In late February 2016, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi strode up to the podium at Cairo’s Galaa Theater, looked into the waiting television cameras, and addressed the nation. “Don’t listen to anyone but me,” he declared. “I am dead serious. Be careful, no one should abuse my patience and good manners to bring down the state. I swear to god that anyone who comes near it, I will remove him from the face of the Earth. I am telling you this as the whole of Egypt is listening. What do you think you’re doing? Who are you?”
As his voice grew louder, and his tone more furious, an official banner that had been hung behind Sisi on stage came into view. “2016, Year of Youth,” it read.
The previous month, Sisi’s government had mounted the biggest security crackdown in the country’s modern history: an attempt to thwart any anti-regime protests on January 25, the fifth anniversary of the start of revolution. A few weeks after his speech, riot police were forced to flood the streets once again, as thousands defied the law and demonstrated against the ceding to Saudi Arabia — Sisi’s strongest international ally — of two Red Sea islands that the Egyptian state had claimed as its own.
As Mubarak, Tantawi and Morsi discovered, the more bombastic Egypt’s elites become, the more Egyptians tend to snigger.
The event at the Galaa Theater, complete with the top-down designation of 2016 as a celebration of the country’s young people — record numbers of whom were now behind bars — was intended to remind Egyptians of who it was that had the power to speak in post-Mubarak Egypt, and of the heavily militarized lines that demarcated the limits of mass political participation. It was designed to place Sisi, and the state he presided over, beyond the scope of dissent. It failed. At one point during the address, Sisi attempted to demonstrate his loyalty to Egypt by offering to “sell himself” if it would benefit the nation. Within minutes, pranksters had listed one “slightly used president (previous owners: Gulf monarchs)” on eBay. Bidding reached US$100,000 before the auction was shut down. When I visited the relevant webpage, an automated message warned me, “this product may not ship to the United Kingdom.” As Hosni Mubarak, Hussein Tantawi and Mohamed Morsi discovered to their cost, the more bombastic Egypt’s elites become, the more many Egyptians tend to snigger.
I completed the epilogue of my book, The Egyptians, in late 2015. In the year that followed, the central fault line of Egypt’s current, extraordinary historical moment — a struggle over whether politics is to remain the preserve of elites, or whether its walls can be toppled by the past half-decade’s colossal tide of popular sovereignty from below — has become more pronounced. In the space between the breaking of an old world and the formation of a new one, stewards of the former have unleashed more violence and silenced more voices than any Egyptian ruler in living memory. “I haven’t seen a worse situation than what we have now: the violations, the impunity, the defiance by police,” says Aida Seif al-Dawla, psychiatrist and co-founder of the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. In 2015, the center documented almost 500 deaths as a result of police brutality and more than 600 cases of torture in detention. Soon after the figures were published, the state moved to shut the center down. Other prominent human rights organisations have seen their offices raided and their assets frozen, while the activists who staff them are banned from travel or sentenced to prison.
Lives are being lost under Sisi’s regime, but so too is time.
The impunity referred to by Seif al-Dawla is asserted partly through the ad hoc actions of Egypt’s security forces — the street vendor machine-gunned by a policeman after an argument over the price of a cup of tea, the veterinarian pummelled to death by officers in a cell, the middle-aged man dragged from a coffee shop to have his spinal cord cut — but also through the establishment of new norms, as chilling as they are increasingly banal. One such practice is forced disappearance, an ongoing epidemic of which echoes the worst of Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s. In the first half of 2016, 630 Egyptians were disappeared at the hands of police or intelligence agencies. In the same period, there were more than 700 extrajudicial killings. Lives are being lost under Sisi’s regime, but so too is time — the thousands upon thousands of cumulative days expended by detainees in dark, dank rooms that will never appear in official records, the endless empty hours spent by relatives waiting, wondering or mourning.
This sense of official impunity is reinforced by rhetorical absurdity on the part of the state, which repaints reality to show that it can. After a taxi driver was shot dead by a commissioned officer in Cairo’s Darb al-Ahmar district following a dispute over the fare, one government statement declared: “The bullet mistakenly came out of the gun.” There are no forced disappearances, according to the Interior Ministry; police violations are not systemic, but rather the result of isolated acts. Satirists have seized upon such language, and the “Ministry of Individual Acts” is now a common trope. One recent cartoon in the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper depicts a policeman sweeping countless corpses into a bag while simultaneously reassuring a reporter, “these are all individual acts.”
But of course these days the satirists themselves must tread carefully. Like authors, publishing houses, galleries, theaters, musicians, poets, journalists and TV hosts, they too have been targeted by a war on cultural freedoms. Five members of comedy troupe Atfal al-Shawarea (Street Children) were arrested in May 2016 on suspicion of insulting state institutions, while popular cartoonist Islam Gawish found himself detained for managing a Facebook page without a license. In February 2016, novelist Ahmed Naji was handed a two-year jail sentence for violating public modesty. At his trial, the court heard that one of Naji’s works caused a reader to suffer heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure owing to its sexual content. Naji was released from jail in December, but at the time of writing his legal status remains uncertain. My own book has also not been immune to the rising wave of censorship. In early 2016 it was seized by the Culture Ministry and effectively banned from sale in Egypt, a decision that was only reversed several months later after considerable international pressure.
Italian political theorist and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci once warned that, within any interregnum between old and new, a wide variety of morbid symptoms will appear. In Egypt’s case, the morbidity has been great indeed.
The Red Sea islands imbroglio has dented Sisi’s hyper-nationalist credentials.
And yet, even as it lashes out with unprecedented savagery, the contradictions of Sisi’s leadership — teetering atop a model of power that has been irreparably shattered by the revolution, and justified by a promise of stability and coherence rendered impossible by virtue of the leadership’s very existence — are mounting. “An authoritarian regime may be unpopular, even loathed, but at least it has rules,” observed political science professor Josh Stacher in early 2016. “The rules may bear little resemblance to the law, but relations between state officials and society come to have a predictable rhythm. People understand where the red lines are, and they can choose to stay within them or to step across.”
“Egypt does not work this way under the field marshal who became president,” Stacher continued. “If Sisi survives to fashion a regime as falsely stable as what reigned in the bad old days of Mubarak, he will be a magician. At present, he resembles a quasi-comical warm-up act, albeit one with an army, while everyone awaits the next chapter of Egypt’s tumultuous story.”
Egyptians are still opting to air their grievances by rallying in public.
In its desperate, ceaseless attempts to conjure fresh demons to underscore the need for a strongman, while at the same time delivering the calm and predictability craved by co-opted elites, the counter-revolution has been forced to walk a near-impossible tightrope, and every inevitable stumble tugs at the fraying threads a little further. The Red Sea islands imbroglio has dented Sisi’s hyper-nationalist credentials, even among his own supporters, and lurid cautions against the ever-present threat of foreign hands seeking to destabilize the nation sound less convincing when it is common knowledge that Gulf aid is needed to keep the lights on and the government has accepted a US$12 billion loan bailout from the IMF. A whole new round of austerity measures, implemented against the backdrop of intense currency, budget and current account crises, are trailed alongside images of Sisi driving down a four kilometer long red carpet, revelations of multimillion-dollar corruption rackets and cabinet ministers lodging on the public purse month after month in five-star hotels.
Such are the intractable dilemmas of a government that is considering offering citizenship to foreign financiers, while existing citizens are disappeared by security services.
Amid the gaping discrepancy between the regime’s words and actions, it is little wonder that despite the staggering costs, Egyptians are still opting to air their grievances by rallying in public. Over the past twelve months transport workers in Alexandria, lawyers in Damietta and taxi drivers in Cairo have joined state telecoms employees, shipyard factory workers, ceramics plant employees and doctors in holding strikes. In Beheira, drought-stricken villagers have refused to pay their water bills; in Luxor, Ismailia and the capital huge protests erupted following incidences of police torture; after a security raid on the Journalists Syndicate, reporters held a large demonstration and began deliberately distorting the interior minister’s photo and refusing to print his name. In the columns of pro-state media outlets, notes of establishment disquiet can increasingly be heard — not just over the division of spoils in Sisi’s Egypt, but because of his failure to tranquilize unrest. Such are the intractable dilemmas of a government that is currently considering the possibility of offering Egyptian citizenship to foreign financiers as an incentive to invest, while existing citizens are disappeared by the security services at a rate of nearly five a day.
Throughout it all, Sisi’s western sponsors have continued to cleave to him: a familiar face in an ever-more unfamiliar region, surrounded by a world that — shaken by rising anger against economic and political exclusion, and a crumbling of traditional authority — grows less recognizable by the day. In the twilight months of the Obama administration, John Kerry remained a regular visitor to Cairo’s presidential palace, where journalists are banned from the ritual photo shoots, and the relationship between Sisi and new US president Donald Trump appears to be one of mutual admiration. Sisi has signed huge new arms deals with both the US and France, and in late 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron rolled out his own red carpet for Egypt’s autocrat at Downing Street. His successor, Theresa May, has promised “a new chapter in bilateral relations” between the UK and Egypt, and avoided any public mention of human rights.
Regeni’s murder, and the architecture of state terror from which it emerged, has helped illuminate the West’s uneasy tightrope over the Nile.
This is despite the fact that, in early 2016, the corpse of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD candidate studying at the University of Cambridge, was found abandoned on the roadside on the outskirts of Cairo, his neck broken and his body subjected to “animal-like” violence that experts believe is highly consistent with torture by the Egyptian security services. In response to a global outcry, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi — the man who saluted Sisi in Sharm el-Sheikh with the proclamation “your war is our war, and your stability is our stability” — was forced to temporarily withdraw his country’s ambassador. The close partnership between Egypt and Italian energy giant Eni has been largely unaffected by the fallout. Egyptians held signs reading, “Giulio was one of us, and was killed like one of us,” at vigils for Regeni. “Italian officials want their gas deals and their anti-terror coalition, and they have always known what the price is,” wrote Cairo-based journalist Isabel Esterman. “They just expected that somebody else — somebody else’s children — would be the ones to pay for it.”
Regeni’s murder, and the architecture of state terror from which it emerged, has helped illuminate the West’s own uneasy tightrope over the Nile and exposed points of vulnerability in the relationship between Sisi and his international backers. Just as importantly, it has underlined how profoundly unstable Egypt’s status quo is, and the extent to which the underlying dynamics of Egyptian authoritarianism have been churned into crisis by successive years of revolt. Mubarak would not have allowed a white European to be tortured to death in such a prominent manner, inviting needless controversy. In the wilds of today’s Egypt, Sisi lacks both the choice and control to follow suit. The counter-revolution’s arsenal of defenses is more ferocious, and more fragmented, than that held by the state before 2011, precisely because the landscape beneath its feet has been so thoroughly rearranged by revolution.
It is not just Egyptian citizens who have been transformed by January 25 and its aftermath, but the individuals and institutions they are up against.
Earlier this year, historian Khaled Fahmy noted, “We, the people… have pried open the black box of politics. Politics is no longer what government officials, security agents or army officers decide among themselves. It is also no longer what university students demonstrate about, what workers in their factories struggle about, or young men in mosques whisper about. Politics is now the stuff of coffee shop gossip, of housewives’ chats, of metro conversations, even of pillow talk. People now see the political in the daily and the quotidian. The genie is out of the bottle and no amount of repression can force it back in.”
The point is that it is not just Egyptian citizens who have been transformed by January 25 and its aftermath, but the individuals and institutions they are up against; hence why the state is mired in fear, and drawn to such intense and often self-defeating acts of repression. The revolution’s first wave of political gains has certainly been obliterated, and yet, as Egyptian blogger Baheyya points out, “in the traumatized memories of a grasping ruling class, it remains evergreen.”
My book begins with a description of young children playing games of revolution in the school playground. Several years later, those same children are now in their mid-to-late teens. Every summer, all students in Egypt who have reached the final year of secondary school must take a series of compulsory exams which determine not only what university course they will end up on, but essentially their entire professional path in the future. The tests are exceptionally stressful, and in 2016 they were made even more so by the leaking of test papers online, which compromised their integrity and caused many exams to be canceled or postponed at the last minute. For many kids who have spent their formative years in the flux between Mubarak and Revolution Country — tapping into a new, thrilling language of agency and change while watching their family’s living standards decline, their friends being arrested and their coffee shops raided, looking ahead to an economy in which almost half of young people are unemployed — this disruption to the exam schedule was the final straw.
And so they did what they know how to do best: what they had practiced for so long in so many playgrounds, including Zawyet al-Dahshour. Hundreds of young people took to the streets in Cairo, and fought running battles — this time for real — with police in armored vehicles, who fired rubber bullets in an attempt to disperse them. Protests quickly spread to Alexandria, Assiut, Port Said and beyond. It was Ramadan, which meant that many of the students were fasting from all food and liquids, while temperatures were nearing 40 degrees centigrade, but it didn’t matter: they sprayed water over each other’s faces to cool themselves down, and shared around onions and soda to help counteract the teargas. Despite all the coercive laws, all the brutal crackdowns, and all the violence, these young students openly contested the power of those who sought to limit and determine the shape of their lives, because that is their norm and it is not going away.
“We don’t care [what the police do],” said 18-year-old Mostafa. “There can be no hesitation — this is our future. If they get rid of us today, we’ll come back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after. We will keep escalating until something happens.”
Note: This is an edited extract from Jack Shenker’s book, published in the UK as, The Egyptians: A Radical Story (Allen Lane / Penguin), and in the US as, The Egyptians: A Radical History of Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution (New Press). More details can be found here.