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Friday, May 10, 2013

Activist Is Detained in Egypt for ‘Inciting Protests’ Against Morsi Government

Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, was arrested on Friday at the airport in Cairo upon returning from the United States.Ahram Online Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, was arrested on Friday at the airport in Cairo upon returning from the United States.

The Egyptian police arrested Ahmed Maher, a high-profile figure from the country’s 2011 revolution, at Cairo International Airport on Friday as he returned from a 13-day trip to the United States. The authorities ordered that he be detained for four days pending investigation into charges of “inciting protests” in connection with a demonstration held in March, according to local media reports.

Al Masry al Youm, the largest circulation daily newspaper in Egypt, reported that Mr. Maher was arrested on charges of vandalism and destruction in connection with the March protest, during which activists from his April 6 Youth Movement group waved women’s underwear to the home of the Egyptian Interior Minister.

Ahram Online, an English language news Web site connected with the country’s flagship state-run newspaper, reported that Mr. Maher would be held for four days, citing reports from the government’s official Middle East News Agency.

Bassem Sabry, a well-known commentator on Egyptian politics, posted an update to Twitter that appeared to express shock at the odd-sounding charges of vandalism via underwear.

Mr. Maher, 32, may not have been aware of the charges against him at the time of his arrest, according to a report in The Daily News Egypt, an independent English-language daily newspaper, which interviewed Khaled al-Masry, a spokesman for the April 6 group.

“We don’t know why he was arrested or what he is being charged with,” said Al-Masry, who said members of the group tried to reach Maher at the airport after police arrested him. Maher was not made aware of the reason for his arrest before his phone was turned off, according to Al-Masry.

Mr. Maher founded the April 6 Youth Movement in 2008 to organize young people and express solidarity with striking textile workers in the Nile delta town of Mahalla, north of Cairo. It began on Facebook, where the first April 6 group page attracted 60,000 members and the attention of the security forces, who arrested, tortured and threatened to rape Mr. Maher in 2008.

He described the ordeal in a 2008 interview with The Christian Science Monitor:

After his 12-hour ordeal, Maher was put in a small cell where officers treated his bruises and tried to explain themselves. “They came to me and tried to apologize,” says Maher. “They kept saying ‘Oh, the men who beat you were just a few bad guys. We love Egypt, too. We love this country as much as you do, but Egyptians aren’t ready for democracy. Just look at what happened in Iraq.”

The activist’s arrest at the Cairo airport immediately drew a parallel between the Hosni Mubarak era and today, when Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, stands accused by critics of engaging in anti-democratic behavior of his own.

That was a point made by Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, in an update posted to Twitter.

Mr. Sabry, the prominent commentator on Egyptian politics, agreed.

Hisham A.Hellyer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, made note of Mr. Maher’s arrest in an update posted to Twitter. Just one year ago, he was an outspoken supporter of Mr. Morsi’s presidential candidacy, when he was a candidate in a runoff against the Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafik.

The “underwear protest,” which appears to have landed Mr. Maher in a jail cell, was held on March 29 outside the home of Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in the upscale suburb of New Cairo. Protests waved the underwear at Mr. Ibrahim’s house and held banners that accused the Interior Ministry of “prostituting” itself to the Morsi government, according to a report in Ahram Online, an English-language news Web site that is tied to a state-run newspaper.

Four members of the April 6 group were arrested during the March 29 protest and charged with “rioting and resisting authorities,” according to Ahram Online, although all four were released “without any bail conditions.” At the time, Mr. Masry, the April 6 group’s spokesman, denied rumors that authorities has issued a warrant for Mr. Maher’s arrest in connection with the protest.

Nevertheless, Mr. Maher said he was worried that he might be arrested upon returning to Egypt, said Cole Bockenfeld, the advocacy director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a group in Washington that organized Mr. Maher’s trip to the United States. In an interview with The Lede, he said he was the last person to see Mr. Maher before he left for the airport in Washington.

“I saw him at his hotel yesterday and then sent him to the airport, and he said he anticipated this on his arrival at Cairo airport,” said Mr. Bockenfeld, who recalled that Mr. Maher said there were “rumors of a warrant for his arrest.”

“Ahmed said there was an escalating campaign against April 6 members and that more and more of their members had been arrested on these kinds of charges in the last few weeks - inciting violence through protests, insulting the president,” Mr. Bockenfeld said.

Mr. Maher traveled across the United States during his visit, Bockenfeld said, going to three universities on the West Coast and appearing on at least two panels at public events.

In video posted online from one event, the Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles, Mr. Maher expressed frustration at the path Egypt’s transition had taken since the 2011 uprising, but also optimism at the ability of young people to affect change.

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During his visit to the United States, Ahmed Maher spoke at a conference in Los Angeles about Egypt’s troubled path toward democracy.

Mr. Maher also met with senior officials at the State Department and the National Security Council as well as staff members at the White House and on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Bockenfeld said the “underwear protest” was a “harmless, nonviolent protest,” and described Mr. Maher’s arrest as indicative of the kinds of abuses that he decried in his many meetings in the United States.

“One thing that Ahmed said to every person he met with in Washington was that he played by the rules of the game - he played politics, he engaged in negotiations with Morsi - and those negotiations broke down because of false promises,” Mr. Bockenfeld said. “Now he said that he had to organize against Morsi and oppose him, and that the U.S. was not speaking up strongly enough against Morsi’s transgressions and anti-democratic behavior.”