Egypt is a nation cocooned in a nightmare, its elite devoid of ideas and adrift in changing region and world.
The philosopher Walter Benjamin once wrote that ‘behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution’. Well, in Egypt, behind its very own modern ‘fascism’—or for the pedantic, ‘totalitarianism’—you’ll find the corpses of revolutionaries.
The regime’s dungeons are packed full of them too – tortured, broken and often condemned people stuffed away in the dark.
In Cairo, a pseudo-parliament, General Abdel Fatah el Sisi’s Maglis El Nowwab, is packed full of only his most loyal and servile kleptocratic cronies.
Even the walls of revolutionary graffiti, the most famous of which was found on Mohamed Mahmoud Street just off Tahrir Square, have been cleansed or face demolition. One might think that the question of graffiti is a small one - some elitist fancy that causes indignancy only among a privileged few. Perhaps this is now the case, but it was not always so.
This was a revolutionary artform – by referencing the ancient and famous artform of hieroglyphs painted and carved on the walls of Egypt’s most famous monuments, depicting both the past, present and future of the country, the artists sought to claim that moment – January 25, 2011 until July 3, 2013 – as the time when the people got to express themselves.
The monument was the revolution, and Pharaoh—for the first time in Egypt’s long history—was the people. Egypt’s organs of control, the hated Central Security Forces, had retreated, its institutions of domination were in chaos as people swarmed into Tahrir to claim their future.
But there’s a new pharaoh in town. And he determines not just the present and the future in terrifying new ways, but the past too. This gets to the very core of counter-revolution and the necessity of totalitarianism in Sisi’s Egypt.
Take the recent ‘election’. To even use the word ‘election’ to describe what occurred at the end of last month over the course of 3 days is an exercise in the absurd.
No election took place in Egypt. At least Mubarak had the twisted courtesy to call his own anti-democratic re-accessions to the Egyptian throne as ‘democratic ceremonies’, but the Sisi regime, caught as it often is between the facade of change and vicious tyrannical arrogance, went ahead with this ‘ceremony’ as if it was an actual election.
In truth, Sisi was simply re-anointed as president without any fuss. To call what occurred ‘political’, by the normal standard, is as equally preposterous. The event was brazenly anti-political.
The usual political process of elections, such as antagonism between competing ideological forces via debates and electioneering, were of course entirely absent.
In fact, anything political concerning the election was crushed. Even among the small pool of what you might call the ‘tolerated opposition’ (known as feloul in the era of democracy following January 25), Sisi acted swiftly to neutralise any potential challenge that might stir something among the pliable, conditioned and broken electorate.
The two most famous candidates that tried to stand against Sisi were former Mubarak-era Army Chief of Staff Sami Anan and Mubarak’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, who was also the figurehead of the counter-revolutionary campaign to stop Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi triumphing in the genuine election of 2012.
While both are hardly bastions of freedom and democracy in Egypt, it’s wrong to say that they didn’t present specific threats to Sisi.
Anan, for example, had courted support among the remnants of the once mighty but now broken, banned and underground Muslim Brotherhood, while he selected Hisham Geneina as his running mate.
During Morsi’s time in government, Geneina had been Egypt’s top auditor, tasked with mapping the scale of the kleptocracy that had mushroomed under the rule of Mubarak and the military. Geneina’s auditing found that in just three years alone an astonishing $76 billion in public funds had been lost to Egypt’s kleptocrats.
Of course, they couldn’t have that. In 2016, Geneina was sentenced to one-year in prison under the ludicrous charges of ‘spreading false news’ and ‘disturbing the peace’.
For Anan to appoint him as his running mate for the 2018 election was thus a major signal to Sisi that he had real intentions of criticising the status quo that Sisi upholds.
After announcing his intention to run, Anan was arrested and ‘interrogated’ under the charge of ‘inciting against the armed forces’. Most of his campaign staff were also arrested, including his running mate Geneina. Whatever the regime said to Anan and his team, met its desired effect – they promptly shut up and made no further criticisms of Sisi.
The process was similar with Shafik. After Morsi’s election, Shafik, seeking to protect himself and his looted wealth, had fled to the UAE.
After he declared his intention to run, Sisi’s main patrons in the UAE would not let him leave the country. Shafik made as much noise as possible about his ‘imprisonment’ in the UAE, including an interview with Al Jazeera, forcing them to relent and let him leave.
Shafik landed in Egypt and was immediately detained. He barely got to touch Egyptian soil before he was whisked away by the notorious Mukhabarat. It’s worth noting the immediate danger Shafik posed to Sisi.
Though the internal dynamics of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are extremely hard to extrapolate, it is known that they are not unanimously uncritical when it comes to Sisi's presidential rule.
It just might be that Shafik, who once garnered so much support from the same elites who now support Sisi, could truly shake things up for Sisi were he to stand against him.
Even though the vote is fixed, his candidacy could’ve put a strain on the already creaking foundations of Egypt's establishment.
One potential fault line is that Shafik might represent a wing of the Egyptian ruling class who aren't so keen on the extent to which Sisi has ceded so much sovereignty to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. One of Sisi's most fraught times in power was the controversy over Egypt giving the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.
Not only did Sisi face widespread criticism from the public over this, but, for the first time since he seized power, he faced public criticism from ruling class loyalists. This was followed by more criticism from within the establishment following the assassination of 16 high-ranking police officers in el Bahariya.
In both cases, one of the loudest critics was none other than Ahmed Shafik, who tied the island issue to what he called "bad events in recent times under Sisi's rule”, as well as accusing Sisi of "betrayal".
The way Shafik and Anan have been treated has ignited rumors that SCAF may not have Sisi's back forever, particularly if he keeps ceding Egypt's territorial integrity to the UAE, Saudi and Israel, and if he fails to secure US support and loans for the Egyptian Army.
Every single meaningful candidate was blocked from running, but someone had to run. Who else better to run in a fake election than someone who supports Sisi? Enter Moussa Mustafa Moussa, leader of the pro-Sisi El Ghad Party and someone who had been—until he was forced to run against Sisi to complete the ceremony—gathering signatures for the Sisi campaign and openly advocating Sisi’s continued rule.
He was chosen to be the token 3 percent to Sisi’s 97 percent.
Sisi's friends manifest his fears
But while it’s easy to look at all of this as a farce, it paints the sinister reality of the kind of society being shaped in Sisi’s Egypt. While Mubarak’s brand of authoritarianism, often brutal, reigned supreme, there was room, often mere millimetres, for dissent and antagonism towards the regime.
In Sisi’s Egypt, however, which is one that has as its modus operandi not just overturning everything about January 25 but making sure nothing like January 25 could ever happen again, the point is to stamp out even the slightest hint of hope of change.
Mubarak’s mistakes, such as giving too much freedom to campuses and not clamping down on the internet, are now the main targets of Sisi’s totalitarian order.
Hannah Arendt once wrote of the way in which the totalitarian state relates to the subject that “there are no dangerous thoughts – thinking itself is dangerous”. And this was at the heart of Egypt’s non-election. The point was to blunt thought itself – to intimately attach ‘politics’ (i.e. Sisi’s re-anointment) with the absence of thought.
Creativity is at the heart of democracy – self-organisation and self-determination are creative acts. This is what the murals on the wall represented – Egyptians, outside of the elite, grasping creative control of their country.
This is everything that Sisi seeks to destroy – everything he fears: democracy, a politically engaged and active youth, open to the world through the internet and at university, as well as people capable of thinking beyond their often-dismal lives in a decaying third world country.
This itself leads to the huge contradiction at the heart of Egypt.
Egypt, under the control of destructive tyrants, is falling apart. In connivance with Sisi, Saudi’s new sociopathic heir apparent announces Egyptian mega-cities and the regime plans to build a new capital city in Egypt.
These projects serve the double injustice of benefitting and appealing to Egypt’s kleptocrats, foreign investors and rich tourists.
Egypt’s third world masses, now over 100 million of them, are, as ever, left behind in dusty, decaying old Cairo, where they increasingly live in slums and even in their own and others’ graves.
For the elites, there are city-sized theme parks on the horizon from their gated communities, but for the poor there is only social destruction.
Though Sisi tries to underpin all this by instituting a new totalitarianism—with campuses, once sites of fierce protest, now more akin to prisons, while simply questioning the military is an offence—the reality is that under the surface dissent continues to bubble away.
Egypt’s economy survives thanks to the huge bolstering by aid and loans from Saudi and the UAE, as well as a $12 billion IMF loan that carries with it stringent and painful austerity measures that are hitting Egypt’s poorest.
Tourism, the backbone of Egypt’s economy, has not even begun to recover as Daesh continues to control part of the Sinai.
Though depicting himself as a bastion of stability, Sisi’s brutal methods in dealing with what began as a non-jihadi insurgency of Bedouins in the Sinai—who have long been alienated and impoverished by Egypt’s intransigently racist central governments—has led to the worst security situation in Egypt’s history with terror attacks a daily reality not just in the Sinai, but also in the Delta and Nile Valley.
There was a joke that used to do the rounds among Egyptians during the Mubarak era. The joke references Fatimid Egypt, when the Fatimid Imams made Cairo beautiful enough to be fit for the coming Imam Mahdi to live in. The joke goes that though Imam Mahdi did not return during Fatimid times, he was late and came during Mubarak’s time. He took one look at Cairo and all of Egypt’s problems and went straight back to heaven.
The Messiah never came to Egypt, but January 25 did, in all its delicate, haphazard and at times dangerous glory. The devils currently tasked with destroying it may find that through such destruction something new is created.
As with Mubarak, tyrants always produce their own gravediggers – it might not be in a month, a year or even ten years, but Egypt’s contradictions will catch up with Sisi or whatever tyrant may take his place.
The revolution might be dead, its demographics broken, and its symbols erased, but Sisi’s desperate actions prove that its ghost remains.
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