On each anniversary of the start of revolution, January 25, rechristened as Police Day—a national holiday honoring law enforcement—Tahrir Square is closed off to prevent the masses from assembling and the Interior Ministry is on high alert, a sign the regime is still fearful of its own citizens. During the past eight years, extraordinary efforts have been made to wipe out the memory of popular revolt by perpetuating conspiratorial narratives in a media that is carefully controlled—and in many cases, directly owned—by Egypt’s intelligence agency.
Egypt’s popular uprising brought the promise that an open, free, and democratic society was possible, but that hope has since been extinguished by a more experienced and better equipped police state. Disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture are the security apparatus’s modus operandi. Thousands of civilians have been tried in military tribunals. Non-violent protesters, democracy advocates, journalists, and dissidents languish in prisons for years on end, while security and military officials ordering and carrying out the execution of hundreds of Egyptians have walked free. An army-backed government and military president have rejuvenated a fear of the security agencies and closed off arenas for the freedom of expression in the media and on the streets.
Egypt and the military president
Looking back on Egypt’s modern history, its military rulers’ obsession with maintaining an unchallenged hold on power has contributed to social turbulence, inevitable calamity, or popular uprising. A conspiratorial group of young military officers called the Free Officers, led by Gamal Abd al-Nasser, overthrew the monarchy in a bloodless coup in July 1952. Once firmly in power, Nasser’s personality cult grew, with the machinery of the state elevating him as a national icon and a pan-Arab leader. The charismatic Nasser pursued industrialization in a transformed command economy, nationalizing businesses, private press outlets, the film industry, and publishers. In tandem, he greatly expanded the apparatus of intelligence services and the secret police. Arbitrary and warrantless arrests and detentions in the middle of the night were a hallmark of Nasser’s security state. The modernization project ground to a halt with Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 Six Day War. Waves of student protests erupted on college campuses in the war’s aftermath, with slogans shouted and scrawled on walls of buildings that demanded the demise of the police state and an end to rule by the intelligence.
Anwar Sadat’s political foes were leftists and Nasserists who believed in the former leader’s socialist vision. Political Islam experienced a revival in the 1970s as Sadat, shortly after coming to power, subtly encouraged Islamists to organize, using them as a counterweight against opponents. Sadat’s policy of economic opening, known as the Infitah, was undermined by widespread corruption that turned importers into overnight millionaires and did little to deliver on its promises. Inflation rose to new highs. With the removal of government subsidies on basic commodities, as mandated by international ﬁnanciers, bread riots broke out in January 1977. Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 culminated in the Camp David Accords, which were intensely criticized within Egypt, particularly among the intelligentsia. Opposition to the resultant peace treaty with Israel was reaching a fever pitch, so were attacks on the government’s economic policy and grievances over widening disparities in wealth. Sadat attempted to bring the dissident cacophony in line through the mass arrests in September 1981 of more than 1,500 intellectuals, writers, journalists, and opposition figures of every stripe. Sadat’s crackdown against his critics culminated in his assassination by Islamist militants on October 6, 1981 during a military parade to commemorate the start of the 1973 War.
The regime of Hosni Mubarak maintained emergency laws in effect throughout his rule, imprisoned and detained political dissidents, and narrowly restricted access to the political process. The fraught 2010 parliamentary elections, a harbinger of what could be expected in the 2011 presidential race, laid to rest the hope that gradual democratic reform was in the offing. With the security apparatus as accomplices, Mubarak and the ruling party secured a tighter grip on political power amid widespread allegations of fraud. A modern-day pharaoh, Mubarak was the only president every Egyptian under 30 years of age—two-thirds of Egypt’s population—had ever known. Calls for reform were kept at bay by the security state, which harassed, detained, and tortured citizens with impunity. Corruption was rife in a governing system that was not beholden to the people but to the self-interests of those in power. The status quo, which neglected too much of Egypt’s population, was decidedly unsustainable. Social networks and a renewed sense of activism galvanized a force for change that finally reached a breaking point on January 25, 2011 with a popular revolt that swept Mubarak from power in 18 days.
The general’s rise
General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, as the head of military intelligence, managed to keep a low profile as the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military authority ruling Egypt following Mubarak’s downfall. He first prominently appeared in the news when he admitted to Amnesty International in 2011 that the military had subjected female protesters to virginity tests to “protect” soldiers from rape allegations.[i] Known for his piety, Sisi was the military council’s liaison with the Muslim Brotherhood, the reason he was later chosen by Muhammad Morsi, the elected president, to be defense minister and promoted by two military ranks to colonel general. Sisi’s first order of business was to dispatch army officers who outranked him into retirement, including the military council’s top brass.
Morsi’s ouster on June 3, 2013—one year into his term and following four days of mass protests—was not dressed as a coup, but a restoration of the democratic path derailed by an Islamist president. The vilification went beyond Morsi’s undemocratic tendencies and absence of political savvy to sow a visceral loathing of the Brotherhood. With the alarmist media and its pundits in tow, the groundwork was laid to transform the political, social, and religious organization into more than a nuisance or a strong-willed rival, but a murderous terrorist network.
The number of civilian casualties as security and military forces cleared pro-Morsi protest sites on August 14, 2013 was in the untold hundreds—at least 627 lives as revealed by the state medical examiner three months later. Actual numbers may have been upwards of a thousand or more.[ii] Ten officers lost their lives in the purge. The militarized state and its supporting media deemed the massacre as due punishment of a dehumanized opponent.
Razing pro-Morsi encampments with such calamitous results set in motion a state of lawlessness that would make it possible to resurrect the police state, capable of striking with a vengeance at a moment’s notice. As protests and violence spread to other parts of the capital, state television showed images of vigilantes mired in street battles and masked gunmen firing automatic rifles. Militant strikes delivered the state an excuse to ban protests, murder demonstrators, arrest thousands, justify censorship, and dole out wholesale life and death sentences in mass trials. Egyptians were again brought to cower in manufactured fear, this time in the name of imagined security.
Not content with having the military looming in the political backdrop, the former intelligence chief, schooled in the art of deception, seized the presidency after deftly choreographing a populist putsch against Morsi’s short-lived and bumbling presidency. The military, an institution powerful enough to steer the nation’s course, was back in a position of dominance. Ahead of his presidential bid, Sisi was anointed the highest military rank of field marshal—despite possessing no actual battlefield experience—and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gave their top commander the green light to run for president. Viewed as a candidate born of necessity, he avoided releasing a detailed electoral program, declined to debate his challenger, and did not sit down for live television interviews or attend public campaign rallies.
A draconian counterterrorism law expanded the arsenal of the state in dealing with dissent by empowering police and prosecutors in pursuing suspects and levying exorbitant fines on journalists who deviate from official statements on terror attacks. Media regulations and a cybercrimes law further criminalized spreading rumors, publishing or broadcasting false news, and violating “family values,” a way of bringing to heel independent media, citizen journalism, and social media blogging.
Bombings have become a regular occurrence as extremists hold sway in north Sinai. In a drastic measure, Sisi ordered the displacement of thousands of families and the demolition of homes along a one-kilometer stretch on Egypt’s border with Gaza. Faced with a series of devastating attacks by Sinai-based militants against security and military personnel, Sisi gave Israel his blessing to embark on a secret campaign of air strikes in the peninsula. The coordination placed the Israel Defense Forces in the unusual position of securing its neighbor’s territory, propping a beleaguered Egyptian Armed Forces, and redeeming its commander in chief.[iii]
Castles in the sky
While awaiting Sisi at the G-7 summit in France’s seaside town of Biarritz in August 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump called out, “Where’s my favorite dictator?”—a label that famously stuck. As a military general, Sisi delights in being decorated, a stratagem for burnishing his international image. Yet repression and an unflattering human rights record have made Sisi a less welcome visitor, even as he buys the support of European nations in the form of sizable purchases of weaponry, with Egypt rising to third place in a global ranking of arms importers.[iv]
On January 25, 2020, the ninth anniversary of the revolution, a German delegation bestowed Sisi with the Medal of St. George, given to “those who have . . . been a force for good in the world,” ahead of a ceremony at the glamorous Semperoper Ball at the Dresden opera house in February. Following public outcry against commemorating Egypt’s strongman, the award was withdrawn days before the annual baroque-style ball. This past October, President Emmanuel Macron presented Sisi with France’s highest award, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, on the latter’s official state visit to Paris, an evident quid pro quo for defense and trade contracts. The private ceremony at the Élysée Palace was broadcast in Egypt, but not announced to the French press.
A confluence of financial and political interests tie international relations. Sisi’s Egypt has sought legitimacy as a bulwark against terrorism and a resolute administration that staves off uncontrolled migration to Europe. “Sisi’s counterterrorism policies, which serve as an important justification of his dictatorship, have created a fertile ground for radicalization,” argue Aya Hijazi and Mohamed Soltan, political prisoners who have collectively spent five years in Egyptian jails. “We watched the process of radicalization unfold as recruiters for the Islamic State, while jailed themselves, appealed to innocent young prisoners who were facing unjust detainment, harsh sentences, and inhumane conditions.”[v] The regime has gone to great lengths to hide the true number of political prisoners (estimated at well over 60,000), deny them visitations and medical treatment, silence human rights defenders and families of detainees, issue travel bans, and arrest relatives of dissidents abroad.
The sands have shifted as Egypt’s once-weighty influence has waned in recent decades. Its position as the cultural beacon of the Arab world, a significant source of soft power, has been vastly undermined by the exacting censorship of autocratic rule. Sisi’s control is fortified by an expansive and costly propaganda network, an essential element of social control.[vi] Seeing the arts as potentially subversive, Sisi has subsumed the entertainment industry, including soap operas and drama series broadcast during the ratings-driven month of Ramadan, under a recalibrated military and security order.[vii] Even in fictional scenarios, the armed forces and police are required to be glorified as sacrosanct representations of heroism.
Regionally, Arab states are normalizing relations and strategically aligning their interests with Israel, curtailing Egypt’s traditional mediator role in a never-ending peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Moreover, Sisi’s authoritarianism has placed Egypt in the orbit of foreign powers. Following the coup, the country’s financial travails were alleviated by billions in aid flowing from the Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, which have sought to stave off turbulent Arab uprisings and especially the Brotherhood’s brand of political Islam. And in Washington’s halls of power, Israel, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have lobbied hard to buttress the general’s coup and reinstate the briefly suspended $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Egypt.
So it was with no surprise that Sisi ceded Egypt’s sovereignty over two strategic Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia to appease his main Gulf backer and moved to crush demonstrations in the aftermath of his directive. Accorded unchecked powers, the Interior Ministry carries out broad surveillance of social media and electronic communications. The military and security institutions dominate civilian and political character of the state, fortifying a ruling order built on fear and loyalty, not competence.
From exile in Spain, former military contractor and one-time actor Mohamed Ali chronicled the corruption and misuse of public funds within the military’s business empire in viral YouTube videos, lobbing colorful barbs at the short and stocky president. Revealing how his company had built extravagant palaces for Sisi as the military head of state was demanding austerity of Egyptians, Ali went on to call for a wave of protests. More videos and accounts surfaced corroborating unscrupulous dealings within the military oligarchy of Sisi’s inner circle.[viii] Caught off guard, authorities responded to a smattering of demonstrations with an intense security crackdown and thousands of preemptive arrests.
A security-minded approach cannot resolve Egypt’s challenges of water scarcity, a growing population, and greater demands on Nile waters from upstream neighbors. Ten countries share this liquid lifeline, and virtually none of the river’s waters originate within Egypt’s borders. Addis Ababa and Cairo have been mired for years in contentious negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Climate change and the tumult of a warming planet are further straining Egypt’s scarce water resources, critical for human health and economic development.
Sisi’s Egypt stands as a mirage of grand megaprojects built on a mountain of debt, promises of grandeur that is carefully crafted propaganda, and a celebratory media whose role is to seduce the masses into groupthink. By Sisi’s own admission, infrastructure initiatives, like the construction of a 72-kilometer addition to the Suez Canal, have not relied on detailed feasibility studies. Maritime traffic through the waterway was not forecast to swell to justify the outsized investment, made more costly when Sisi commanded the project be completed in a year’s time instead of the original three years. Surrounded by foreign dignitaries, Sisi inaugurated the $8 billion extension in August 2015, hailed as “Egypt’s gift to world,” with the customary nationalist pomp and pageantry.
Unaudited and untaxed, military businesses were handed billions in no-bid contracts to oversee these projects, the shining example being a new administrative capital emerging from the desert, ensuring the rulers are situated far from the impoverished masses. Sisi has failed to recognize that the fulcrums of enduring prosperity and economic growth are advancing human development, investing in education, science, and innovation, and efficiently organizing societies based on democratic principles and the rule of law.
As with past military presidents, Sisi does not seek potential rivals. He predictably secured a reelection landside in April 2018, with an official tally of 97 percent, against a last-minute contender (and avowed Sisi supporter) to avoid having a referendum on his continued rule. Candidates who announced a serious run for the presidency were arrested or pressured into dropping out.
Constitutional amendments passed a year later were a clear indication that Sisi has no intention of relinquishing power. Presidential terms were extended from four to six years, applying retroactively to Sisi (four years were tacked on to his second term, without the trouble of elections). Tailored for Sisi, the amendments allowed the current president alone to run for a third term—paving the way for him to rule until 2030—in addition to vastly expanding presidential powers over the judiciary and diluting legislative authority. While broadening the authority of the military judiciary to try civilians, the amendments assign the Armed Forces with the primary responsibility of “safeguarding the constitution and democracy.”[ix]
Lacking a sense of ownership, factions of the Egyptian public search for a way out or quietly resist. Memes ridicule political absurdities. One cartoon that made the rounds with revelations of the president’s palatial building spree has the miserly crony capitalist Scrooge McDuck telling Donald Duck, “You must understand that you are very, very poor”—Sisi’s actual utterance in describing Egyptians. “No, uncle, you’re the one who is a thief and a son of a bitch!” retorts an indignant Donald Duck. Videos shot on mobile phones and circulated on social networks highlight a reality that responds to a propaganda-infused media. Whether deadly train collisions, collapsing buildings, the unmanageable spread of Covid-19 and its dire ramifications, the kneejerk reaction of officials is to invent conspiratorial narratives or fault Egyptians for their misfortunes.
The stability fallacy
Credible and trustworthy media outlets fostering a national conversation are more in demand than ever. In the heart of the public square during 18 days of revolution, Egyptians were actually talking to one another: Islamists with liberals, Christians with Muslims, rich with poor. Not only were they having a dialogue, they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifices for one another knowing that, whatever their differences, they wanted to live in a nation of justice, freedoms, tolerance, and dignity.
Advocates for a civil society have the challenge of bridging ideological fault lines, bringing along diverse groups, including Islamists, in an open conversation on Egypt’s future. Mindful of lessons learned over the past decade, the process begins by expanding channels for intelligent, purposeful, and informed dialogue that allows political trends to move beyond assigning blame, falling back on a myriad conspiracies, or giving in to despair over the fortunes of an interrupted revolution. As shown by Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, where a democratic transition has come to fruition, Egypt’s Islamists need to rectify the contradiction between visions of a by-gone caliphate and fundamental democratic values where all citizens are equal.
The Arab uprisings first brought down the autocratic regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. One desperate act by a young man would become the event that set off a month-long uprising that toppled the 23-year-long reign of the country’s president, whose promises of comprehensive reforms came too late. Across a region ruled by monarchs and presidents for life, a young generation yearning for freedom took inspiration from Tunisia’s lead. From those heady days of Egypt’s popular uprising, when dreams of a just and democratic society seemed within grasp, the struggle has turned to one of small victories—lobbying for the release of incarcerated journalists, human rights defenders, and political detainees, shaming officials on social media for their dereliction, and gradually squeezing open spaces for expression and dissent.
Authoritarian regimes are no match for the people organized, and so the strategy has been to prevent the mobilization of the citizenry through state-sanctioned violence and mind-controlling propaganda. Modeling himself after Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Sisi views the greatest risk to his longevity in power is ruling Egypt with the involvement of Egyptians. Still, Sisi’s iron fist stranglehold on power cannot endure through time because something fundamentally changed a decade ago. A new consciousness was born. Freedom became a living memory. Egyptians realized they were not as powerless as they were led to believe, even in confronting an entrenched autocrat.
“We have over 5,000 years’ experience in building up our own deities and tearing them down,” muses the Concept Pop artist Ganzeer, whose illustration of a cat burglar Sisi cropped up at protest rallies around the world. “And you can bet that that will be the fate that meets Sisi, just as it was the guy before him, and the guy before the guy before him.”[x]
The embers of a popular uprising cannot be easily smothered, and with it the aspiration for a nation more just, more free, and more whole.
[i] Amnesty International, “Egypt: Military pledges to stop forced ‘virginity tests,’” June 27, 2011, http://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2011/06/egypt-military-pledges-stop-forced-virginity-tests.
[ii] Thee government’s National Council for Human Rights listed 624 civilian deaths during the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins; the non-profit advocacy group the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights counted 932 deaths; and Human Rights Watch documented a minimum of 817 protesters killed in Rab‘a and another 87 in Nahda Square.
[iii] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Secret Alliance: Israel Carries Out Airstrikes in Egypt, With Cairo’s O.K.,” The New York Times, February 3, 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/03/world/middleeast/israel-airstrikes-sinai-egypt.html.
[iv] Pieter D. Wezeman, Alexandra Kuimova, and Siemon T. Wezeman, “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2020,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute March 2021, https://sipri.org/sites/default/files/2021-03/fs_2103_at_2020.pdf.
[v] Aya Hijazi and Mohamed Soltan, “Opinion: A crackdown by Egypt’s Sissi is devouring his own regime,” Washington Post, February 19, 2018, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2018/02/19/a-crackdown-by-egypts-sissi-is-devouring-his-own-regime.
[vi] Hossam Bahgat, “Looking into the latest acquisition of Egyptian media companies by general intelligence,” Mada Masr, December 21, 2017, http://www.madamasr.com/en/2017/12/21/feature/politics/looking-into-the-latest-acquisition-of-egyptian-media-companies-by-general-intelligence.
[vii] “Special Report: Egypt’s strongman extends crackdown to a new foe – soap operas,” Reuters, December 12, 2019, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-media-specialreport/special-report-egypts-strongman-extends-crackdown-to-a-new-foe-soap-operas-idUSKBN1YG1BB.
[viii] Robert Springborg, “Sisi’s Egypt Moves from Military Economy to Family Firm,” Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale (ISPI), December 6, 2020, http://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/sisis-egypt-moves-military-economy-family-firm-28504.
[ix] The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, “TIMEP Brief: 2019 Constitutional Amendments,” April 17, 2019, https://timep.org/reports-briefings/timep-brief-2019-constitutional-amendments. The president chairs the Supreme Council for Judicial Bodies and Entities, appoints the heads of judicial bodies, the public prosecutor, and justices of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
[x] Ganzeer, “Restricted Frequency #138,” October 17, 2019, https://ganzeer.substack.com/p/restricted-frequency-138.