The three women are among Egypt’s most active democracy campaigners, the faces of its revolution. Through a string of rulers over past three years — former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the military, the Islamists — they have been at the forefront of protests, chronicling police abuses and struggling to limit the power of the military.
A harrowing night this week underscored for them how little has changed, and why they and other activists are opening a new, non-Islamist protest front against the military-backed government installed after the July 3 coup that ousted former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
The three — Rasha Azab, Mona Seif and Nazly Hussein — and 11 other women were beaten and dragged off by police during a Cairo protest. In the middle of the night, the women were piled into a police truck and driven through the desert outside Cairo. Then the police abandoned them on a dark, remote highway.
It is an intimidation tactic straight out of the playbook of Mubarak, who ruled for 29 years until his 2011 ouster.
Secular activists have largely been muted since the ouster of Morsi, whom they opposed. Since the coup, Islamists have held near daily protests against the military in the face of a bloody police crackdown. Now the secular camp is revving up, saying Egypt’s new leadership is trampling on democratic ambitions by giving free rein to police abuse and military power that revolutionaries had hoped to get rid of with Mubarak’s ouster. This week saw a series of small rallies by activists, fueled by anger over a draconian law issued on Monday that banned protests without a police permit.
Bruised and tired, the three women spoke before dawn on Wednesday, just after friends retrieved them from the desert. Azab was still in pain from being beaten by police.
“Our beating is nothing,” Azab said. “Today we will go to sleep, wake up and continue our fight with authorities again.”
In the Egyptian media, security officials denied any women were beaten or dumped in the desert — despite the release of amateur footage of beatings. Pro-military TV stations, which praised activists and protesters who rose up against Morsi, now dismiss the same protesters as troublemakers.
“The same repressive state is here,” Hussein said. “Everyone who comes to the chair wants first thing to stop protests.”
The problem for her camp is that much of the public supports the military and is weary of constant unrest. Hussein said that during his year in office, Morsi tried but failed to pass a law restricting protests, but the new government felt confident enough to issue one.
Moreover, Seif added, young activists feel let down by liberal politicians uncritically backing the government who have been willing to “give up rights of citizens they have no right to give up.”
The three believe police wanted to send a signal that they are prepared to go after anyone in enforcing the new law and targeted them because of their prominence.
Azab is well known from protests even before Mubarak’s fall. Standing out with her bun of curly hair, she has tangled in arguments and even shoving matches with thugs trying to shut down rallies.
The 30-year-old Hussein has focused on documenting police brutality over the past three years, particularly on verifying names of hundreds killed and arrested in protests. She remains haunted by images of dead young protesters she has seen at morgues and funerals.
Seif, a 27-year-old biology graduate student, emerged as a thorn in authorities’ side by leading a campaign against military trials of civilians, a tactic used against protesters since Mubarak’s fall. Her campaign forced the military to release details of thousands of cases.
On Wednesday evening, the 14 women turned themselves in to the police, arguing that since 24 male protesters arrested Tuesday are still in custody, they should be arrested too.
The police refused to arrest the women.
“If they want to try someone, it has to be me and us,” Seif said.