[…] It was just six years ago that Ahmed Maher was celebrated around the world as a symbol of freedom and democracy. In January 2011, as the leader of a social-media-savvy network of young activists called the April 6 Youth Movement, Maher mobilized hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and across the country that took down President Hosni Mubarak. The movement was considered for a Nobel Peace Prize, and Maher traveled across Europe and the United States talking about the Arab Spring and Egypt’s future with the likes of Ban Ki-moon and Lech Walesa. But the hopes that were raised by the revolution dissolved into sectarianism and chaos, and Maher’s aspirations were extinguished within two years. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the defense minister and commander in chief of the armed forces, seized power in July 2013 and outlawed protests. Five months later, a judge found Maher guilty of illegal demonstration, rioting and “thuggery” and sentenced him to three years in jail. Another judge added six months to Maher’s sentence for “verbally assaulting a public officer while on duty” after he demanded that the police remove his handcuffs while in court for a 2014 appeal. Maher spent almost all of that period sealed in a small cell in a solitary-confinement wing at Tora Prison, a notorious complex on the outskirts of Cairo, built during British rule, that houses about 2,500 political prisoners and common criminals. Hidden behind 25-foot-high walls, the vast compound encompasses seven prison blocks, ranging from a minimum-security facility for policemen and judges convicted of taking bribes to the supermax “Scorpion Prison,” a labyrinth of cells largely reserved for Islamists and April 6 leaders.
Today Maher is nominally a free man, but the restrictions on his movements are stifling. The regime is deeply concerned that he could revive the social-media network that brought his followers to the streets six years ago. As it was explained to Maher, “tweets can lead to demonstrations, and demonstrations can lead to revolution, and that will bring down the regime and create martyrs,” he said. “So if you are tweeting, you are like a terrorist.”
Every day for the next three years, Maher must spend 12 of every 24 hours at his local police station, a “surveillance period” intended to ensure that he refrains from anti-regime activity. Under Egyptian law, he told me, low-risk felons “have the right to have their surveillance inside the home with a guard downstairs. But they are using this surveillance as punishment. It is a kind of control to keep me all the time under pressure.”