Egypt: the paradox of repression



Egypt’s military has deployed forces to public landmarks ahead of a protest planned for Monday. At issue: President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s agreement to relinquish two islands to Saudi Arabia, CNN reports:

Many of the protesters do not want to see the two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, turned over to the Saudis. Egyptians have also been troubled by other aspects of Sisi’s presidency including the troubled economy and the detention of political dissidents……Dissatisfaction in Egypt extends beyond the issue of islands to questions over a stalled economy, government crackdowns on civil society, restrictions on NGOs and the detention of political rivals under Sisi’s government. Egypt also faces security issues in the Sinai Peninsula, where militants have formed a local ISIS affiliate.

There are several facts that have been realized over the past two months, says Ziad A. Akl, a senior researcher at the Egyptian Studies Unit in Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies:

  • First, despite the ongoing escalation of repressive measures, the opposition in Egypt is capable of organising its lines and mobilising for collective action against catastrophic state policies and unjust political decisions.
  • Second, the recurrence of police brutality is beginning to consolidate an opposing lobby against state violence.
  • Third, elite sectors like doctors and journalists started to re-emerge on the scene of collective action in Egypt.
  • Fourth, the political agreement signed with Saudi Arabia has resurrected the presence of political parties as a force of opposition.
  • Fifth, the escalation in random arrests prior to the planned demonstrations signals the regime’s inability to use political tools to handle opposition as well as the regime’s ever-growing fear of mass mobilisation and collective action.

“Sisi is suffering from the security dilemma,” said Emad Shahin, a visiting professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

“The more you try to build up your security, the more you rely on fear and division, the more you distrust civilian institutions and rely totally on the army, the more insecure you become,” he adds. “It’s like someone who has fire inside his house and he is going on the grass outside in order to make himself safe. In the end the fire will catch him up wherever he tries to hide.”

In the experience of activist Ahmed Salah [author of the memoir, “You’re Under Arrest for Masterminding the Egyptian Revolution”], digital activism proved a great tool for raising awareness and disseminating images of dissent outside Egypt, but a poor recruiting tool within the country, given the small percentage of Egyptians (approximately 20 percent) with Internet access and online communication’s “transparency to security forces,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle.

“The pendulum has swung too far toward a misleading obsession with tech-savvy activists who bring down dictators with a tweet,” he writes. “Successful protests require years of building up a culture of protest and linking together a network of activists. No technology will ever replace the need for people willing to risk their lives on the street before the rest of the country is ready to follow.”

“It’s a valid and very fair point,” says Larry Diamond, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, who has known Salah since 2009. “It’s not like revolutions didn’t happen in earlier periods before social-media access. Ahmed’s story illustrates that in the end, people still need to organize, mobilize and take great risks to hold governments accountable. His courage and forthrightness in the face of very grave danger really need to be acknowledged and admired.”

Despite the chaos in Egypt under military general-turned-President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Salah said he has hope. “Without it, I never would have been able to do this work when we were in dark, dire situations,” he said. “I still believe strongly in activism’s potential to improve the lives of people who seek freedom in a society.”

Salah and his fellow activists “succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, yet it’s fair to say they were not ready for what followed. … It proved to be much more difficult than even people who study democracy realized,” said Carl Gershman (right), president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“The great hope is that people like Ahmed have absorbed some great lessons from this and can be ready the next time, because there will be a next time,” he told the Chronicle.

Egypt’s willingness to sacrifice its relationship with a key diplomatic and economic ally like Italy [over the murder of researcher Giulio Regeni – left] underscores just how insecure Sisi is at home, Washington Institute analyst Eric Trager tells Foreign Policy:

For the former defense minister to publicly confront or accuse the police of carrying out the brutal killing, which Trager said was “in all likelihood done by security services,” would mean risking pushback from the cops, who the unstable president would need to defend him in the event there is another mass uprising. Sisi came to power after a public upheaval removed the democratically-elected Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

“This is a really autocratic government with a primary goal of surviving, and where the risk of falling is death,” Trager said. “They’re going to look very inward.”

After the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has been standing at a crossroads between the promise of stability brought by an autocratic military regime and the prospects of democracy, says Stanford University analyst Amr Hamzawy. This political upheaval is coupled by the country’s ongoing economic challenges and falling value of the Egyptian pound. With such uncertainty, it is hard to know what the future holds for the country, he told a recent meeting.

Since Egypt’s 1952 revolution, when a group of army officers overthrew the monarchy, the public education system has been an extension of the government, The Washington Post adds:

Textbooks and curriculums offered pro-government narratives, conveniently omitting facts or tweaking the truth. But now, the politicization in the schools has reached new heights, marked by efforts to erase or play down opponents’ contributions to history.

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