Like many Egyptians, Amr Hamzawy had to pay a price for speaking out against the military takeover of the country’s nascent democracy. A renowned intellectual and former member of Egypt’s People’s Assembly, he was fortunate to safely leave Egypt for the United States. But according to Hamzawy, Egyptians continue to face a worsening political climate, with over fifty thousand political prisoners and a shrinking space for formal and informal politics.
In this interview, I asked Hamzawy how the Egyptian government—led by General Abdul Fattah El-Sisi —has been able to maintain legitimacy domestically despite mounting criticism on the country’s human rights record. Hamzawy argues that autocratic forces have been able to take stock of the region’s politics since 2011 and adjust accordingly. His biggest concern: while autocratic forces have upgraded their playbook, democratic forces have failed to do so.
Amr Hamzawy is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Democracy Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at Stanford University. He was previously an associate professor of political science at Cairo University and a professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo. Fluent in Arabic, English and German, Hamzawy has been able to reach wide audiences through his writings and through social media where he has over four million followers on Twitter. Hamzawy contributes a weekly op-ed to the Egyptian independent newspaper Shorouk and a weekly op-ed to the London based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.
Sumaya Almajdoub (SA): You’ve recently given a talk at Stanford University, where you argued that the “autocratic playbook” has been upgraded in Egypt. Can you tell us a little more about that? What do you mean by the “autocratic playbook”?
Amr Hamzawy (AH): Basically, it boils down to what we're seeing right now: an upgraded model of authoritarianism. It’s [been] upgraded in many different ways.
One, previously under former president Mubarak, the role of the military establishment and security services was dominant but wasn’t the only dominant role. As of now, when you look at Egypt, this is a country ruled by the military establishment and security services.
You cannot find a meaningful civilian-ruled establishment, you can’t find politicians strong enough to share politics. When you refer to civilian ministries, you clearly see a pattern of submission; they are controlled by the military and security services. This was never the case in such a drastic manner under Mubarak.
A second real issue is under former president Mubarak, the Egyptian government did mind its image domestically and abroad, especially since the 1990s. They did care about injecting an image of a government which is introducing democratic reforms, and working hard to minimize human rights violations. It did not simply do away with international criticism with regard to its track record on human rights by saying: “Well, all of this is a paid conspiracy funded by Qatar, funded by Al-Ikhwan [the Muslim Brotherhood],” and so on.
When you compare that [approach] with this kind of government, you are getting a completely different picture. This government doesn’t care about its track record. It doesn’t care [about it] domestically because whoever speaks up on human rights violations gets tainted as a traitor. It doesn’t even care about international voices, and a test was seen in a recent report on torture released by Human Rights Watch (HRW). HRW has been defamed in the public and official discourse as “Qatari and Ikhwani funded” and so on. In a way, I believe this current government is taking over the playbook of autocratic governments in Russia or in China, who basically don’t care about international criticism, and use a formula I keep referring to, in Arabic it’s “sultawai wa aftakher” (authoritarian and proud). They are proud to be authoritarian, and they don’t deny it. You see a new assertiveness on the side of the authoritarian government in Egypt, by the way, very similar to what you see in Saudi Arabia or what you see elsewhere, this kind of assertive authoritarian attitude: yes we are authoritairan, and we are proud of it more or less, we stick to it.
SA: You’ve argued that the Egyptian government has been using a “sophisticated arsenal of tools” to maintain power. What are some of these tools?
AH: When it comes to explaining the sophisticated arsenal of the current government what I find intriguing is two-fold.
One, the way this government has been re-enshrining authoritarianism primarily by using the tool of law-making.
If you look at the last four years, over 700 laws and legal amendments were released and most of which do pertain to re-enshrining authoritarianism, and redefining state society relations in a manner which makes the government —and the government is seen as an embodiment of the nation state —powerful vis-a-vis citizens, more powerful vis-a-vis civil society organizations. But it also uses legal amendments and new laws to impose the supremacy of the military and security elements within the state bureaucracy vis-a-vis civilian elements of the state bureaucracy.
You have those elements, for example, denying civilian institutions (like parliament) practically any entitlement to practice oversight vis-a-vis the military, security apparatus, or the executive branch of government. You have laws placing the intelligence and security bodies over civilian ministries in terms of what these civilian ministries are doing in their day-to-day management. So, you have a ministry like the Ministry of Social Affairs, which is supposed to manage the NGOs and civil society organizations in Egypt. This ministry, because of a law released a year ago that was ratified a few months ago by the President, is going to be presided by a military-security body called "el-gehaz" (an agency), a military security agency, which oversees what the civilian ministry does. So what you do is on the one hand, you subject citizens and civil society to the assertive newly re-enshrined power of the state, and within the state bureaucracy itself you increase the imbalance between military/security and civilian elements on the other. So this is the one big point which I see in the sophisticated arsenal they are using.
What I also found, which international and local reports document as well, is their "eagerness” to use state-sponsored violence.
Never before did we have that number of extrajudicial killings in Egypt, that number of cases of forced disappearances, or torture in prison.
This is quite a shift as well, that you are not only trying to repress structurally—by using laws that undermine civil society and the public space for people to express their opinions and views freely—but you also harass opponents to the extent now they are introducing a law on citizenship which enables the government to deny you the right to have citizenship if you, according to them, are seen as a threat to public order. This of course is a very fishy formula, and here we’re going more into the police state. So you have structural repression on one hand, and state-sponsored violence on the other. This in fact hasn’t been part of the Egyptian scene from the 1970s, we haven't seen a government doing that intense stuff since the end of the 1960s.
SA: You mentioned that the Egyptian government doesn’t care about its image internationally as it used to. What about domestically? How are they able to maintain legitimacy domestically?
AH: Right, this is a great question because it complements the picture I'm trying to describe.
Yes, so they do not care internationally and when that do care internationally, they have their own counter-narratives. What they tell the American administration, or European governments, is “What we're fighting on your behalf against terrorism, and you the West cannot afford to see Egypt with its one hundred million citizens destabilized, this is not simply going to be a second Syria this is going to be a disaster on an unimaginable scale.” So they have a counter narrative that in Egypt we're fighting this fight on your behalf, and if you undermine us—this is the pretext—if you undermine us, you risk seeing Egypt destabilized, and this is going to mean one hundred million Egyptians trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
The second counter-narrative which they use when they're pressed internationally is well "Egypt is a voice of moderation in a region full of extremist elements or full of instability,” which is why Sisi for example, in his UN address tried to reposition Egypt vis-a-vis Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations as the “one mediator”, and “one broker” in town. I mean that image of "even if you don’t like what we're doing with human rights, take us for what we're doing regionally," which is very much similar by the way to what Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to do, and how they're selling the war in Yemen.
Domestically, they have counter-narratives. As well, first of all, using state-sponsored violence has become a vicious circle. You use violence, and you get pressed when critics speak up or when people complain, so you respond by violating more and more human rights.
So you extend the scope of your violence to reach beyond Al-Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] to reach beyond Al-Ikhwan allies, beyond liberal intellectuals, and beyond voices of democracy to lay men and women—the average Egyptians—if they dare get in the way of the government. You can see that clearly when you monitor what has been happening to civil society or professional associations. It’s a vicious circle in which the scope of oppression gets expanded systematically.
Secondly, they have the counter-narrative of “imma nahnu, aw altufan” (it’s either us, or the flood); so if you don’t stick to us you risk pushing Egypt in the same direction as Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the military, the security services portray themselves as the only guarantor of Egyptian stability. This is the “stability” counter-narrative.
A third counter-narrative is exactly what they're saying internationally: "we're fighting a war on terrorism” and don't complain about human rights if we're having Daesh in Sinai, you can’t because we’re fighting a hard battle, and we cannot afford to get distracted by critics and opposition movements.
A fourth counter-narrative, and this comes against the background of the democratic uprising, is: well, you—Egyptians—have seen what a democratic uprising meant for you, these were two years of chaos, two years of declining economic performance, two years of increased social and human hardship. Do you want that again? So, they are using the democratic uprising in a very negative[ly] connoted manner, and pushing it back as a counter-narrative.
Fifth, you have the “conspiracy narrative” that denotes that everyone against Sisi is conspiring somewhere with someone for whatever reason. This extends all the way from Al-Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] to liberal intellectuals to human rights defenders to voices of democracy. They also put an international layer into it, so you have Qatar, Turkey, you have the international organization of the Brotherhood, and so on.
You have this conspiracy discourse that Egypt is facing a huge global international conspiracy and we're fighting against it, and pushing against seeing the Egyptian state undermined as happened in Libya, Syria and Yemen. These narratives are effective with some segments of the population.
We've seen it, because people were coming out of 2013 tired, exhausted, frustrated, not believing in the value of the democratic transition in Egypt. It didn't show them many positive sides to stick to it.
This is how they [the Egyptian government] sustain it: with day to day repression. I mean, you get to the street, you get hijacked, you disappear, you're imprisoned, and your family only discovers about you sixty to seventy or ninety days later. We have over fifty thousand Egyptians in detention.
The sixth element in counter-narratives is populism, and here you have that elevated sense of nationalistic populism, so Egypt is in a difficult region and dark powers are trying to undermine it. Egyptian nationalism is embodied in the military, security, and intelligence services trying to defend Egypt, it's state and society, against these dark forces. But that nationalistic sense got a little bit undermined because the two island deal [Tiran and Sanafir]. The deal was framed publically by many as an all-out sale of the two islands to Saudi Arabia—I happen to believe historically that these two islands are not Egyptian and this is a side argument, which I made in public. The trouble was, this populist narrative was undermined by a counter nationalistic narrative and I was not happy to see the democratic opposition getting itself immersed in a counter populist discourse instead of focusing on democratic issues. I happen to believe the two islands are historically Saudi and apart from that, it was framed as "bai’" (selling), the two islands as sold from the Egyptian to the Saudi government, and that gave the nationalistic component a bit of a dent.
Of course, the big gamble is economic improvement, which is why western governments are trying to help him [Sisi] out, and why Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to help him out. The big bet is Sisi telling Egyptians “I’m here to stabilize, bear with me, the economic situation will improve over time,” and I happen to believe that this continues to be sound for some considerable segments of the population.
Even if you look now, I mean, Sisi commands popular support that cannot be denied with all the violations he’s committing. It’s unlike 2013, you don’t have the massive hysteric support which happened in 2013. It’s a divided population, but he still commands some support.
Finally, you have to factor in the minority question and the Copts. Here, and I believe for very good reasons, Copts see in him [Sisi], see in the military establishment as the only guarantor of living in Egypt safely. The Copts suffered under the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013: they were victimized in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and in a way, although many young Coptic citizens voted into the democratic transition, the majority of the Coptic community was fast on giving up on democracy once the victimization began. So, no one can really blame them for that, but they are one of the most stable [constituencies] in their support for Sisi, and for the current power arrangement. You see it in the Pope [Tawadros II], who was recently in Australia where he made a statement that living in Egypt well is a great “ni’ma” (blessing), so he’s very much into that kind of “well, you [Sisi] are the only guarantor of our safety” and you cannot blame the Coptic community for seeing it that way, because the suffering before 2013 was quite considerable.
SA: As I hear you speak of this upgraded “autocratic playbook”, I kept wondering, are the forces of democracy upgrading their “democracy playbook”? Are they also taking stock of the lessons learned for the past few years as autocratic forces seem to have done?
AH: No, I mean this is quite depressing.
SA: Then what are some of the main challenges for the forces of democracy?
AH: Well, let me first outline why my answer is no, and there are different reasons.
When you see democratic forces and voices of democracy getting themselves immersed in nationalistic and populist discourses, then you can clearly predict that they are bound to fail.
One, you cannot compete with governments when it comes to fashioning nationalistic narratives. Governments simply have many more tools than any opposition to fashion a convincing nationalistic narrative. They own the nationalist symbols, the flags, the parades. No opposition can compete in that sense. Governments own the assets to create a convincing nationalistic discourse, or by distributing more revenues. Look at Saudi Arabia. When it gets too tight domestically, what does the Crown Prince do? He promises benefits back, then you get that nationalistic discourse. Opposition forces cannot and should not compete on a ground which they cannot shape, which is why the whole hysteric attitudes, to my mind, to the sale of the two islands was completely misguided, and it’s remarkable when you see the Egyptian opposition right now completely [dropping] the issue of the two island deal. It’s forgotten, it got away. It’s no longer there. Because you cannot build on such an issue to fashion a democratic platform. So one, the misleading appeal of populist and nationalistic narratives.
Secondly, I believe the Egyptian opposition, the voices of democracy, have failed to upgrade their playbook because they are yet to come to terms with what happened between 2011-2013. We've got to address it. We’ve got so many strategic and tactical mistakes committed by actors pushing for democracy all the way from 2011 to 2013.
You can start with democratic Islamists pushing forward - not for the democratization of the Egyptian government, but simply for a bilateral management composed of Islamists [and] the military establishment based on the Mubarak regime. This is what the Muslim Brotherhood was actually going after. They were not pushing for a democratization. They were trying to get their way around having the military establishment, and them replacing Mubarak and his elite. They were interested in having that kind of system, instead of democratizing politics, and the state bureaucracy in Egypt. Or secular, liberal and leftist elements, who decided to walk and to buy into an army takeover of politics in 2013, supported the coup, and up until today they are not taking a step back and reflecting on how disastrous that was. And so even when you read today about opposition platforms being formed, they are not addressing “the initial mistake” of giving up on civilian politics and calling on the army to interfere. So the second reason, is that there is no real self-criticism. Be it among Islamists, or among liberal forces, or among leftist forces, only if you get to that self-criticism will you be able to reflect and update your playbook.
The authoritarian government has been reflecting. They’ve been reflecting on what happened between 2011-2013, and their take-away is: do not let civil society thrive, undermine media freedom. It’s not if you give these opposition forces a bit of freedom they'll be happy and satisfied, but they will demand more. This is their takeaway from 2011. So, they have done it for their own purposes. But democratic voices have not been able to do it so far.
Third, you cannot dream of an upgraded democratic playbook in Egypt unless the key question of the economy gets addressed. I mean, you cannot push forward a democratic platform by simply suggesting to citizens, that well, we’re out there to defend human rights and liberty, we’re out there to amend bad laws or take them out, or demand accountability and transparency. All of that is good, but unless you address the economic concerns of citizens, you cannot succeed. In Egypt we have forty percent of the population living at or below the poverty line. You cannot simply fashion a convincing democratic playbook unless you address the economy. How are you going to do that? And how will you do that without the state? The economy will push you into an understanding that in Egypt, you cannot push forward a democratization under the current circumstances unless you find allies within the state bureaucracy. You can’t afford to say, “well, I’m all out on the state bureaucracy.”, Fine, but where will this take you? This state bureaucracy, spearheaded by the military and security services, has developed stable alliances with the business community, which is on their side. They also developed stable alliances with donors, regionally and internationally. Saudi Arabia and the UAE both give money directly to the army. So, you’ll have to figure out the question of the economy. Whatever can happen in Egypt will be basically taking a few steps away from this current bloody situation into a gradual mode of democratic reforms. You’ll need the buy-in of some components of this current ruling establishment, which is centered on the military and security services. Maybe not Sisi himself, but some people around him. You cannot address the question of the economy without the state, and you cannot penetrate the state unless you have some allies in the ruling establishment. These are issues yet to be addressed. Therefore, that upgraded playbook is not out there yet.
[This interview was edited for style and clarity.]