The Arab spring idealist who died for Isis
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He had held on for months. But when the Islamists and leftists, who had united in the 2011 revolution he had championed, began fighting each other on the streets of Cairo in late 2012, something inside him snapped.
Ahmed al-Darawy, a one-time police officer turned revolutionary, had been a mainstay of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square.
“He told me, ‘That’s it! That’s the beginning of the end’,” recalls his brother, Haytham, younger by two years. “He told me, ‘Did you see what happened? The revolution is coming to an end, and the counter-revolution will rise. There is blood now between them, they will never reunite. And this means they are both going to be wiped out.’”
Once gregarious and outspoken, he became reclusive, shying away from public life. After the July 2013 coup d’état felled the country’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and led to the installation of a military-backed regime, Darawy left the country, telling relatives he was seeking medical care.
The call came on May 29, 2014. Darawy, a 38-year-old father of three, had died on the battlefields of Iraq, the man said. The one-time democracy activist, who had run for the Egyptian parliament in 2012 as an independent, had joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda offshoot known as Isis, and died in battle.
“The Darawy matter actually horrifies me,” says Yasser al-Hawary, 36, a liberal Egyptian activist. “He adopted the same demands and ideas as all of us and he was just like anybody else. This means other people, that don’t show violence, could join Isis as well.”
Darawy’s path from non-violent democracy activist to fighter for a group so extreme it has been disowned by al-Qaeda reflects the unsettling course of the Arab revolts of 2011. A heady season of hope and optimism that stirred longings for democracy and citizenship rights also unleashed demons many observers did not expect: political repression, internecine and sectarian fighting, and chaos in what had been authoritarian societies.
With the possible exception of Tunisia, all the nations that have risen up are now mired in intensified repression or armed conflict. A moment of hope that the Arab world was emerging from authoritarianism has been eclipsed by Isis and its efforts to draw men and women like Darawy into its orbit.
“This story is very important,” says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics and the author of a book on jihadis. “Not only does it tell us about Egypt’s past, present and future, but also it tells us how the great aspirations and hopes of the so-called Arab spring have turned into despair, and how some of these men have turned to jihadism.”
Darawy belies the stereotype of jihadis as misfits. He was born to university educated parents in 1976, and grew up in Cairo’s upscale Maadi suburb. Those who knew him and his family describe them as well-to-do. Darawy’s sister studied at the expensive American University of Cairo. Darawy received a prestigious spot to study law enforcement at the police academy.
”We were not just middle-class, we are a rich family,” says Haytham, who now lives in the Gulf.
After years as a cop, Darawy became disillusioned with the police, under the interior ministry, known for its brutality and corruption. “He saw what the regime was doing,” says Mr Hawary.
He left the police to join Etisalat, the country’s UAE-operated mobile phone carrier, as a marketing manager setting up sponsorship arrangements with local sports clubs for the company. His brother says Darawy and his wife earned the equivalent of $7,000 a month in a country where monthly income averages $500.
Activists recall meeting him first in late 2010, at the offices of the Socialist Renewal Current, among the liberal and leftist groups that spearheaded the drive into the streets the following January. “He was very expressive and outspoken and was very balanced in his ideas,” says Mr Hawary. “He was in harmony with us.”
He became a leading figure in the tent community that sprang up on Tahrir Square in the days before longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February 2011.
“He had indescribable hope and energy,” says his brother. “I once told him, ‘Ahmed, I think your activism is affecting your work and your home.’ So he told me something very important; that the future of the country is being formed now, we are making history.”
But Darawy was no starry-eyed idealist dreaming of transformation. Not only had he been a police officer but he had worked in the private sector and was by the time of the revolution a parent. He knew how institutions operated and understood the slow pace of reform, so when he came forward to call for reform of the interior ministry, his proposal was full of concrete steps to improve an organisation whose abuses lay at the heart of the 2011 rebellion.
He urged a reduction in work hours, paperwork and administrative tasks to encourage the police to provide proper security, as well as salary reforms and training programmes to reduce brutality. “He wanted police resources to be focused on the security of the citizen,” says his brother.
He told friends he was even willing to take a salary cut to rejoin the police if it would help bring about change. But despite pitching his reform package to a succession of interim governments, including that of Mr Morsi, his ideas were never embraced. “All his efforts failed,” says Mohamed Qassas, a fellow activist. “His reforms were mentioned in the media but never got anywhere.”
As Egypt’s transition moved toward electoral politics, Darawy made a spirited parliamentary run for a seat in his home district, declining an offer to run on the Muslim Brotherhood list and instead winning the backing of the leftist Revolution Continues coalition as well as the Salafist Nour party.
Provisional figures compiled by campaign volunteers showed that he and another candidate had received the most votes and were headed for a run-off, but the election committee declared that Mostafa Bakri, a pro-regime journalist, had won outright.
“There was no evidence but there were suspicions that the election was forged against him,” says Mr Hawary. “Of course he was angry and sad. Most of the revolutionary youth ran for this election and almost none of us made it.”
Presidential elections, too, proved frustrating. Darawy was among those who supported Abdul-Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader who had reinvented himself as a liberal embracing the spirit of the Tahrir revolution. But the candidate lost in the first round of voting.
Though described by some as a moderate Islamist, Darawy maintained friendships with fellow revolutionaries including leftists and liberals.
The end of that solidarity between Islamists and secular revolutionaries marked the beginning of Darawy’s transformation. The violent December 2012 confrontations at the Ittihadiya presidential palace, in which liberal and leftist activists clashed with Morsi supporters, marked the first time the two cornerstones of the Tahrir uprising fought each other. Such confrontations between Islamists and their opponents also undermined the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad, turned Libya’s factions against each other and marred Tunisia’s transition.
“The unity of the masses, the unity of the poor, the middle class, the professionals and the human rights activists was one of the main features of the revolutions,” says Mr Gerges. “But beyond the unity against dictators there was no unity of purpose, no vision and no blueprint of the future. The idea was that the revolution was going to take care of itself, which is a very silly thing.”
Darawy was ill-prepared for the blow. To him, the revolution was quickly careening toward disaster. To associates, he appeared to side with the Islamists, accusing the secular activists of instigating the Ittihadiya violence. Facing a choice between his liberal ideas and Islamist identity, he chose the latter.
After the clashes, Darawy drifted away from Egyptian politics and became more and more obsessed with the unfolding tragedy in Syria, where the Assad government had turned a peaceful uprising into a civil war pitting a regime dominated by members of his heterodox Shia sect against an armed Sunni rebellion drawing fighters from as far away as North America.
“He was always talking about the Arab revolutions, about Syria and how we must rescue the people there,” said Mohamed Abbas, an Islamist-leaning fellow activist now working at a think-tank in the Gulf. “He was in deep grief that the revolutions ended up this way.”
Across the Arab world television broadcasts of cheering pro-democracy protesters waving flags gave way to images of Syrian children killed by the Assad regime’s barrel bombs. Mr Abbas says he fears the dreary course of the Arab revolutions has discredited a budding belief in the democratic process among Arab youth.
“They try out new methods to force the world to hear their voice and to change the [political] reality they reject by their own hands,” he says.
Darawy is thought to have joined protests in favour of Mr Morsi in the summer of 2013, as an outpouring of anger against the Islamist government began to swell. Army officer Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Mr Morsi in a popularly backed July 2013 coup. The crushing of Morsi supporters weeks later in a violent crackdown at Rabaa Adawiya Square has become a rallying cry for Islamist-leaning youth.
While both hardcore Islamists in the Arab world and disaffected Muslims in the west have made the journey to Isis, very few of those who took part in the uprisings in Tahrir Square or along Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis have ended up joining the group.
Darawy disappeared shortly after the violence at Rabaa Adawiya Square. During one conversation with Mr Abbas around that time he spoke emotionally about the failures of the Arab uprisings. “He was very sad and angry,” says Mr Abbas. “He was always using the language of complete despair. ‘We’re going down the toilet,’ he would say.”
At some point in the autumn of 2013 he was dismissed from his job. A telephone number his brother managed to locate for him has never worked. “Even his wife, her information about him was very poor,” his brother recalls. “She would go for a long time not able to communicate with him.”
Then suddenly, in February, Darawy contacted his younger brother via the internet. “He said take care of mum and dad; we wore them out when we were children,” recalls his brother. “And it didn’t occur to me that he was saying goodbye.” It was the last time the two men communicated.
Haytham, who has been struggling to reconstruct the last few months of his brother’s life, says he believes he first joined the jihadi group, Jabhat al-Nusra, before becoming an Isis commander once it began to dominate the Syrian rebellion in late 2013. He has yet to locate his brother’s body or discover the exact circumstances of his death. One Syrian rebel leader alleges Darawy died at the hands of Iraqi forces in Tikrit.
An Isis supporter claims he died in a suicide operation, while another says he was leader of a unit of Egyptian jihadis fighting in Syria’s northeast.Months after his family learned of his death, pictures of him holding an assault rifle began appearing on the internet. The story of Darawy’s path from police officer to revolutionary to Isis fighter has, for some, become a cautionary tale of infiltration of the security forces as well as a way to paint the Arab uprisings as a cover for extremist Islam.
Such caricatures do not adequately describe Isis recruits such as Darawy. “People are joining Isis simply because there is no other game in town and until very recently it has been very successful,” says James Dorsey, a writer and researcher who has written about Nidhal Selmi, a Tunisian footballer who died as an Isis fighter. “You have people who join who don’t share in great detail its ideology but see very little alternative to effecting change and therefore see it as a vehicle.”
In interviews with those who knew him, the word used repeatedly to explain Darawy’s transformation is “despair” over the course of events in the Arab world. “We had huge ambitions,” says Mr Qassas, pondering his coffee at a café in central Cairo. “Everybody had visions of change and transformation and democracy and citizenship rights. When none of these ambitions was realised the disappointment was as high as the ambition.”
The same despair has driven some of the revolutionaries in Egypt into exile or depression, self-destruction and suicide, including Zainab al-Mahdi, a well-regarded activist who hanged herself in her Cairo flat in November. The loosely organised, spontaneous uprisings that felled longtime dictatorships ill-prepared their partisans for the long, fierce battles needed to bring about fundamental social change.
“Historically, what’s happening is very normal; the upheavals, the tensions and the counter-revolution,” says Mr Gerges. “What’s happening in Egypt and the Arab world is not unique. It is the aftershock of the social earthquake. It could take many years for things to calm down and subside.”
Haytham has taken custody of his brother’s children, moving them to the Gulf.
“My feelings towards Ahmed will never be altered. I have been proud of him since I was a kid. He is my big brother,” he says. “I will never question why he did this or that. God bless him and reward him for his actions during his life. I will never be ashamed, and I will always be proud of him.”
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