In August 2013, Egypt's revolution reached what was then its nadir, a point it has passed several times since, as a number of the activists and civil society groups who had fought so hard to remove one dictator in 2011 now rallied in support of another, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Many helped organize mass rallies in support of Sisi's coup that summer, and were organizing again to encourage Sisi to crack down violently on peaceful Islamist sit-ins.
Steven Cook, an Egypt scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, channeled the frustration of many Egypt watchers that month with something like an open letter to the country's activists and organizers. When I spoke with Cook about what had happened to Egypt's "so-called liberals," as he termed them, he sent me a lengthy response in which he concluded, "I think Amr Hamzawy and Hossam Bahgat are the only true liberals in Egypt."
Two years later, Hamzawy, a political science professor and human rights activist, has fled Egypt after defeating a travel ban on trumped-up charges of "insulting the judiciary." As for Hossam Bahgat, a journalist and founder of an important human rights organization: This Sunday, Egyptian military intelligence arrested Bahgat on charges of "publishing false information" and insulting the military.
The proximate cause of Bahgat's arrest appears to be, most likely, a report he published last month uncovering a secret military trial of 26 officers who'd been convicted of plotting a coup against Sisi's regime. He'd also criticized the government's handling of last week's Russian plane crash and pro-government media's insistence that any allegations of terrorism were a Western plot meant to embarrass Egypt.
In many ways, though, Bahgat's real crime was not any particular report or statement he'd made but rather the mere fact of being a liberal activist in Sisi's Egypt. But what is in many ways most tragic about this great and storied nation's hardening of intolerance and despotism is that it has been as much a bottom-up as a top-down phenomenon.
When Cook called Bahgat one of the only two "true liberals of Egypt," he was lamenting not government crackdowns but Egyptian society's turn toward illiberalism. This is not to say that Egyptians cheer for the arrest of human rights activists, then or now. Rather, they were driven at the time by fear of and opposition to the country's Islamist government, which had been democratically elected but disastrous in office.
Many never appeared to consider that this military dictator might one day turn on them as well. And two years later, many of the Egyptians who led mass demonstrations calling for and then celebrating Sisi's 2013 coup — a common if implausible claim among his supporters is that "25 million" people attended pro-coup protests, thus legitimizing him as democratically elected — have surely felt the brute force of his authoritarian rule.
The decline of Egypt's liberals is no longer a grassroots phenomena as it was then. Sisi has taken his crackdowns much further than many of his coup's supporters likely wanted or believed he would; he and his regime bear the burden of responsibility. That this was entirely foreseeable makes it no less tragic, nor does it make the suffering of Egyptians who'd supported him any less real. But it is a sad reflection of Egypt's trajectory that Bahgat, who'd tried to warn his fellow citizens against embracing Sisi, has now paid for a mistake that was at least partially theirs.
Oddly, and yet unsurprisingly, as Sisi's support in Egypt has cooled, his reception in Western capitals has warmed considerably. The Obama administration, which initially punished Sisi's violent crackdowns by withholding military aid, now treats him as a close ally, and much of the GOP praises him as something like a folk hero. The United Kingdom just last week invited Sisi to London for a chummy meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron.
Bahgat is rightly adored by Western journalists, and one might like to believe that a silver lining to his arrest is that it will provoke such anger as to compel Western governments to respond. But Sisi has gotten away with imprisoning American NGO workers and Australian and Canadian journalists. There is little reason to think Western governments won't tolerate him cracking down on his own.
It is the fact that Bahgat's arrest will almost certainly not become a watershed moment that, in many ways, makes it so tragic. Like the once-inspiring Egyptian revolution that has been slowly ground down into dust — by events internal and external, by bad actors cynical and innocently misguided, by forces foreseeable and impossibly ill-fated — it seems tragically fitting that someone once deemed the last true liberal in Egypt was quietly carted away to a military prison this weekend, and the world hardly noticed.