“Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.“
The cautious support that I personally gave Egypt’s President Sisi is not unconditional and will never be. I had hope because I appreciated – and still do – his removal of the Ikhwan who would not have left power otherwise. Ever. They are a non-democratic cult whose ideology is based on loyalty to their cult leader and fool people by giving lip service to democracy in order to gain power. They themselves said, when they got to power, that they were planning to transform Egypt into a Caliphate system.
But this is a different time. Now it is time to watch what this president is doing and hold him accountable. I am not looking at results because it is too early for that, but looking at process. Currently, I am not quite thrilled with what the Sisi regime is doing in regards to both the radicalization of the State and autocratization of its institutions. There are some disturbing indications of the continuation of the extremist mentality and allowing it to control much of the media, as well as autocratic decisions being made without due process.
Why am I – we the activists who supported Sisi – not jubilant any more? Because now we are holding Sisi’s feet to the fire. But before I mention all the indications, I need to say that first and foremost, the primary violation is that of the continuation of arrests and detention of the revolutionary youth, many of whom are currently on hunger strikes. The excuse that they broke the protest law issued by the Mehleb government by protesting on the streets does not merit those kind of prolonged sentences nor permit detention without charges [but that merits its own post]. But in addition to that, since many people are anti-revolution and anti-activists right now, there are other indications that are not only worrisome, but outright wrong. Here are some that I have been monitoring:
- Banning books: surprisingly, three books were banned among them a book by notable writer and academic Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd even though the same books had been in circulation in Egypt for the past decade [link] [link]
- Banning movies: PM Mehleb himself approved the banning of a film by actress Haifa Wahbi entitled Halawet Rooh. The film was banned on the grounds of immorality based on people’s demands to ban it. Also the film Noah was banned on the grounds of portrayal of a prophet on film. Al-Azhar demanded its banning and the government succumbed. What’s disturbing is that a member of the Religious Scholars Institute said all cinemas that will be showing this movie should be burnt down!
- Banning television programs: of course it started with satirist Bassem Yousef’s program and now there is Dancer Idol. Although Yussef himself stopped his own program, it was after myriad threats against him. However in the case of The Dancer Idol, the Al-Azhar decided – with many signatories – to ban a program by belly-dancer Dina, modeled after American Idol where women compete for the top belly-dancer. The Al-Azhar demanded it be banned on ‘moral’ grounds. To-date, because it is broadcast from an independent media channel, that channel refused to ban it.
- Arrests of gay people: a gay couple posted a video of their wedding on social media after one of the couple broke up with the other. Police sought them out including attendees and arrested them, accusing them of lewd behavior .
- Banning people from traveling: many who were on the Morsi-regime banned list of travel continue to be on it. More recently academic-turned-politican Amr Hamzawy’s suit against the State was upheld in a court of law that continued his banning.
- Banning university presidents’ elections and appointing their own presidents instead. Recently a lawsuit was filed against that decision and is pending in court.
- Campaign against the constitution: as usual such campaigns begin in the media [print and then broadcast media's so-called 'independent media'] then moves on to social media then it becomes a ‘people’s campaign’. Right now the campaign is hovering between all those three. The demand is to ‘reform the constitution‘ which was ‘written by some traitors’ [same 'traitors' who were appointed by Sisi to write the constitution], because it allowed parliament to override the president.
- Campaign against parliamentary elections: according to the constitution, parliament has the right to override some of the president’s decisions. Some people in the media and on social networks are demanding the cancellation of parliamentary elections or its indefinite postponement.
- Campaign against atheism: in a surprise announcement, the Al-Azhar Grand Imam said he would wage a war on atheism, following news that atheism has spread in Egypt.
- Leaked recordings: in an unprecedented media blitz in Egypt, leaked recordings of activists and public figures continues with constant threats of exposing more. This was done through an unknown media personality who became famous for leaking those recordings. The majority of those recordings are non-incriminating but the commentary on them makes them seem criminal.
- The Suez Canal project has been undertaken without fiscal oversight nor involvement of appropriate consultants. This should have been done while Parliament was available for oversight. In addition, there are credible reports of 1500 families being evicted from their homes without compensation from the area in order to build the Canal.
- Blackmailing businessmen into paying into the Egypt Fund which Sisi called for. Not only has PM Mehleb acknowledged they would blackmail people by ‘opening their old files’, but also the media went after prominent businessman Sawiris and tried to blackmail him into paying several billion into the fund. ٍThe State clearly tried to shame Sawiris into paying by announcing to the public the sum he donated, but Sawiris did not pay. It was then that Abdel Rahim Ali, the incognito media personality, decided to attack him and open his ‘black box’ [as his TV program is called].
- Portrayal of Sisi in the media: just as Morsi’s followers had done with him, journalists and others rushed to name Sisi everything from Jesus The Savior to the Prophet who came to reform Islam. [original video here]. It is a clear example of using religion to appeal to people. As part of the exaggerations as well, an Egyptian poet actually wrote a poem published in the media with a straight face, saying “Our women are pregnant with your star” نساؤنا حبلى بنجمك Dakahliya governor said Sisi is Ahmos the Second & will vanquish the Hyksos invaders! Exaggerations of that type are well known in Egypt, but to have them during Sisi’s time is adding insult to injury.
- Minorities: Continuation of publishing headline news re conversions into Islam. In one instance they published news from Saudi Arabia regarding arrest of Asians for praying at home and performing their rituals, and the police found with them ‘Bibles’. The news was published in an Egyptian newspaper without condemnation or commentary as though it was really a crime to perform their rituals.
- Sectarian strife incidents continue – for example Deir Anba Makkar monastery is again targeted by both extremists and the State, where people are claiming the land owned by the monastery is theirs rather than the monastery’s. Of course the monastery happens to be in the desert and when it was built decades ago, no one lived there.
- Crackdown on civil society organization.
The regime is clearly doing the same dance its predecessors did with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists – being more Ikhwan than the Ikhwan. As before, it wants to show that it is more pious than the Islamists in order to appeal to the people and is therefore permitting the hegemony of the religious institution and its moral domination. It is also defaming intellectuals and human rights activists who oppose its behavior. Because of persistent attacks on them, people now hate the term activist or anything that has to do with ‘human rights’ – a trend that is will take decades to reverse.
Is there a credible threat of the Islamists? Yes, without a doubt. However a tough president who wants the job done need not be an autocratic president. The government, and Sisi in particular, could have won people over by democratic and inclusive behavior, not by violating the constitution at every turn.