Egypt’s hunger games

While watching the sequel to the “Hunger Games” last Friday, I was stunned to find a striking resemblance between a fictional regime — presented as almost comically oppressive — and the regime of a country almost three years into a revolution that was celebrated worldwide as an example of the triumph of the people.

On my way to the movie theater, I drove by a small protest in Dokki. No more than 30 protesters stood on the side of the street, chanting against the current military-backed government and raising the four-finger symbol signaling their support for deposed President Mohamed Morsi.

Traffic was flowing smoothly through the protest and there was no sign of violence.

After passing the protest, I saw what looked like a Special Forces squad marching towards the demonstrators, looking ready to attack. The security forces were dressed in bulletproof vests and holding their weapons, marching in badly synchronized, threatening steps towards the small protest.

I was not there to witness what the security forces did to the protesters. I’m not sure whether they stormed into the small crowd and arrested every last one of the protesters before they could run, or not.

But I do know that if that is indeed what they did, it would be perfectly legal, and this fact offends me.

If every last one of those protesters was locked up just for holding up that oh-so-state-endangering four finger salute, the Interior Ministry would have no explaining to do.

According to the Protest Law passed in November, protesting peacefully or even discussing “matters of a public nature” in a public place in a group of more than 10 people without notifying the Ministry of Interior in advance is a criminal act. The law requires protestors to obtain permission from the police prior to assembling.

The Interior Ministry’s spokesperson no longer has to go on every television station to justify attacks on protests by claiming demonstrators were armed, vandalized buildings or threw the first rock, as he has done after every confrontation between protesters and security forces since 2011.

Now, the security apparatus can just declare that it attacked and arrested peaceful protesters for demonstrating without official permission, and this would be completely covered by the law. Such a law reflects the state’s awareness that it can get away with murder, literally.

How did we get to this point so fast after a revolution that was primarily triggered by police brutality? How can we possibly have already returned to such level of restrictions on freedom of speech? The crisis, however, is that many citizens do not seem to care.

As the majority of the people continue to vocalize their concerns over the “prestige of the state” and “the sanctity of the Armed Forces,” they may be unaware that they are squandering their own prestige, which people lost their lives to reclaim in 2011.    

In the movie “Hunger Games,” the regime was attempting to quell a budding revolution. As I watched the faceless “peacekeepers,” dressed head-to-toe in white, drag away an elderly man who raised his hand with the three finger salute of the revolution during a public event and shoot him on the spot, I was reminded of the police squad marching towards the few protesters in Dokki.

Regardless of whether one agrees with the pro-Morsi protesters or not, one fact remains: After the people revolted in 2011, it is unacceptable that we lose the precious right to peaceful assembly and protest.

I feel personally suffocated and insulted by the new Protest Law. How did we go from that revolutionary moment of victory and pride three years ago to losing the right to discuss politics in the street in a group of 11?

One could say that there was little progress since January 25 in terms of reducing state corruption and securing people’s rights, but at least one thing was accomplished. The state was humbled. It was downright scared.

Realizing for the first time what the people are capable of when they are angered, the government’s actions and the officials’ speeches reflected an unprecedented respect for the people.

Although the state manipulated its way around the revolution’s demands, it did so while tiptoeing to avoid any triggers that could set the people off again.

Whatever the state did, it maintained the illusion of heading towards a free and more democratic Egypt; but now, the state seems to realize that it doesn’t need to do that anymore.

Except for a minority that keeps taking to the streets, the state observed as the majority of the population — the critical mass that made 2011 possible — turned a blind eye to the deviations from the path of the revolution.

The state got even more comfortable when huge crowds took to the streets in response to Armed Forces chief Colonel General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s request for a “popular mandate to combat violence and terrorism” last July, an explicit permission to use force against Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the streets.

Emboldened security forces raided sit-ins that demanded Morsi’s return with brutal force, killing at least 600 protesters in one day — making August 14 one of the bloodiest days since the Egyptian revolution.

When that act failed to trigger people’s anger, the state completely let loose.

The Ministry of Interior’s rhetoric and that of other officials shifted from talking about honoring the revolution and imposing reforms, to bragging about cracking down on those labeled a danger to national security. The security forces pledged to restore order with a hand of steel.

In the “Hunger Games,” the president of the republic tells his head game designer that he is concerned the hunger games victors of previous years have become too powerful, and could lead the people’s rebellion. He then comes up with a solution — to put them all back in a game where only one would survive to show the rest of the population that no one is “untouchable.”

A similar conversation must have taken place sometime before police forces stormed the house of activist Alaa Abd El Fattah a couple of weeks ago. Abd El Fattah is probably the activist whose arrest always gets the most national and international attention. Nevertheless, security forces did not seem to care about those reactions when they beat him and his wife in their house and then took him into custody, proceeding to detain him under investigation for allegedly violating the new Protest Law in addition to other charges. 

This is alarming, not because Abdel Fattah is more important than the thousands of others who have been detained since July, but because that act demonstrates the extent to which the state is fearless. The Egyptian state is getting so comfortable that not only can it not be bothered to cover up its undemocratic actions, but is proudly flexing its oppressive muscles to let everyone know that it’s back, and stronger than ever.

Such a “comfortable” regime was the beating heart of the flagrant corruption that the Mubarak state reached before his removal.

A few months before January 2011, Mubarak oversaw the last parliamentary elections under his rule. In past elections, the ruling National Democratic Party would make agreements with the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties, allowing them to win a few seats to legitimize the elections and give the illusion of fair competition and legitimacy.

In 2010, however, the National Democratic Party threw caution to the wind and excluded all their opponents through an audacious electoral forgery, winning an unprecedented majority in Parliament. The forgery was reckless and transparent; all the customary decorative measures were abandoned.

The state today might be reaching the same level of insolence with arbitrary arrests, violence and absurdly exaggerated prison sentences handed down to protesters. This is topped up by a law that places extreme limitations on the right of peaceful assembly — a right that was celebrated as sacred only three years ago, even by the government itself.

The government’s every move, and every word uttered by its officials, reeks of a sense of invincibility, like it knows it has cracked the code to the people and now has it in the palm of its hands. Talk about the dangers that the military is facing, and it’s free to arrest some protesters. Throw the word terrorism in every statement, and it’s free to kill some people. Call anything or anyone a danger to the structure of the state, and they become fair game for repression.

When I think of officials behind closed doors, I used to like to imagine them scratching their heads, guessing and fearing how people would react to their decisions. But right now I can’t help but imagine them calmly laying back when taking the decision to intensify their crackdown, with no regard to the people.

Having a government that violates people’s rights so comfortably and so fearlessly spits on the graves of those who died for our dignity.

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