professor): People can feel sympathetic towards her because her language is simple, passionate, intelligent, and she doesn't seem at all to appear to be someone who's, you know, unnationalistic or really anti the current system. So I think that it may actually have a backlash.

SARHADDI NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.