In a little over an hour Mohamed Nabil and Amr Ali smoked almost a whole pack of cigarettes in the ice-cold air-conditioning of Groppi cafe, in downtown Cairo.
They missed the taste of tear gas, they joked, and had to replace it with something.
The men are members of the revolutionary group, April 6 Youth Movement. Ali is the leader and Nabil a political office member. As of Monday the organisation is banned in Egypt, accused of espionage and defaming the state.
The Court for Urgent Matters ordered its assets and offices to be seized, causing the two men to laugh because, they claim, the group has neither.
“If you can find it, OK then take it,” Nabil said.
In three years, April 6 has gone from revolutionary avant-garde to banned organisation, but although Nabil and Ali were upbeat about the group’s new status others are concerned about what it means for activists generally in Egypt.
Ahmed Ezzat, a lawyer and founder of Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), is worried about the court system being used as a tool for revenge against activists who have been critical of the government.
“This court is politicised and this is not the first decision [it has made]against a political group,” he told NM.
This particular court also "banned" the Muslim Brotherhood in September, and Hamas in March, despite having no jurisdiction to do so, as only the Criminal Court can ban organisations.
The decision to ban April 6 may also be an indication that the courts are entirely outside the governance of normal state controls.
On the same day as the April 6 decision, a judge in the central Egyptian city of Minya sentenced 683 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death, including the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammad Badie. The crime they were tried for, many in-absentia, was an attack on a Minya police station in 2013 that left one policeman dead.
In March the same judge sentenced 529 men to death for the same offence. On Monday he confirmed 37 of those sentences and reduced the others to life in prison.
The prosecutor-general said he would arrange an appeal against the decision upholding the 37 death sentences and life sentences for the remaining 492, but no government officials have publicly denounced the sentences, leading some, including Brookings Institution fellow H.A. Hellyer, to suggest the courts are almost operating independently of any state control.
Even if the state can’t direct or manage the court system, Ezzat said there is a danger that after the election the new president, likely to be former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will open new battle lines against opposition political groups.
“This kind of judicial decision is for media and to incite the street against political groups,” he said.
Democracy activists should be very worried about a backlash, Essat added. The forces they’ve fought over the last last three years have returned to power.
Even the supporters of Sisi’s only opponent for the presidency are not safe. The campaign of presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi said in early April that police and authorities were arresting and harassing its members in Cairo, Luxor, Port Said and Al-Daqahleya governorates.
Liberal political parties say the court decision not only contradicts the principles of the 25 January revolution, but is a threat to the rule of law.
The Constitution Party said in a statement the ruling was part of a crackdown on peaceful political activity and Egypt’s rule of law was “as threatening as it was when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power".
Sabahi’s campaign warned against the judiciary being used as a tool for political repression.
Dostour Party member and political activist Alfred Raouf says the court decision means the establishment is not in control of the judiciary and the police.
The court decision was a “clear sign that the remnants of the old regime or the Mubarak regime is taking revenge, but I don’t think that it will affect the … revolution negatively”.
Not only might it push activists to view the Muslim Brotherhood as the lesser evil, despite the Islamic group’s persecution of revolutionaries during its term, but it would politicise more people.
“If you keep aggravating or intimidating the other activists then they’ll come to the street as well.”
Raouf’s prediction may already be coming true. The ban on April 6 is stirring armchair activists back into action. Nabil said that on Monday alone they’d received 5000 requests to join the organisation.
The question on many people’s lips now is what April 6 is going to do next, especially with all of these potential new recruits.
The first step is to appeal the ban on its activities. Nabil says although they don’t need to appeal because the ruling is effectively invalid, doing so is a way of “challenging the regime”.
Moreover, after losing momentum in 2011 post-revolution April 6 has remembered the cause that brought it together in 2008: bread.
Nabil said about four months ago the group held a brainstorming session to work out why their numbers were dropping and marches were pulling a few hundred people rather than their customary thousands.
The answer was economics, and now marches were centered around bread, petrol prices, power prices and people’s daily economic needs. A march on Saturday to the presidential palace drew 6,000 people, Nabil said.
A ban on April 6 activities won’t derail the reinvigorated movement, he added. Nor was it scaring away new recruits. Nabil is confident that it was only a matter of time before the failure of Sisi’s seemingly inevitable presidency.
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