CAIRO, Egypt - The era of the protest in Egypt is over. That was the clear message delivered Monday to Ahmad Salah, a leading pro-democracy activist and one of the 13 protesters released after being severely beaten and enduring nearly a month in detention.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Salah, 39, a member of the steering committee of the opposition coalition Kefaya, said that before he was released from jail he was brought before three senior police investigators at Kasr elNil police station here. He said they told him: "For a year and a half there was a little break. Now this is finished. Now, when you demonstrate, you go to jail."
The message to Egypt's democratic opposition in light of recent crackdowns and Washington's muted reaction could not be clearer. The near two-year experiment in Egypt that allowed organized and public dissent against the regime has come to a screeching halt.
Last Thursday, riot police arrested at least 100 demonstrators from the Muslim Brotherhood who gathered in downtown Cairo to show solidarity for two judges who were being tried for criticizing last November's disputed parliamentary elections.
On the same day, the courts denied President Mubarak's main challenger in September's presidential elections, Ayman Nour, a last appeal for a retrial; he will likely have to serve his full five-year sentence. Despite the hundreds of riot police stationed at the courthouse last Thursday, few demonstrators took to the streets when the verdict was read.
Mr. Salah was arrested in the early hours of April 24 in a sit-in before the judges' syndicate along with 30 to 40 other activists showing solidarity with Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki, the two judges who dared to investigate the complaints of fraud and violence in last November's parliamentary vote. Mr. Salah and his agitators renamed one of the streets "Freedom Street" with signs and placards. Some of them wrote on the street itself that the square was the tomb of Mr. Mubarak.
They were not alone in their protests. Some 2,000 other judges also were voicing their own symbolic dissent against the pending charges of the two judges. And in a march earlier this month from the syndicate to the court of cassation, where the two judges would later be tried and largely freed of charges, the spark of dissent had ignited a full third of a key pillar of the Mubarak regime: the judiciary.
That spark began in late 2004, when members of Kefaya and Mr. Salah's Youth for Change, along with other opposition movements, began protesting against the regime in squares throughout the capital. At first the demonstrations did not attract much interest or attention. But since the judges were charged and threatened with losing their judgeships, the space created by Kefaya has appeared to be in danger of vanishing.
Mr. Salah calls his arrest a "kidnapping." He says he first encountered plain-clothed security agents when he went to stop them from ripping down a large flag that demonstrators had hung from the side of a building. When he went to stop them, he said more men grabbed him than he could count. "All I could move were my eyes and my fingers," he said. He was thrown into a paddy wagon and savagely beaten while being driven around the capital for 10 hours.
His version of events, however, is vastly different from the charges read out by the prosecutor in court. One of the many charges against him and his fellow protesters was that they had attacked the plain-clothed security officers, not the other way around. Mr. Salah also was charged with violating the law that prohibits more than five Egyptians from gathering in public, as well as vandalism.
The regime is sticking to its version of events. Earlier this month, Egypt's ambassador to Washington, Nabil Fahmy, lamented the violence of the April 24 protesters in an interview with the Washington Post.
The worst ordeal for Mr. Salah, he said, was being kept in unventilated rooms crowded with violent criminals. Mr. Salah, a slight man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, has acute asthma and other respiratory ailments. He said that during the first nights he was incarcerated he felt as if he was slowly suffocating. So he began a hunger strike, demanding that he be given a ventilated room. The hunger strike continued on and off in various jails over 18 days, and ultimately persuaded the warden at Tora prison to allow him to stay in a less crowded room and to see his brother.
Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Salah was upbeat, though he said he may not attend demonstrations in the future. "I am more useful to the movement out of jail, and they will arrest me if I go back," he said, adding that there were other things he was planning.
But later yesterday evening, Mr. Salah's mood had changed. "I am sure now that it is going to be very bad for me. I don't know what I am going to do. I am now hearing that my colleagues in jail may be at risk again for maltreatment. If I am arrested again, it will be my end."