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Sally Sami has been a human rights defender for nearly a decade. She was one of the main coordinators of the Front to Defend Egypt's Protesters (FDEP) during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Sami continues to defend human rights, but has become involved in politics and currently is a leading member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and has been elected its Secretary General for Civil Society Affairs.

Twitter: @salamander 

I woke up one morning, and I was like, "Egypt is going to go through change. I don't want to be in London when it happens. I want to be back." Everyone thought I was crazy. "Everyone's trying to leave the country. You're the one who wants to come back." I was like, "Yeah. I'm coming back." To be honest, I didn't expect the revolution would start. I just—[President Hosni] Mubarak was going to die.

The people would not accept Gamal [Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak’s younger son, was widely viewed as being groomed to succeed his father in office.] to come, so this would be the beginning of the change. So I came back in early September last year [2010] to work with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies with Bahey el-din Hassan. And we had a big project on the elections. We were media monitoring the elections 2010 as part of a coalition.

So I was very involved with what's happening with the 2010 elections. We were the only coalition that asked the president to dissolve the parliament. After the results, after everything, because, you know, the whole-- and from the very beginning, we were saying the environment was not-- this is not an environment to allow for free will elections. The will of the Egyptians were being forged. Then the whole atrocity and, you know, the 2010 elections.

Yes, and so that was early January, I think. But at that time, we were, holding so many interviews about this and people were getting angrier and angrier. And Tunis was happening at the same time, I think. Tunis was starting. And I remember—Sidi Bouzid [The city where protests began that sparked the Tunisian Revolution.] what's-- Saeed, [Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire on December 17,2010 in protest. His death mobilized Tunisians against the dictatorship.] when he burned himself, I saw it on al-Jazeera. I also with my human rights work, I worked on Tunisia a lot. I felt these protests were different, also. It was interesting. 

With a history dating back to the 10th millennium B.C., Egypt has long played a central role in the Middle East. Egypt is the largest Arab nation and has an influential voice in Arabic and Middle Eastern culture. Egypt has a diverse economy, but has struggled to create sustained economic growth and opportunities for its population of 84 million people.

The country has little experience with representative democracy. From 1956 to 1970, President Gamal Abdel Nasser ruled Egypt with a strong hand, nationalizing the Suez Canal and taking the country into conflict with the new state of Israel. Upon his death, Anwar al-Sadat became president. Together with other Arab nations, Sadat launched the October War against Israel in 1973. In 1979, Sadat signed a groundbreaking peace treaty with Israel.

From Sadat’s assassination in 1981 until the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Egypt was governed by President Hosni Mubarak. For all of Mubarak’s time in office, and for much of the time since his resignation, Egypt has been under “Emergency Law,” which allows the government to suspend constitutional rights, including limiting political activity and restricting free speech. Emergency Law also allows the government to use summary arrests against political opponents.

For four successive terms, Mubarak was reelected in referenda without an opponent. In 2005, under domestic and international pressure, Mubarak proposed a constitutional amendment to allow Egypt’s first multicandidate presidential elections. Because the amendment would have imposed severe restrictions on the eligibility of opposition candidates, opposition groups boycotted the vote. Mubarak claimed to have won the September 2005 presidential election with an official 88 percent of the vote, amid widespread allegations of fraud and vote rigging. The main opposition leader, Ayman Nour, was subsequently prosecuted by the government for forging signatures on petitions and was sentenced to five years in prison, provoking protests from the United States and other democratic countries.

Following the example of the Tunisian Revolution, large protests swept Egypt in early 2011. The military, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), withdrew its support of Mubarak. On February 11, 2011, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had resigned. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi then assumed power in Egypt. SCAF dissolved the parliament and suspended the constitution.

In November 2011, Egypt held parliamentary elections that were reportedly fair and democratic. In June 2012, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was elected President, in part because liberal and secular forces failed to coalesce around a single candidate. Morsi’s popularity declined as he declared his orders immune from challenge, removed judicial review processes, and was accused of taking steps towards the implementation of Islamist policies. Conflict arose between those supporting Islamist policies and those seeking a more liberal and secular government. Protests occurred throughout his presidency until Morsi was ousted by the military in July 2013. Muslim Brotherhood leaders were arrested and their camps and offices raided. Until new elections are held, a SCAF-installed provisional government led by acting President Adly Mansour is in control.

In its most recent report, the independent watchdog group Freedom House classifies Egypt as “partly free.” On its scale where 1 is the most free and 7is the least free, Egypt earned scores of 5 in both the civil liberties and political rights categories.

More on this theme from Sally Sami

Sally Sami: Returning to Egypt “Everyone’s trying to leave the country. I wanted to come back.” Sally Sami: Background Sally discusses her background.