By Amr Khalifa
Sometime last week, on the Ismailiyia-Cairo highway, there was a man hung by rope from a billboard. Painful, but precise, the image rendered an imperfect Egyptian economic/political landscape. That postcard of desperation was the furthest thing from the minds of Sisi supporters at the other end of the world at the UN. The crowd, of the boisterous celebratory sort, but equally so of the censoring, fascist type, reflected what remains confounding and exclusionary about Egypt. While Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi painted an image of a tolerant, equality driven, human rights loving Egypt during his UN general assembly speech, his supporters projected anything but. In fact, as a journalist traversing the scene, one got the distinct feeling that any contrarian opinion should be held close to the vest or one’s safety might be endangered. Why those who hold oppositional viewpoints have to be careful is one of multiple reasons why Egypt continues its slide into the unknown. It is high time that Sisi receive a love letter from New York on behalf of those silenced in Cairo.
On 30 June 2013, seemingly a lifetime ago, the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood rule placed the writer on the same side of the political fence with many of the same faces gathered at the UN last week. The tyranny of the many in the political Islam camp silencing opposing voices triggered 30 June. Now, with the military establishment leading the way, and Sisi at the helm, the same dynamic plays out even more ferociously, and has placed old allies in diametric opposition.
“How much did you get paid Christian girl?” The question, posed by a Sisi supporter towards the end of the gathering at the UN on 24 September, explicitly suggested that a Christian could only oppose the government if she were a paid agent of the Islamist camp, which is an amalgamation of troubling signs. Mostly, it showcases an undeniable ignorance by the questioner, who is ignominious to the fact that the iron hand of the security state reaches all, regardless of faith, class or political stripe. The aforementioned young lady was standing in NY solidarity with a growing hunger strike movement in Egypt protesting the state of affairs. Specifically, she was protesting the assault, by police and state security forces, on Copts in a small village named Gabl El Teir. But the questioner, obviously, could not fathom any protest not emanating from the Islamist camp and immediately took the aggressive low road.
Central to the troubling painting is the contradictory dichotomy of social/political realities Vis a Vis the projection of a “new” Egypt. Just one night earlier, Sisi himself was on the popular American show Charlie Rose speaking of “pluralisation” and acceptance of the “national fabric of all Egyptians”. This Egypt only exists in Sisi’s mind.
“I just got attacked by pro Sisi supporters opposite the UN who threw boiling coffee at me”, tweeted Abdullah Elshamy. What crime did the young man commit? His was that of being a journalist, unjustly, arrested at the Rabaa massacre one year earlier. These two cases strongly suggest that Sisi supporters, over 1,000 at their peak, weren’t there for an innocent exercise of “SisiMania”; rather, it was to send a more nefarious message to opposing voices: shut up. Think these are isolated examples? Think again. Also seen at the demonstration was another journalist, covering the UN beat for Al Jazeera, being whisked away hurriedly by police protection after he was chased by dozens of “Sisifites”, screaming “OUT, OUT, OUT”. Being strategically positioned, one could see the fear and incredulity in his eyes. The question begging to be asked is if Egypt was, as Sisi argued to anyone who would listen, building a democracy, why was this journalist being attacked? With all eyes focused on the UN and Sisi addressing the world across the street, these Egyptians still could not contain the venom towards a news organisation they view as Islamist and pro-Muslim Brotherhood. But logic poses the following question: if the majority believes the Sisi paradigm is a sturdy one, why fear media coverage unflattering to the Egyptian regime?
When the very notion of critique is labelled treasonous, a nation need to stop and take stock. Egyptians “rose up against exclusion” claimed Sisi in his UN speech. Yet, starkly, events on the ground paint different schemata. There is no white washing of facts; there is, instead, a blunt force trauma level, belligerence towards political facts. During his visit to New York, Sisi spoke to Egyptian journalists saying “2 to 300,000 endanger society” and that a “high number of political detainees is a normal thing” under the current circumstances. These two statements should have rung alarm bells both domestically and internationally. Yet, the only bells ringing were those of welcome in both arenas.
Love them or hate them, those representing political Islam in Egypt certainly exceed those numbers quoted by the Egyptian president. It was only two years ago Morsi won the first round of Egyptian elections with more than 5m votes. Most watchers considered those votes an accurate representation of hardcore base of support for political Islam in Egypt—political expediency doubled those numbers in the second round of voting. This base has withered due to multiple structural failures of Morsi rule and Muslim Brotherhood ideology. But a growing insurgency, which started in Sinai, and has extended its arms to Cairo—just this past week, two senior police officers were killed in central Cairo in an attack near the foreign ministry—speaks of a growing and angry opposition.
Fourteen months after Sisi overran Morsi’s rule, via a popularly supported coup, demonstrations, though significantly smaller in size, still persist in cities and outlying towns alike. If a nation of 90 million only has a few hundred thousand in political opposition, why has Egypt, on every single political, social and religious calendar date, turned into a militarised garrison complete with tanks, APCs, machine guns, terrorism squads and state security? Even if we assume a haemorrhage of Muslim Brotherhood constituency down to 50%, how does Egypt march onwards with more than 2 million firmly in the anti-coup camp? That number ignores the throngs of liberals, progressives and revolutionaries, however disorganised they might be. This dynamic of displacement of truth has been a constant of the Sisi tenure.
No less dangerous is Sisi rhetoric, which sublimates human rights in favour of a security agenda. The logic of the autocrat, historically, has sounded the alarm about enemies both real and imagined. Sisi has blown that horn repeatedly, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and extending to ISIL, to justify mass arrests and the steam rolling of personal freedoms. Sisi upped the ante two weeks ago. Egypt is to monitor all “conversation, any interaction between Islamists… or those who discuss Islamism” in an effort to “safeguard the values that are important to Egypt”, said a senior Egyptian official. The proposed system since then denied by security officials, also proposes to keep a vice lock on Egypt LGBT community “for the protection of Egypt”.
More tellingly, Sisi makes no secret of his belief that this systematic crushing of the opposition is akin to fighting elements seeking to destabilise the nation: “It is a normal occurrence to have a large number of detainees”. Only days later, having returned to Egypt, Sisi made it clear to university students that demonstrations were unwelcome while condescending to that very intelligencia by calling them “his children”. But Sisi’s “children” appear to be in for another rude awakening as the university speech was perceived by some as greenlighting “an upcoming crackdown’’ on students. In this Egypt the message is clear: watch what you say or we will watch you.
On an NY sidewalk, pro Sisi supporters danced and ululated as though in praise of the greatest Egyptian leader since Cleopatra this past week. This group choose to ignore dark realities and wrote a love letter instead. The Sisifites can express their love for Sisi, for that is their right. But for Egypt to forestall the current dance with injustice we must write our own “love” letters. Love letters are all Egyptians have in the land of no protest.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist/analyst recently published by Ahram Online, Muftah and Mada Masr