The prevailing characteristic of the time before the revolution, all those moons ago, was Egypt’s political moribundity.
There were elections of sorts, or at least votes went in ballot boxes but their provenance was not always from voters. Political parties did politics, sort of, following a script. There was a parliament. But outside of university campuses and the workers’ movement genuine politics was largely absent from public life. Egyptian Facebook was a very different animal back then, and while it would prove useful for mobilization in 2011 and beyond, the majority of people ignored both political developments, when there were any, and the routine and scarcely concealed abuses that were the calling card of the Hosny Mubarak era. Very few people I know voted before 2011. Very few knew or cared who their MP was. Their focus was on making a buck, minimizing encounters with the state and sheltering their families from the vicissitudes and iniquities of life in a developing country controlled by a quasi-autocratic regime, where things are tightly controlled as everything falls apart.
In the real world, outside social media, there were brief awakenings, such as the Mahalla uprising of April 6 2008 and the protests by Christians following the bombing of a church during midnight mass in Alexandria. But political public life in Egypt was largely non-existent and politics stagnant outside of the fantasy world of Facebook. The majority of the general public, while its overlords treat them like fools, were not stupid enough to play along with the masquerade. And then 25 January 2011 happened, and suddenly there was an explosion of politics and it was everywhere; on television, in the streets, dripping off the walls. No longer was political life confined to a ten-man protest on the stairs of the Journalists’ Syndicate or a banner inviting denizens of a certain locale to vote for Mr. Such and Such of the NDP in what was a foregone conclusion. It was as if someone had drew back the curtains, and suddenly there was all this light in the room; people took an interest, felt that there was a chance of change, wanted to be involved. Political parties presented manifestos. Presidential candidates made pledges, which everyone knew they would not keep – not far off from what happens in a “proper” democratic country. People cared enough to stand in a queue to vote, sometimes for hours. Finally they were (largely, as much as mass democracy in an army-run state allows) being treated like adults. And when they were not, some of them went back out to the streets and refused to be infantilized, as was the case with the Mohamed Mahmoud protests of November 2011 against the Al-Selmy document.
And as a result of this mad experiment of leaving things to the citizens, Mohamed Morsi was brought to power, and then brought from power, and you know the rest. Today’s stagnancy makes the pre-2011 days look positively vibrant. Egypt has not had a legislative parliament in three years. The largest opposition bloc (the Muslim Brotherhood) has been declared an illegal group. Youth groups are publicly demonized and their members arrested, tortured, and worse. The protest law has effectively killed (sometimes literally) public displays of dissent. And the irony is that people are being spirited out of their homes by the “dawn visitors” even when they are silent. Opposition voices have largely disappeared from television screens, replaced by that carefully calibrated level of light criticism designed to give the impression of the existence of the freest speech that current circumstances will currently allow. The media in any case continues to follow a policy of self-censorship, which it presents as an act of patriotic national unity in the face of an existential crisis. Judging by the enthusiasm with which some outlets propagate this message, it can only be assumed that they actually genuinely believe that the purpose of the media is to cheerlead the state.
I was chatting with a relative recently and the latest outrage committed by the state came up in discussion. I cannot even remember what it was now, so numerous are they. She said something that stuck with me: “rather this than Mohamed Morsi.” Hers is a widely-shared opinion: were it not for the army takeover in 2013, Morsi’s Brotherhood administration would have steadily Islamized the state, the theory goes. And were it not for the army ISIS would have infiltrated Egypt (even more than it already has in Northern Sinai) and wreaked its particular brand of horror film chaos here, too. Like many of her (Gamal Abdel-Nasser) generation, this relative has always been suspicious of the Brotherhood. I remember in 2008 her remarking that if they ever came to power “they would eat us alive.” As it turns out, the state did all the gobbling before Morsi and friends had a chance to even look at the menu. Greedy state. But there is a genuine and understandable fear here. Egypt is surrounded by turmoil and death; Syria, ISIS and its bloody lebensraum, tourists slain on a beach in Tunisia and Israel’s regular and devastating assaults on Gaza. On Monday death reached Egypt itself, in the form of the assassination of the Public Prosecutor Hisham Barakat, killed in a car bombing. On Wednesday insurgents seem to have briefly controlled a town in Northern Sinai and killed a reported seventeen soldiers. The Egyptian army was forced to strafe them with F-16s to regain control. On the same day nine senior Muslim Brotherhood members died in a flat in a Cairene suburb, shot dead by the security forces. Eyewitnesses said that they did not hear gunfire before security forces stormed the flat, giving credence to allegations that they were murdered extrajudicial style.
Egypt is still stuck in the old binary of Islamists versus the military state. There have already been calls in the wake of Monday’s assassination for a crackdown on the usual suspects; human rights groups, NGOs, and anyone who vocally challenges the official narrative. The state has promised to exact revenge for Barakat’s killing. At the public prosecutor’s funeral, Sisi extemporized on the theme of exceptional measures in the face of terrorism surrounded by Barakat’s grieving female relatives, all of them in somber black. The legal process is not to be allowed to get in the way of “justice” was the thrust of his speech. “We will not wait. We will amend the laws so that we can implement the laws and justice as soon as possible”. Clenched of fist he spoke in that bombastic way of his, with the angry dad cadence: “I said this before and I am saying it again! [now go to your room]”, with strange emphasis on words he presumably assumes to be hard-hitting, “THE LAW! THE JUDICIARY!”; it used to be “light of my eyes” during the honeymoon period.
Sisi declared that he, and all Egyptians remain unmoved and calm in the face of the Barakat assassination. Killings of state figures are not new in Egypt but in the 1990s when Egypt last grappled with frequent attacks of this scale it did not have to deal with a fully-fledged insurgency in Northern Sinai and wider regional threats. Judging by the reactions of people I know, and the oracle, Egyptian Facebook, I would tentatively suggest that in fact this public stoicism is not as entrenched as the President claims, and citizens are in fact shitting themselves.
In such circumstances even the most egregious abuses can be ignored (as long as they are not happening to us), and that blend of sinister dullness that has been the watchword of Egyptian presidents for over thirty years can be forgiven. Sisi is a president whose oratory style where it was once vaguely flirtatious has now become avuncular as he settles into the role of protector of the nation. Like uncles and dads everywhere, Sisi enjoys dispensing wisdom in the form of monologues and these sometimes digress into what seems to be free thought, such as in a recent, undated video that appeared on Youtube in which the President declared that God had given him powers to yshakhas el 7ala or “diagnose the case [of illness]”. Recently, during a Ramadan meal, he compared the AWOL parliamentary elections to an engagement, saying: “When a suitor comes to your house to marry your daughter do you not ask about him? Ask about the MPs then, because the bride is Egypt.” (Perhaps one day we will all vote on Tinder.) On another occasion Sisi opined on detainees (and he presumably here meant individuals detained for acts related to politics), of which Egypt currently has tens of thousands according to rights groups. He reportedly acknowledged that there are people being held unfairly, but is quoted in the media as saying, “we are protecting ninety million people – it is inevitable that some would get caught up in the net…we had to arrest some so that the rest could live.”
The problem is that that policy has not, and is not working, judging by events this week. The regime began arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members even before it assumed power, before 3 July 2013. The arrests and arbitrary detention continue, as does extrajudicial killings, torture, and disappearances. The bombings have not stopped and the insurgency rages on in Northern Sinai, the price for that paid by local residents and the unlucky young conscripts sent to serve there. Egypt has settled into a rhythm now:
1. Devastating attack on a military or state target
2. Angry dad speech from Sisi promising resolute and unflinching action against Egypt’s enemies
3. Resolute and unflinching action against some branch of civil society or left-wing protesters
4. A change to the law that chips away at some basic guarantee of due process
5. Devastating attack on a military or state target
None of this is meant to understate the scale of the problem the Egyptian state is facing. Sisi took on the worst job in the world when he became president; all of the country’s established, seemingly intractable, socioeconomic problems on top of which was added a political movement of several million members who feel cheated. Sisi built his political platform on the promise that he would steer the ship of the country to the promised land of stability. Mubarak’s social contract, temporarily put in a drawer in 2011, was taken out and dusted off; close your eyes to the ugly stuff and shut up, and in return we will ensure that you are all not killed in your beds by the bearded bogeyman. The result is a complete absence of accountability, or scrutiny, and of the questioning of state actions whose purpose is to ensure that mistakes are not repeated. But the media, and the majority of the general public have effectively muzzled themselves - out of fear, or a misguided sense of national duty, or perhaps simply defeat. Their role has once again been relegated to clapping for the good times, for hastily built canals, and for vague, unnamed diplomatic “victories” by the President on routine visits abroad.
The tragedy of it is that while it was never going to be different, it could have been. And even now it is arguably not too late; to reestablish the rule of law and halt exceptional measures, to permit public scrutiny, to talk to opponents who are willing to negotiate. If Egypt’s previous experience is anything to go by, it will happen eventually anyway. That however requires a degree of political maturity and delicacy - perhaps even willingness to self-sacrifice - that cannot perhaps be expected of a military regime, particularly one which crashed back into power riding on the back of a promise to quash this threat. What can it offer beyond that? Nobody is asking, and this terrible silence is what will allow the culture of failure to continue, and for Egypt to continue to teeter around the precipice of collapse, veering from one disaster to the next.