PBS NewsHour

Egypt’s opposition forcibly muted five years since revolution

A pro-government protester chants slogans as they gather in Al-Qaed Ibrahim area in Alexandria, the city's
         equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square, during the fifth anniversary of the uprising that ended the 30-year reign of Hosni
         Mubarak, Egypt, January 25, 2016.  REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih   - RTX23Y6I

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Five years ago today, Egypt stood at the edge of tectonic changes. The protests that began January 25, 2011, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square would soon cause the military-led ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

It was the culmination of the so-called 18 days, and a high point of what became known as the Arab Spring. In 2012, Egyptians elected Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood president. The next year, he was deposed by the military and its top general, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Sisi was then elected president in 2014.

It has been five years of upheaval and tumult. And, today, the picture from Cairo is much changed from those days of protest.

Special correspondent Nick Schifrin begins tonight our series of three reports, 5 Years On.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Take me back five years ago.

WOMAN: We kept crying from happiness. I couldn’t believe it, we were saying. We did it. We made it. It was a dream that came true.

MAN: All Egyptians are happy.

MAN (through interpreter): I cried. I cried. I was ecstatic. We laughed, jumped, hugged my colleagues, shouted. We did everything.

NICK SCHIFRIN: How exciting was that time?

MAN (through interpreter): After the revolution, we felt the highest stage of freedom and expression in our lives.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Five years later, the revolution’s protagonists still revel in 18 days they call utopia. But, today, the square that toppled a dictator is empty. There are no celebrations and no protesters, because protests are illegal.

AMAL SHARAF, April 6 Movement: During Mubarak, at least we had the chance to speak. Now we are ruled by weapons. We can’t open our mouths. If you go into the street, you can get shot.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Today, Egypt is tense. Above Cairo’s streets, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and his government keep a close watch. They have forcibly muted almost all opposition.

When a state TV anchor criticized him, she was suspended. When a comedian spoofed police by blowing up condoms like balloons, a politician called for him to be assaulted, forcing him to go into hiding.

Adding to the fear, an Italian student was found dead just last week, his body tortured. In total, 40,000 political prisoners fill Egypt’s jails. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more have disappeared into secret prisons.

The government crackdown peaked last month in downtown Cairo. This has long been the epicenter for people who oppose the government. And this used to be full of cafes. You can see they have all been closed now, clearly designed to send the message that nobody was allowed the space to meet or organize.

In today’s Egypt, is there freedom of speech?

MUSTAFA MAHER, Egypt (through interpreter): It’s completely disappeared. Either you’re a Sisi supporter and you can freely talk, or you oppose him even in a limited way, like a Facebook profile picture or on Twitter, and you will be brought to justice.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Mustafa Maher is the brother of Ahmed Maher, one of Egypt’s best-known activists. Ahmed Maher helped lead the revolution. On the streets, he became an icon, mobbed wherever he went.

AMAL SHARAF: “Dear Ahmed Maher, we call for your immediate and unconditional release.”

NICK SCHIFRIN: But, today, Maher’s admirers can only write him letters. Two years ago, he and many of the revolution’s leaders were arrested for protesting a new law that banned protesting. He has spent every day since in solitary confinement.

Amal Sharaf worked hand-in-hand with Maher. Will Ahmed see any of these?

Reham Ibrahim is Maher’s wife.

REHAM IBRAHIM, Wife of Ahmed Maher (through interpreter): They don’t allow anything written, not even personal messages. Anything that will provide any hope, they block.

AMAL SHARAF: They know he’s a symbol for the revolution. And he’s paying the price now. For what? For saying the truth, for opposing the oppression.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Maher’s daughter, Meral (ph), is 8. Each time she visits her dad in prison, she draws him a portrait. Last month, the portrait was of her crying.

REHAM IBRAHIM (through interpreter): I never imagined years would pass this way, and I don’t know when they will end.

So what’s her name?

Tariq El Khouly was also a member of the April 6 Movement. He painted the group’s flag and demonstrated in Tahrir Square. He protested with Maher, but Khouly gets to celebrate his daughter’s birthday in person, because he chose a different path.

So, we’re in your office. And this is a photo of you and the president. What is the significance for you of this photo?

TARIQ EL KHOULY, Egyptian Parliament Member (through interpreter): Egypt needs a president that can unite Egyptians in a dangerous time, when the society is vulnerable and could become another Syria.

NICK SCHIFRIN: El Khouly might still call himself a revolutionary, but he’s not protesting anymore. He’s a member of parliament.

TARIQ EL KHOULY (through interpreter): We left the political zone empty. We should now be filling this space.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The opposition complains that space has been co-opted, because even President Sisi praises the revolution. El Khouly defends the president by arguing lawmaking is the revolution’s next step.

TARIQ EL KHOULY (through interpreter): It’s time to protect the revolution through politics and to build strong parties in parliament and government.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But what kind of government? And what are those parties’ priorities?

ABDEL RAHIM ALI, Egyptian Parliament Member (through interpreter): When the matter has to do with national security and Egypt’s place in the world, we will act as one man, called Abdel Fattah El-Sissi.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Abdel Rahim Ali is a member of Parliament in the same coalition as Tariq El Khouly. They are supposed to check presidential power. But he and hundreds of colleagues hastily approved Sisi’s campaign.

Rahim Ali broadcasts that support. He is a popular TV anchor who indicts the government’s opponents on national television. That’s a recording of Ahmed Maher’s private phone conversation. Ali airs tapped phone calls, in order to paint revolutionaries like Maher as disloyal Western spies.

ABDEL RAHIM ALI (through interpreter): The devil Ahmed Maher is plotting to get loads of money from abroad and destroy Egypt.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Your critics accuse you of McCarthyism.

ABDEL RAHIM ALI (through interpreter): McCarthyism is something else. We referred to a group of parties that want to kidnap the whole country on behalf of foreigners.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Ali supports the kind of nationwide surveillance he performs in his own office. His main target? The most organized opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Three-and-a-half years ago, the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president. When the military overthrew him, and when Sisi took power, the Brotherhood was labeled a terrorist group.

They’re the government’s primary culprit, even for natural disasters. When heavy flooding killed seven people in Alexandria, the government released this video of alleged Muslim Brotherhood members and accused them of clogging the sewers.

ABDEL RAHIM ALI (through interpreter): The conspiracy is still there. They are trying to achieve tomorrow what wasn’t achieved yesterday using the counter-revolution powers from the Muslim Brotherhood.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But right now, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members are in prison. And the leaders who aren’t jailed are in exile.

AMR DARRAG, Muslim Brotherhood: The media and the black campaigning has managed to cultivate some sort of fear inside many Egyptians.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Amr Darrag is the most senior Muslim Brotherhood leader not in prison. He Skyped with us from Istanbul.

AMR DARRAG: Sisi right now, what he’s doing, he’s trying to close all room for work, not just for the Brotherhood, but all of the political and social players in Egypt.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And that means Muslim Brotherhood supporters still in Egypt need to hide; 22-year-old Mahmoud, not his real name, comes from a Brotherhood family. In 2013, he joined protests against the military takeover, demonstrations that ended with a massacre of Brotherhood supporters. Today, he stays quiet. He would only speak to us if we hid his face.

MAHMOUD, Egypt (through interpreter): You can never feel comfortable about your security. The leaders are either imprisoned or killed. Many supporters have been disappeared. There is no Muslim brother still free.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And the secular activists aren’t free either. They stay inside, knowing they lack public support.

AMAL SHARAF: No public protests, not because we are afraid, because we have been through a lot of demonstrators, and a lot of people got killed because it will do nothing. People are not with us.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Perhaps the only activists keeping the faith are the very ones the Egyptian government has silenced.

In 2013, “PBS NewsHour” interviewed Ahmed Maher.

AHMED MAHER, Activist (through interpreter): I am convinced that January 25 was the beginning of the revolution, not the whole revolution.

NICK SCHIFRIN: We played the clip for Maher’s family.

AHMED MAHER (through interpreter): That’s why the results of the revolution are not known yet.

REHAM IBRAHIM (through interpreter): My reaction to the video was not to what he said, but to Ahmed himself. For most people, he is just a figure, but, for me, he is my life.

MUSTAFA MAHER: That instead of longing to move — is already our home, where I as a citizen have dignity and freedom in my country.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But, today, Maher has no freedom. And his dream of the revolution is a dream deferred.

Nick Schifrin, “PBS NewsHour,” Cairo.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tomorrow night, Nick Schifrin will look at the central role of Egypt’s courts in the revolution.

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The global threats that keep the CIA up at night

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia, August 14, 2008.      REUTERS/Larry Downing
         (UNITED STATES) - RTR2146J

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HARI SREENIVASAN: But, first, yesterday America’s top intelligence officials were on Capitol Hill yesterday to discuss their updated assessment of worldwide threats to the United States. Among their top concerns, cyber-attacks, the Islamic State group, the war in Syria, North Korea’s nuclear activities and a resurgent Russia.

We’re joined now by David Cohen, the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He’s been at the CIA for one year, after five years at the Treasury Department overseeing sanctions implementation and efforts to combat terrorism financing.

So, when I rattle off those lists of concerns that the community has, what are the top three that keep you up at night?

DAVID COHEN, Deputy Director, CIA: Well, I think that was a list of six, and I think all six of those keep us up at night.

I mean, obviously, we’re spending a lot of time focused on the threat from ISIL. We’re also very much engaged in what’s happening in Syria and Iraq, the threat from Russia. And just this past weekend, we saw North Korea launch a rocket after a nuclear test they conducted about six weeks ago, so all these issues are, you know, top of the list for us at the agency.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. Given the time you spent a lot of time at Treasury looking at sanctions, right now, especially in the political climate, there is quite a conversation happening about Iran after the nuclear deal.


HARI SREENIVASAN: So looking at it now through your lens at the CIA, what intelligence do we have? How are we so confident we can catch Iran if they were to cheat?

DAVID COHEN: Well, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA, that was agreed to over the summer has within it a whole series of measures that would allow the IAEA the unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear program, from the very — from the uranium mills and mines all the way through whatever enrichment facilities they may have, to their centrifuges, an extraordinary window into what Iran is doing that the IAEA will have and the international community will have.

And that’s one very important part of it, but we have also been very much focused on Iran’s nuclear program for a number of years, and so we will be able to, obviously, supplement what the IAEA is able to discover through our own efforts as well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What about the money that’s sort of been freed up past the deal? We have heard even Secretary of State Kerry after the deal say, listen, I can’t account for every dollar, where it goes.

At the CIA, are you seeing evidence that any of those dollars that had been freed are going to fund terrorism organizations?

DAVID COHEN: Look, one of the major reasons that Iran entered into the nuclear deal was because of the sanctions and because of the huge economical toll that had been created over the years by the sanctions program.

So I think it’s our assessment that Iran is intending to use the sanctions relief, the vast majority of the sanctions relief that it will be obtaining to repair its economy, to try and deliver some modicum of economic growth to its people. And we will be watching very carefully how Iran is making use of that money. We’re watching it very carefully.


Let’s talk a little bit about ISIS, or ISIL. We had a report that we saw just today from fighters trained by the CIA saying that they feel abandoned on the battlefield, especially in light of recent events. How do you support them?

DAVID COHEN: Well, look, I’m not going to get into anything that the CIA may or may not be doing with respect to the battlefield in Syria.

I will say that the Russians, in particular, since they have come in to Syria last fall, you know, came in saying that they were there to fight Da’esh, to fight the terrorists, have spent most of their time trying to bolster Assad.

And what that has meant is helping the Syrian regime to bomb the moderate opposition in Syria, which has been putting pressure on the Assad regime. That is not fighting Da’esh, and it’s taking a toll on the moderate opposition. But, you know, the State Department has a program to work with the moderate opposition.

Others around the world, frankly, in the Middle East and beyond are working to try and support the moderate opposition. They have been taking it on the chin recently, but they have also been quite resilient. You know, this conflict has been going on now for, you know, five years, close to five years.

And the moderate opposition has, you know, faced first the Syrian regime. They faced Hezbollah working with the Syrian regime. They faced the Iranians working with the Syrian regime and now they’re facing the Russians working with the Syrian regime, and they are a resilient bunch.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All these things lead me to say that we are living through a period of incredible geopolitical instability right now. And part of the reason that we’re aware of that is because of the spread of digital technology.

One of the concerns that’s always come from the intelligence community is that you’re not getting enough help from the technology companies. So, I wanted to ask, if you find a suspect somewhere overseas that has some sort of a social media presence, are the Facebooks, the Googles, the Twitters of the world helping you in any way?

DAVID COHEN: Look, I’m not going to get into the sort of particularities of how we — how, if we find a suspect who is on social media, how we’re able to tap into that.

There is an ongoing conversation with the media companies, some of which we’re involved in, but also, you know, the FBI and others in domestic law enforcement are very much engaged in this conversation.

We set up this new directorate specifically because we have recognized that we need to do a better job of leveraging and operating in the digital domain. I mean, I think your viewers know this as well as we do that increasingly we live our lives online. Increasingly, the information that we have access to is digital information.

And we, as the Central Intelligence Agency, felt that we needed to do a better job of both harnessing the digital information that we have, of thinking about how we operate in the digital domain, and making sure that we are making use of digital technologies to the greatest extent possible.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, I have heard that one of the things that you say to the new folks that are being sworn in is that this is an agency that’s governed by law, right?


HARI SREENIVASAN: And one of the practices that’s very difficult for Americans to swallow is drone strikes that kill targets overseas, and at times, there are civilian casualties as well. A lot of people are going to say, you know what? That seems like extrajudicial killings. That doesn’t seem that would be following what American law is.

Should the CIA be in the drone strike business?

DAVID COHEN: Look, I’m not going to comment on whether the CIA is involved in any of those sorts of activities.

I will say, however, that the embrace of legal constraints on what we do, domestic law, international law, is something that we are quite happy to have and to operate within a system of laws. And what makes the CIA, what makes the United States different from many countries around the world is adherence to the rule of law.

And, as you said, Hari, when I swear in new officers, one of the points I make to them is that we operate within a legal construct, we operate within the laws, not fighting against it, but willingly, happily embracing the fact that what we do is governed by law. That’s core to the CIA. It’s core to what this country is all about, and it’s not something that we chafe against at all.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David Cohen with the CIA, thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID COHEN: Thank you.

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300,000 could be trapped as Syrian forces encircle Aleppo, says U.N.

ALEPPO, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 5: A civil defense team member stands on the debris
         of a building after the war crafts belonging to the Russian army carried out airstrikes on the residential areas in the opposition
         controlled Meshed district of Aleppo, Syria on February 5, 2016.
         (Photo by Firas Taki/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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GWEN IFILL: American intelligence officials told a Senate hearing today that Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria has stabilized the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and turned the tide of the five-year civil war against U.S.-backed rebel forces.

That is most apparent in Aleppo in Northern Syria, where tens of thousands have fled as the Syrian army closes in.

William Brangham reports.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This is everyday Aleppo now. Sirens wail as rescue crews rush to the scene of yet another airstrike, believed to be the work of Russian warplanes.

WOMAN (through interpreter): We have the planes over us. We have the rockets over us. We are dying. We are left with nothing, but our clothes. We want to be at ease. We want our dignity. It’s been five years of living under bombs, crying, “Oh, God.”

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Syrian government troops, backed by a barrage of Russian airstrikes, are fighting their way closer and closer to Aleppo. The United Nations warns that 300,000 people are at risk of being trapped inside what was once Syria’s largest city.

Rami Jarrah is a Syrian journalist and activist now in Istanbul, Turkey. He was in Aleppo just two weeks ago, and spoke with us today via Skype.

RAMI JARRAH, Journalist/Activist: In the center of the city, what we are seeing is an escalation, so, mainly the marketplaces, the local, heavily populated residential areas are being attacked.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As a result, the World Food Program reported today that conditions are rapidly getting worse.

BETTINA LUESCHER, Spokeswoman, World Food Program: We are extremely concerned about the situation on the ground. We are worried about access and supply routes from the north to eastern Aleppo that have been cut off. We are making every effort to get food to the people.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Desperate to escape, tens of thousands of Syrians are trying to flee the short, but difficult distance north to Turkey, only to find the border cordoned off.

WILLIAM SPINDLER, U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees: Many people are not being allowed to cross the border, and we are asking Turkey to open its border to all civilians from Syria who are fleeing danger and seeking international protection.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Over the last few years, the Turks have already taken in some 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Turkey’s foreign minister said today his government has started taking in some of the 50,000 Syrians massed at the border, but he warned that influx could become a torrent.

MEVLUT CAVUSOGLU, Foreign Minister, Turkey (through interpreter): We admitted 10,000, but for the others, we will set up camps on the other side of the border. We can only let them through in a controlled fashion. If airstrikes continue, the refugee flood could reach 100,000 or even one million.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Russia insisted today there is no credible evidence that its airstrikes have caused civilian deaths.

But Rami Jarrah says the view on the ground in Aleppo is decidedly different.

RAMI JARRAH: There is extreme fear amongst the civilians there. They are totally disabling the movement there. So, if there is any small form of commerce or sort of business trade that is happening in these areas that people can live off, they are also destroying that. And they are scaring the rest of the civilians there.

They are willing to hit hospitals, willing to hit local councils, aid communities, the civil defense, for example. Then they are willing to kill anyone.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Underscoring that point, a humanitarian group calling itself Syria Civil Defense posted these images online showing the aftermath of a Russian attack on a refugee camp in northern Aleppo. At least five people were killed.

The fierce bombardment has also taken a heavy toll elsewhere, according to humanitarian activist Mohammad Al-Hamseh. He’s witnessed the scope of Russia’s aerial onslaught firsthand farther south in the town of Talbiseh, near the city of Homs.

MOHAMMAD AL-HAMSEH, Humanitarian Activist (through interpreter): Russian planes are bombarding in the morning and evening, inflicting damage to civilians here. They are killing and hurting civilians daily and also bombing what are supposed to be safe areas in the town of Talbiseh.

In regards to the humanitarian situation, it is very, very bad. There is no way for any food or supplies to reach this area, from sugar to flour to oil or gasoline.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Faced with this escalation, the U.N.-backed Syrian peace talks in Geneva stalled last week.

In Washington today, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Moscow’s military campaign in Syria has jeopardized any prospect for peace.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: Russia’s activities in Aleppo and in the region right now are making it much more difficult to be able to come to the table and be able to have a serious conversation. And we have called on Russia, and we call on Russia again, to join in the effort to bring about an immediate cease-fire and to bring about full humanitarian access.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.

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Report: Genital mutilation affects at least 200 million women

MADRID, SPAIN - 2016/02/06: People protesting during the International Day against female genital mutilation . (Photo
         by Marcos del Mazo/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

People protesting during the International Day against female genital mutilation. Photo by Marcos del Mazo/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

At least 200 million women and girls in 30 countries have undergone female genital mutilation, with 70 million more woman affected by the procedure than previously thought in 2014, according to a statistical analysis by UNICEF.

UNICEF’s analysis, which it released last week before the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, showed that people from 30 countries participate in the practice, and half of the affected women and girls worldwide live in three countries: Egypt, Ethopia and Indonesia, where the practice was banned in 2006 but remains commonplace.

On Saturday, UNICEF pledged to eliminate the practice by 2023.

“Female genital mutilation differs across regions and cultures, with some forms involving life-threatening health risks,” UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta said in a statement last week. “In every case [the practice] violates the rights of girls and women. We must all accelerate efforts — governments, health professionals, community leaders, parents and families — to eliminate the practice.”

UNICEF said momentum to address female genital mutilation is growing. Prevalence rates in several countries, including Liberia, Burkina Faso, and Kenya, have declined over the last 30 years. Five countries have passed legislation to criminalize the practice and more that 2,000 communities worldwide have publicly declared they will abandon the practice.

But if the current overall trend continues, UNICEF predicts the practice will become increasingly prevalent over the next 15 years.

On Saturday, executive directors of the UNFPA and UNICEF made statements calling for data collection improvement, communication with medical communities to abandon the practice, and a need to support women and girls who have undergone the practice.

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