Saturday, March 30, 2019

Egypt’s Arrested Battlegrounds


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Egypt on January 9, 2019 to outline President Donald Trump’s “America First” vision of an assertive US role in the Middle East for his audience at the American University in Cairo, adding that “America is a force for good in the Middle East. Period.” Pompeo’s speech made no reference to advancing human rights or democracy, nor to alleviating widespread poverty or reining in brutal police states—all issues at the heart of the Arab uprisings in 2011, and which appear even more out of reach in Egypt today than they did eight years ago. His speech indicated the US would effectively endorse crackdowns on the freedoms of citizens in the Arab world, such as that taking place in Egypt today, in order to pursue its animosity towards Iran and whatever else it perceives as in its best interests.
While mass arrests and arbitrary detentions are nothing new to Egypt, the escalation and widening pattern of arrests over the past year indicate that the authoritarian mindset of the Egyptian regime has significantly changed since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former head of military intelligence, took power in a military coup in 2013. Since then, Egypt has arrested or charged at least sixty thousand people, forcibly disappeared hundreds and tried thousands of civilians in military courts. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been killed, detained and targeted under the banner of fighting terrorism. Many dissidents have been accused of belonging to the outlawed group to justify their arrest.
The overall pace of arrests and detentions has only escalated in 2018 as part of a mass arrest campaign undertaken by Egyptian police and security forces of human rights workers, lawyers, journalists and political activists along with a growing number of former regime insiders and even supportive public figures. The government has also introduced restrictive anti-NGO legislation and bolstered its draconian anti-terror laws, among other measures, to silence speech and dissent of any kind. Torture and mistreatment are rampant in Egypt’s prisons and security facilities.
The Egyptian government’s escalating arrest campaign, however, is less about simply detaining the opposition than it is about eradicating any openings that may lead to dissent.
Egypt under the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, like many modern dictatorships, enjoyed a vibrant ecosystem of brutal security bodies, a ruling party, a controlled opposition and a media that masqueraded as free. Islamists were controlled through a mixture of covert deals and brute force. At times they were allowed space and at other times they faced intense security crackdowns. The judiciary was kept under control for the most part, but there were pockets of independence afforded to judges if they chose to use them, particularly in areas like the administrative court and the court of cassation. Any opposition was targeted through an arsenal of weaponry that ranged from soft threats, business related pressures and even forced disappearances.
But now, the older form of authoritarian governance is disappearing. While the overall security apparatus is essentially the same as it was under Mubarak in terms of its tools and tactics, there is a marked strategic shift from Mubarak’s Egypt to Sisi’s Egypt in how these tactics are employed and by whom.
Under President Sisi, the regime’s approach is far less permissive of any dissent even within ranks that are loyal to the state and antagonistic to any form of revolutionary resistance. The government is no longer tolerant of even the simplest gestures of a faux democracy that were present under Mubarak, no matter how symbolic and meaningless they appear to be. There is no longer a ruling party, no tolerance for the role of opposition formerly played by regime supporters and not even the pretense of a free press. Accompanying this strategic shift in the targets of repression, there has been a major shift in the power balance among security agencies such as state security (now renamed Egyptian Homeland Security), general intelligence and military intelligence. Under Mubarak, state security controlled Egypt’s domestic space in terms of strategy and execution. Following the uprising in 2011, the balance between them shifted: The military stepped in to exert more influence over domestic affairs through its military intelligence branch, peaking with the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The regime, moreover, no longer cites terror and security concerns as a pretense for arrests. Opponents are targeted without a meaningful reason and without the flimsy paperwork that in the past justified these arrests. The most recent trend is to accuse the arrested of spreading false information and joining a banned group. This accusation ensures detainees are referred to state security prosecution, which allows for even less judicial oversight.
There is no other time in Egypt’s modern history when the widespread government assault on rights has been more severe. The state’s attempt to dominate the social and political field indicates a significant change in the current regime’s view of authoritarian governance in the aftermath of the popular uprising that broke out on January 25, 2011. Eight years later, despite the regime’s tight control of the street and state institutions, Sisi’s public pronouncements about the 2011 uprising often warn of a determination to prevent its reoccurrence: “What happened seven or eight years ago, will not happen again in Egypt. What didn’t work then, will not work now. No…it looks like you don’t know me well.”

This unprecedented state of repression would not have been possible without Sisi’s internal consolidation of power within Egypt’s state institutions since 2013, winning the support and complicity of the United States and the European Union (EU) along with the financial backing of Egypt’s Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the increasingly permissive international and regional environment for autocrats and authoritarians, firmly embraced by President Trump, outlined in Pompeo’s Cairo speech.

Arresting Spaces of Dissent

There are a number of factors fueling speculation about why the escalating repression is happening now, particularly as most of the arrests are made with no clear charges, no evidence and in response to no threatening or illegal actions taken by most of those arrested.
Egypt currently faces growing economic hardships, which is often cited as a factor fueling the state’s desire to keep the street tightly under control. The so-called ‘economic reforms’ and mass printing of money by the central bank have led to spiraling inflation and a lower standard of living for Egyptians on the whole. In addition, private businesses have suffered as military related businesses have used the military’s hegemony over politics to grab a larger market share in various industries. The military’s growing clout may explain why in every move that impoverishes the average Egyptian’s lifestyle, the government operates in a military-like fashion that views citizens as the enemy who must be coerced into accepting new policies.
There is also speculation that the government is preparing to alter the constitution to extend Sisi’s rule or that the government may be preparing the ground for a controversial embrace of the Trump administration’s much discussed ‘”deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians, which may include a major Egyptian role in Gaza.
Yet while these factors are certainly present, there is also a deeper factor at play. Sisi’s Egypt views the downfall of Mubarak as a cautionary tale for what might happen when too much space is allowed for opposition, even if it is controlled opposition. Hence a managed ruling party, a largely subservient judiciary and a media operating on a tight leash are seen as too permissive to ensure regime survival: politics itself is the enemy. The regime’s notion is that only a unified and singular political voice can and will take Egypt forward. What’s more, the regime’s crackdown goes beyond repressing overt or clandestine opposition: It has become a fight against existing and potential spaces where dissent might be possible in the future.
This broader transformation of Egyptian authoritarianism under Sisi is illustrated not only by the scale of the crackdown, but also by the broader pattern of arrests and repressive policies that have taken place since 2013, and have taken a harsh turn in the past year.
Upon assuming power in 2013, Sisi introduced legislation that blocked possible roads to dissent in order to cement his rule. Early examples include anti-protest law followed by the long fight to get rid of Hesham Genena, Egypt’s former chief auditor, which started with legislation to give the president the right to remove him. He was subsequently arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.
Despite all the legislative power consolidated by Sisi to control dissent, arrests remain the central tactic for purging opposition voices, even from within ranks loyal to the state, and the scope of arrests has expanded far beyond traditional targets.
While many of the arrested figures who make the news are well known political activists or opposition figures like Wael AbbasAbdel Moneim Abul Fotouh and Shady El Ghazaly Harb, the regime is also arresting lesser known individuals who have carved out social or political space in Egypt. For example Mohamed Radwan, known as Mohamed Oxygen for his Youtube channel Oxygen Egypt, was arrested in April 2018. His video blog consisted of interviews conducted on the street with ordinary people. The satirical blogger Shady Abuzeid, famous for a controversial video where he films himself distributing condoms to policemen in Tahrir on the revolution’s anniversary in 2016, was arrested even though he had been silent on politics since the video. Many many young people associated with the exiled singer Ramy Essam and the production of his song ‘Balaha’ (a mocking nickname for Sisi which means date) have all been arrested by state security forces.
Moreover, a number of former regime supporters and insiders have increasingly been targeted for arrest as well. For example, Ahmed Shafiq was placed under house arrest in the Marriott Hotel temporarily after being deported by the UAE for having announced his 2018 candidacy for president there, where he was quickly coerced into withdrawing from the presidential race. The regime imposed an even harsher measure against former Egyptian military chief of staff Gen. Sami Anan who was was arrested, and remains in custody of the military prosecution, simply for declaring his intent to run for the presidency. A former ambassador and former military officer, Massoum Marzouk, was also arrested on August 31, 2018 for criticizing al-Sisi and calling for protests to take place.
Other actors within the regime such as Mahmoud Hegazy, the former army chief of staff, Osama Askar, Commander of the Unified Command in the Sinai, and Sedky Sobhy, former minister of defense, have been the subject of repressive measures when their views were not completely aligned with command. Instead of being merely sidelined, as happened in the past, this new development is a sign that suppression extends beyond opposition and is now internal to the regime.
One controversial personality under arrest is Hazem Abdel Azim, who had been a strong supporter of Sisi and part of his presidential campaign at one point. Initially a supporter of the revolution, Abdel Azim took a sharp turn against it when Sisi came to power. Sometime after Sisi was sworn in as president, he took yet another U-turn and apologized for his support of Sisi. More controversially, he exposed how parliamentary elections were were orchestrated behind the scenes and became a vehement critic of the Sisi regime. He also published a recorded phone call with someone allegedly from security services threatening him on his personal Facebook page.
Yet Abdel Azim is not the most surprising arrest. TV presenter Khairy Ramadan, a regime hardliner was also arrested. He was released on bail fairly quickly, but the move was a strong message that even within the regime’s ranks all messaging must be aligned and not go off script. Even Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal were arrested this September. A journalist close to the regime accused Gamal Mubarak of trying to regain power and close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which became the pretense for his arrest.
The regime’s fight is no longer about simply suppressing dissenting voices but rather a targeted attack on all spaces and battlefields that may be used to voice dissent, whether political, social or physical. Because football stadiums had been one of the places of free, often subversive, expression, football fans have been banned from attending matches. The government has also targeted bookstores and media outlets as well as shut down libraries that were started by the opposition figure and human rights activist Gamal Eid.
The elimination of all and even potentially oppositional voices and spaces so that only one can be amplified is a clear indication that there can be no semblance of opposition. Even when it was time for elections, whose results were a foregone conclusion, Sisi eliminated all competition. Had it not been for US Vice President Mike Pence’s condition that the presidential election in 2018 must have a contender Sisi would have run alone. When competition was presented, Sisi dispatched one of his supporters to run against him, a man who rallied for Sisi even during his own presidential bid.

International Complicity

None of these increasingly bold and repressive moves would have been possible without the support granted Egypt from the US, the EU and the Gulf states. President Trump’s praise for dictators and disdain for human rights and democracy, along with rising authoritarian parties in a number of European countries, has enabled the Egyptian regime to violate human rights law with impunity. In addition, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been committed supporters of Egypt’s government and policies through their massive economic support packages and by lobbying western governments to recognize and embrace Egypt’s government without criticizing its human rights violations.
While it may be a permissive period for aspiring authoritarians, it is also the case that many Western countries have significant business and security interests in Egypt that not only reinforce their silence on its human rights violations but also cause them to offer open support for the regime.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, for example, has been criticized for refusing to speak about Egypt’s human rights record particularly as Egypt has been the largest recipient of arms from France between 2013 and 2017. France has also been supplying surveillance equipment and other hardware used to target activists. Great Britain’s ambassador to Egypt John Casson has come under fire for his reluctance to talk about Egyptian human rights abuses even though the Great Britain is a major supporter of Egypt’s security services as well. Many other interests bind it to Egypt, including the IMF loan which will pay arrears to international oil companies, including British Petroleum.
Germany also has close business and security ties with Egypt and in return Prime Minister Merkel has downplayed the human rights abuses taking place in Egypt. Germany has established a security agreement with Egypt which has deepened despite the Egyptian government’s poor track record on human rights. Trade between Egypt and Germany remains lucrative, including the sale of a German-made attack submarine and an eight billion euro deal for the German company Siemens to build power stations, which Egypt granted directly without competition with other companies.
Greece and Cyprus have also been supportive of Egypt’s current government, and their representatives have blocked several attempts by the EU to take action against Egypt for its human rights abuses. The reason appears to be the lucrative agreement around the exploration and transportation of natural gas from Cyprus’ gas fields to Egypt for re-export to Europe.
Spain and Italy have also largely remained silent about Egyptian government actions, and it is also the case that they are set to be paid over two billion dollars by Egypt over a natural gas dispute through their joint venture Union Fenosa Gas. Despite the murder of the Italian researcher Guilio Regeni in which the Egyptian government has been implicated, Italy has been trying to find a way to return to business as usual rather than seek justice for its murdered student. Just two and a half years after Regeni’s murder, Eni, an Italian energy company has been granted an offshore exploration license in the Mediterranean Sea by Egyptian authorities.

A Repressive Formula

While the Egyptian government’s widening campaign of arbitrary arrests and extended detentions have been mounting, the chances of fighting this repression has been diminishing. The Egyptian regime now aims to eliminate all existing or potential political or social battlegrounds rather than build state capacity to fight in these battlegrounds and win—employing mass death sentences that are sometimes carried out and enforced disappearances that are not questioned. The recent measures taken by the regime have not only eliminated real or potential opposition figures but have also eradicated any space where it was once possible to conduct a battle for rights. In an autocratic state, there are often sites of contestation: the press, courts, elections and other sites. Battles erupt in these spaces. What the current regime is doing now is eliminating the ability for citizens to contest its rule through any of these traditional institution-based processes.
It seems that Egypt has mastered a mode of operation that eliminates battlegrounds instead of engaging with them. Internal consolidation of power is a meticulous process that involves making sure that both opposition and regime supporters fall in line, whatever the cost. At the same time the regime appears to be succeeding in fending off external pressure from the international community that could hinder the process of internal regime consolidation.
But Egypt’s repressive crackdown on political space has not come without a political cost. In order to secure international support, Egypt has strained its economy with debts, and inflation has hit an all-time high. Economic hardship for most Egyptians has negatively affected Sisi’s popularity, though dissatisfaction is being contained through a brutal security apparatus. At the same time, the mass arrests of its opponents, real or imagined, is creating more enemies for the regime. Once manically popular, Sisi is now cursed at even though people are painfully aware of the price of speaking out.
Egypt has succeeded in reestablishing authoritarianism in a manner that is far more brutal—and far-reaching—than Mubarak. It has managed to control the street while undermining its own judiciary and institutions. The military’s hegemony over the economy is turning into full-fledged domination. Once contested, albeit controlled, battlegrounds are decimated. The diminishing role of state institutions and structures has led to more centralized regime control over all aspects of governing, eliminating a governing process.
At the same time, people are governed through fear and are unwilling to risk the brutality that may accompany calling for their rights. This formula gives the appearance of relative stability. But with a deteriorating economy that affects the livelihood of the majority of Egyptians, will this be sustainable in the absence of state structures and institutions that have traditionally acted as a pressure release? Time will tell whether this attempt at a totalizing form of political control is a modern-day authoritarian’s winning formula, or a house made of cards that will readily crumble when a new crisis or event sparks mass outrage.

How to cite this article:

Wael Eskandar "Egypt’s Arrested Battlegrounds," Middle East Report Online, February 07, 2019.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Being in Cairo



It's a strange feeling to be in Cairo. Things are more convenient in a way and far worse in others. My privilege gives me protection from some parts of the ruthless city. A car, a flat and you're ready to shut out all those voices of inconvenience. I should be ready to step outside the car for a while and deal with the annoyances of the parking attendants, most of whom are government informers. I also have to deal with whatever bureaucracy exists in public as well as private enterprises. Everything is forbidden without reason, or rather a hidden reason or one that does not respect you. The private business owners have mimicked the top down government approach of asking their employees to follow instructions without questions.

Yes, questions are the enemy, because they demand answers. The biggest question is 'Why?' and the answers are what most people want to avoid because the truth is inconvenient. Why do I have to wait in line? Why is everything so inefficient? Why are there more hard drugs in the market? Why don't the police arrest criminals? Why do innocent people languish in jail? So many questions and the answers are known but not spoken. The answers are so dark that people prefer to pretend they are a mystery.

Yet a house and some money can go a long way to shield you from the idiocies of society. They can't however block news of injustice and they can't block the injustices you see each day when you step outside for a while and they can't bring back dignity, only buy you some cheap knock off that disappears as soon as your money does, or as soon as your opinions become inconvenient. 

The guitar keeps me company. It creates a beautiful sound from touch. I get better at it. I pick the difficult pieces because they challenge me. I need some sort of challenge that I can take on. I can no longer do the moral challenges as immorality triumphs again and again. Let me look to the physical if I can. Maybe I can do more pull ups, more push ups, more sit ups. Maybe I can play harder pieces. Maybe I can build some furniture with wood. Maybe stain my wood better, finish it better. 

This is Cairo for me now. An attempt to escape its brutal reality. It is constantly coping even at times when I'm just having fun. 

At times I walk down the streets and it all overwhelms me, but that's a story for a different day. Right now it's 3 am and I'm happy to think of Cairo from the comfort of my quiet space. 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Survival Is Also a Form of Resistance



It has been difficult for me writing this piece. I was asked to write something for the anniversary of the #Jan25 revolution. I struggled. What was the point of writing. What was the point of sending this out as our world seemed beyond that which words can remedy. My first draft was a political narrative. Factual, impersonal, perhaps even accurate. The night before I couldn't just send that in. Our story was not about accuracy or simply facts. Our story goes on through our struggle to escape hope and find it. I rewrote it when it dawned on me that the most important part of our struggle is personal, not public. I struggled with words, with emotions, these are eight years and our experiences are full of emotions and we're at different stages of grief, of recovery.
All the words seem lacking, but I tried to find them with the little energy I had to describe us. I'm aware they don't do us justice. Yet, with all the flaws of expressing where we're at, I'm grateful to have used some of my energy to document some of my struggles that I believe are shared by many. And on a day like yesterday, it felt that I was not alone struggling in the dark. We are all collectively struggling, everyone in their own way, a battle to remember, a battle to forget, a battle to survive.
Our memory has been resilient in the face of seemingly infinite resources trying to crush it. It's worth something to keep remembering. It's worth something to keep trying to survive. It's worth something to hold on to that one thing that was genuine in our lives, that we were blessed and cursed to witness and be a part of. I don't know what that something is, but I often feel it when we connect. We shared something real that is somehow beyond words.
I was never a romantic dreamer, and the reason I write these sentiments is because I've questioned them a thousand times over to make sure they were real and not just some naive romanticization.
The revolution continues in our struggle and our trauma, but perhaps what I never mentioned is that it continues in the integrity we hold on to.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Dispatches from Cairo


A long forsaken blog. Blogging might be dead in some way. Writing is not. I have allowed the blog to die over the years as social media started to take hold of distribution. A facebook status or a twitter post were a replacement. Mostly because the point was about influencing people at a time of political fluidity. The dreams of contributing to a positive change died slowly as people in Egypt turned their back, not to blogs, or social media, but to the question of morality as a whole. What is the point of persuading people who do not want to act based on morality but opt for an notion of pragmatism that is rather impractical and only serves to camouflage their moral bankruptcy. 

As time has passed, the social media companies are controlling our content, siding with oppressive governments for an easy buck. It may not be the time to influence but to archive and document once again like the pre-revolution times. This year I will try and document some of the thoughts independent of transient social media. This platform now is far from perfect, but at the very least attempts to evade the continuous data games that are carelessly played by big social media companies who aim to control the spaces they once claimed were free. 

My time in Cairo is full of observations, social now, less political. As I walk through the streets my mind wanders to various things from seeing the potholes, the frail infrastructure and the economically defeated faces on the streets. 

Maybe I'll write once a month, or once every two months, but I will attempt to keep this going like once before and if I don't, I'm asking me to forgive me, because I know how overwhelming it has become to try and express myself in the face of trauma, depression and the frequent visits of hopelessness. I can only remind myself that even then it may have some value to express how I feel.

I'm hoping to be able to find more personal dispatches in the future worth noting. Or maybe this is just a brief awakening that won't last. Who knows.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hillary or Bust


Early polling showed Bernie Sanders beating Donald Trump. In those early polls Hillary Clinton lost to Trump. I don't personally believe polls are accurate in general, but many do. What that means for believers, is that they chose a risky route. They wanted Hillary to win the primaries even though the DNC would have come to power more assuredly if Bernie was it's nominee. In fact those voters were Hillary or bust.  They turned down the candidate who was closer to democrats on the issues because they gambled on Hillary changing her popularity. I'm not generalizing or judging motivations, maybe they thought she was a better candidate, maybe they didn't like Bernie, I'm talking about the practical implications.  

When push came to shove Bernie rallied for Hillary because he realized the Trump danger early on. The DNC on the other hand, wanted to destroy Bernie. It was not because he wasn't aligned with them on issues, but because they had special interests. Maybe they thought Hillary was a better leader, maybe they thought Bernie wasn't capable of delivering, but still, they too gambled on liberal resources rather than weighed out what's more aligned with their platform.

One thing I respect about Bernie is that he stuck to the issues. Following her triumph over Bernie, Hillary shifted her focus to one thing, how she isn't Trump. Hillary was silent on most issues, she did not want to gamble her connections with big businesses once in the white house so that her words won't be used against her. In effect, she wasn't able to win over a bigger base.

People did their part and she won the popular vote, mostly out of fear of Trump. However, the question that that needs to be asked is: what did she do to try and win over those who wanted a better economy for themselves and who know for certain that the status quo wasn't good enough? Did she promise a better economy for them like Trump's empty promises? Not so much, and it's because Hillary knows the value of words and chose hers wisely. That is something we can respect Hillary for, she tried not to lie about her positions on issues so that they do not haunt her while in office, but that came at a cost. In effect, Hillary became silent about most issues that weren't instigated by Trump, she never called him out, she just responded to his silly ludicrous claims. She missed most opportunities outside the 'glad I'm not Trump' zone, and failed to comment meaningfully on something as obvious as the Dakota pipeline.

Hillary sat on the fence and hoped that Trump's stupidity would be enough. It wasn't. Mocking Trump and avoiding the issues gave his poor supporters no alternative but to challenge the status quo. The politics of fear were employed and even though fear of Trump did not deter voters, the politics of fear won. The real fear here for the working class was the continuation of the status quo. Hillary Clinton did not alleviate any of that fear.

Those who support Hillary are probably happy with the status quo to a great extent. There is currently a president from a discriminated group. I do not deny that a woman president would be progress, but to those whose lives will not be bettered it's cosmetic. Obama bailed out banks, lead drone wars, came after whistle blowers and under his presidency big businesses thrived and continued to make colossal profits. This simply isn't good enough for most. 

I'm certain there are many who chose Trump for his racism, but what about winning over those who just wanted a shift in the status quo? What has been offered to them beyond cosmetic check boxes of progress? 

There is something wrong with a country that would vote for a vile character like Trump simply because they are unhappy with the status quo. While people should be accountable for their bigotry, there are many reasons why they ended up that way. Media was sensationalist, catering to their base, on both sides. The liberal media focused on Trump and his crazy supporters. It may have been better to identify what is really wrong with the country rather than what is wrong with Trump and his supporters.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Egypt Digs Itself Back To 1977


Ahmed Kamal, a medical student, was arrested by police and delivered to his family the following day via the mortuary. Ahmed had been sentenced to two years in absentia and only recently arrested and killed by Egyptian police, possibly tortured to death. Sometime in the past this may have been breaking news, causing outrage in Egyptian society, and perhaps even internationally. But in today’s Egypt, this is a repeated story, predictable in every way.
The state will cover up for its security apparatus, and as its ridiculous story is exposed, details may shift slightly until the whole ordeal is forgotten. If Giulio Regeni’s murder did not bring about any accountability for the Egyptian regime or its security bodies, it is highly unlikely that Ahmed Kamal’s murder will result in any better.
Security bodies will deny wrongdoing; forensics may end up fabricating a report like they did in the case of Khaled Said. Regime apologists at best will ask people to wait for meaningless investigations by the state. Even if the forensics report doesn’t appease state institutions and the evidence is found to be compelling, then arrests may be made, but only to silence public pressure. These arrests will not result in a condemning verdict, and if they do it will be repealed quickly.
The murder of Ahmed Kamal and the story that follows is not an isolated incident; it reflects the workings of a brutal regime whose institutions are complicit in crimes against Egyptians and works in perfect harmony to provide impunity to its members. This state of complicity and criminality is hard to digest even when witnessing it. Yet time and time again the regime has consistently proven that this systemic injustice is its modus operandi.
Police brutality is the government’s chosen means of looking out for its interests and enforcing policy. While political protests bore the brunt of re-establishing these means, the same will be applied to enforce harsh economic policies advocated for by Egypt’s ‘allies’.
An implicit agreement between the Egyptian government and the people was negotiated over the past six years, following the murder of Khaled Said whereby police brutality and government impunity became more or less accepted. Yet, even with the carte blanche provided by the regime’s supporters to use excessive violence, dire economic conditions may breech that agreement. Egyptians are angered by their struggle with the prices of basic goods, medicine, and cost of living.
Despite this anger, the people do not have the power, or perhaps the will, to attempt to change the regime or depose President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Any such attempt may start a new wave of harsher economic conditions that the people are not ready to handle. The people have willfully given up their right to protest this regime. Many feel compelled to live with the consequences having deprived themselves of influence. But can we call the inability to remove Al-Sisi or influence his regime’s policies ‘stability’?
Egypt needs reforms in order to address its ailing economy, but these reforms need to be political rather than strictly by the numbers. It’s disingenuous and far removed from reality to claim that a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is an answer to Egypt’s ailing economy. The incessant advocacy to impose IMF conditions, such as the value-added tax or lifting of subsidies, is far too reminiscent of the 1977 bread riots. Likewise, back then, subsidies were lifted causing a large wave of protests that left 79 dead and 566 injured. These austerity measures were taken without regard for the political backlash or the context which made these measures back-breaking to the average Egyptian.
Besides, the government is underperforming in most sectors, exhibiting even more incompetence than under Hosni Mubarak. No matter what the plan is, it is unlikely it can be executed efficiently, with the farfetched assumption these are the reforms Egypt needs.
What hope is there for a country whose economy is systemically worsened by pouring state money into a military economy that neither pays taxes nor contributes back to the state budget? How can any tax reforms be sustainable while the military continues to take money out of the economic cycle? What mechanisms or possible oversight could there be for a regime that has ignored its own laws as well as international treaties to further its own political and economic agenda?
Can any loan or condition stop the military from manipulating the market and muscling out competition to push forward its own products and services? What is there to address policies that favour the army’s air conditioning units, bottled water, and food products that cripple civilian competition? Can any condition be imposed to change the contracts that are being delivered directly to the army and revenue not being pumped back into the economy through taxes and parliamentary oversight?
For many in the Egyptian government, corruption is a way of life they’re not willing to give up. Economists advocating loan conditions fail to address these pressing issues that are key to Egypt’s structural economic problems. The present debate sidesteps some of the most important factors that are negatively influencing the economy. Some of these factors include political repression, lack of judiciary reforms, the police state, and military economic interests driving policy.
Ahmed Kamal is a recurring story, symptomatic of a security state that has turned criminal, motivated by narrow economic interests that favour an economic elite over the Egyptian populace. Ahmed won’t show up in the numbers punched up by experts, nor will the nonsensical story provided by the government be questioned.
The present regime has alienated numerous factions of society: doctors, lawyers, journalists, students, youth, businessmen, and even some civil servants. Meanwhile, Egypt holds its own future hostage. Youth are threatened constantly and barred from decision-making circles. Many are detained in jail, tortured or placed under solitary confinement without fair judicial process, and some, like Ahmed, are killed in police custody.
Egypt’s problems will not be solved by applying cosmetic reforms, they will only entrench Egypt deeper down an abyss, like a car stuck in the sand digging itself deeper when the accelerator is pushed hard. Further austerity, which comes hand in hand with state violence and repression, may cause the eruption of an already simmering street. What’s more, even if understated, Egypt cannot move forward as long as stories like Giulio Regeni and Ahmed Kamal and countless others persist. It will take real change and the unchaining of Egypt’s youth—its future—to dig it out of this hole that’s growing deeper by the minute.
First published in DNE on 3 Sept 2016.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Where Hope Lies in Egypt




This article was published in DNE on 2 November 2016.

As calls for protests garner more attention from the media and citizens who have long ignored them, many serious questions about Egypt's trajectory arise. This is perhaps Egypt's most disheartening moment in recent history. Besides the unprecedented scale of human rights abuses, it is obvious to dwellers and onlookers that Egypt's economy is swiftly spiraling towards collapse. The leadership is struggling to keep its head above water, as the long sought after hope of political stability turns frail.

What makes the moment more tragic is not the absence of hope but its fleeting presence. Egypt's path to recovery has long been clear. Yet, the economic interests of the policy makers have stalled any political will to execute them. Economic figures aside, future prospects are primarily based on trust. As conditions worsen and the interests of the political elite become clearer to the average citizen, trust in Egypt's present leadership withers.

Egypt's economic ills are but symptoms of its political ailments, and they require urgent redress. Egypt needs direct political reforms to establish a system capable of executing long-term plans beneficial to the country's future.

At the moment, the majority of decisions are taken by non-elected officials belonging to one security apparatus or another. They have three major motivations: narrow individual interests, securing the present regime, and a revenge agenda against Islamist or secular opposition. Their decisions are not subject to oversight. The parliament's handpicked members are more a representation of security agencies than of the people.

Similarly, the entire political system lacks cheques and balances. There is no manner to challenge decision makers without paying a heavy price. Egypt's top auditor, Hesham Geneina, was removed from his post after releasing statements about his report's findings that indicated mass corruption. In theory, that ought to have triggered an investigation into the government bodies accused of financial violations, but the opposite happened and Geneina was referred to trial.

The absence of balances has also corrupted the market in Egypt. While the army's role in the economy has long been established, the army is now, more than ever, directly involved in policy. This means that generals control the army's share of contracts and the shares of non-military owned companies in the market. Hence, it is not just the army's economic empire that affects the market, but rather the complete hegemony over economic and business policies.

Many civilian companies are subcontracted by the army, but they have no means to litigate against the army if they are extorted in some way or another or their payments delayed. When the army does business, it does not pay taxes; it utilises poorly paid conscripts, and its budget is not subject to parliamentary oversight. Even if the army produces goods or delivers construction projects at a lower cost, there's no way to ensure that profits made are pumped back into the economy. Money is taken out of the monetary cycle.

Private businesses have to compete with military industries that do not have to pay labour, taxes, customs, and transportation, and have no difficulty finding foreign currency to conclude their deals with partners abroad. This arrangement certainly doesn't consider long-term, economic growth.

Egypt's hope lies in the ability to challenge political, economic, and social policies. Egypt must prioritise the country's interests rather than a few individuals who enjoy impunity or corrupt rewards.

To find hope, trust in the process and leadership must be restored. Opportunities must be afforded to clever, competent decision makers. In actionable, concrete terms, hope lies in a parliament comprised of fairly elected representatives of the people willing to challenge the government, in the immediate release of all political prisoners (estimated to be in the tens of thousands), in repealing the flawed Protest Law, in ending the targeting of civil society so that it is vibrant and able to call out abuse of power, and in abiding by the Constitution to call into account all extrajudicial decisions and actions taken by state officials.

These steps are where hope lies in the short term to instill trust, and in order to stand a chance, there's more. The army must gradually distance itself from its hegemonic role in the economy and allow for businesses to operate within a fair and healthy market. There must also be a commitment from the government to end brutal police practices and devise an organisational restructure with meaningful oversight. The judiciary must end punitive rulings that serve the regime.

Egypt's youth, its most important resource and symbol for its future, are targeted instead of embraced. Many are defamed, imprisoned, disappeared, and sidelined. Instead of engaging with youth, the regime opted for a flashy youth conference held in Sharm El-Sheikh. The conference was insulting to many as it attempts to window dress systematic abuses against Egyptian youth each day. A more realistic youth conference would have been held in jails where many politically enlightened youth are being held. At this more legitimate youth conference, we would have witnessed Egypt's forcibly disappeared youth reappear and go home with their families.

Empty rhetoric and obstinacy is the regime's alternative to meaningful change. False promises for a better future only entrench Egypt deeper into its failing trajectory. Egypt's hope lies in investing in youth and accountability; hopes that Egypt's trajectory miraculously changes without real reforms are lies.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Repitition

There's little real in politics to talk about which hasn't already been said. It feels as though people take a long time to catch up with what is happening. Each time I start writing, it feels I've said these things before and the repeat causes the sentences to be more robotic, less passionate, seemingly more rehearsed.

I read through my old stuff and I realize I gave it my all. Maybe someone out there has read what I tried my best to honestly reveal. Maybe someone out there was inspired to do the same. I'm tired of repetition and it feels I've been on a break from saying things how they are. 

I'm not sure when I'll return.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

On Bubbles



There's a bit of a trend to try and describe some communities as living in a bubble.The idea has become so deformed that people use the term incorrectly. So if people are interacting on twitter sharing similar views, they call it a bubble, if people have facebook timelines which show only their supporting views they call it a bubble, when revolutionaries are talking about torture and police brutality while most citizens don't, they call it a bubble.

I don't think people really understand what a bubble is as opposed to a community. A bubble is mostly defined by an unawareness of those around you, not by your preferences. You can't be in a musical rock bubble if you're aware that others like hip hop or house. The fact that you have a different taste or preference doesn't place you in a bubble. When you have preferences that are not mainstream, it doesn't put you in a bubble.

Bubble here is being oblivious to the reality of the world around you rather than relates to the choices you make. One particular example that stands out is the revolutionary bubble, which is complete nonsense. Revolutionaries are perhaps some of the most aware people of the existing contradictions in the country and the different communities and 'bubbles' out there. The fact that they've chosen a set of tastes and principles doesn't put them inside a bubble, particularly that their main concerns are the bitter realities of regime brutality that others want to shield themselves from.

The fact that other communities are not so accessible to them so that they can influence them doesn't put them inside a bubble, they just don't have means.

Also worrying is how many, even from within these circles, completely discard revolutionaries or activists as citizens. There is a form of elitism shrouded in the appearance of humility there. These activists are citizens too and just because they are trying to change things beyond their local scope doesn't invalidate their citizenship or opinions and most certainly doesn't warrant describing the whole lot of them as living in a bubble. In some sense, revolutionaries are the biggest non government sponsored coalition whose cohesion is based on a set of principles rather than an an institution.



People have used the term bubble to express their escape from the madness, in that sense it's building your own defenses against the surrounding madness, but there's a difference between choosing to isolate yourself and being oblivious to what is around you.