Its new leadership in fact does not tolerate any form of dissent and appears not to care how unpopular it is, and according to The Economist, “the government’s hostility to dissent is merely making it spread more widely.” Dissent is spreading especially where poverty and the lack of prospects are constantly increasing and in country and desert areas far from the capital, as well as in the Sinai, where jihadist groups are at war with the central government.
Today’s generals, led by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sissi (promoted on January 27th by interim president Adly Mansour), have learned an important lesson from the ruinous fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime; not to hesitate when repressing the breeding grounds of uprisings. A specific rule is followed in fully assuming control over institutions and the country with massacres of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in July and August 2013, followed by a series of arrests and violence that Amnesty International described as “unprecedented” in Egypt. As a European military source explained during the days of the worst violence in Cairo, this is the “strategic principle of concentrating one’s power”, preferable to gruelling low-intensity clashes that could have resulted in civil war. The encircling operation does not appear to be over and will probably continue until the Islamists, whether moderate or not, are pushed back underground as in the past, or the power group led by al Murshid (Supreme Guide) Mohammed Badie is disavowed and its successor reaches an agreement with the army as happened under Mubarak.
Such a prospect, however, does not appear to satisfy the Egyptian armed forces. In recent months joint operations carried out by security forces, the judicial system and the temporary leadership have concentrated on intimidating and repressing all free speech, not only denominational. Whether expressing doubts about the wording of the new constitution, criticising rulings passed by judges or being ironical about the mythicisation of General al-Sissi, the censorial attitude has been the same. Those raising their voices to oppose the new constitution, approved by a referendum held on December 15th, have been silenced, with members of the April 6 movement and important activists such as Ahmed Maher, Mohammed Adel and Ahmed Douma sentenced to three years in prison for breaking the new anti-protest law obliging citizens to obtain a permit from the Interior Ministry before holding a public gathering.
As far as criticism of judges is concerned, at the beginning of January the famous political scientist and a founding member of the Freedom Egypt Party, Amr Hamzawy, discovered he was under investigation for a tweet dated June 5 2013. The liberal intellectual had “insulted the judiciary” criticising the sentencing of three Egyptian pro-democracy NGOs (financed with American funds). An Egyptian court had ordered the arrest of 43 of their employees, judging them to be traitors at the service of interests opposing the country. Hamzawy’s opinion was unequivocal. He stated that the verdict was “politicised, baseless and the result of a sham.” Like him, hundreds of citizens had expressed similar opinions on Twitter or Facebook, but Hamzawy’s fame exposed him to the Prosecutor General’s retaliation. His case is symbolic of the current political atmosphere. A lawyer, a university professor, a consultant to the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Hamzawy took part in the first anti-Mubarak revolution and signed the anti-Morsi Tamarrod petition without ever refraining from denouncing the army’s fascist methods. Having expressed criticism in 2011 of the then leadership commanded by General Hussein Tantawi, and in 2013 of the new supreme council led by al-Sissi, he had not failed to criticise the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohamed Morsi. In an interview with Resetdoc in May 2013, he accused the Brotherhood’s government of using religion as a “demobilising force” aimed at distracting people from confused and neo-liberalist economic policies, objectionable in many senses, but above all from the daily restrictions imposed on civil liberties and gender equality. “I am paying the price of being a true liberal,” said Hamzawy recently from the pages of the daily newspaper al-Masri al-youm.
Less known to the public, but politically active since 2011, the professor at Cairo’s American University, Emad Shahine, ended up on a list of 35 personalities accused of “conspiring with the Palestinian movement Hamas to destabilise Egypt.” In recent months he had warned public opinion about new totalitarian trends with his editorials and in television appearances.
The satirist Bassem Youssef, host of the television programme al-Birnamig (The Programme) paid a high price, and will probably continue to pay it, for not having joined in the pro-army general euphoria. No one more than this cardiologist converted to comedy dared ridicule Cairo’s new strong man, al-Sissi, and propaganda by his entourage in view of the next presidential elections. Early in November 2013, viewers expecting another episode of al-Birnamig, broadcast on the private channel CBC, were disappointed. The network cancelled the show because it did not respect agreed editorial guidelines and was offensive according to many citizens. “You can always implement some sort of a mood, without actually giving direct orders,” the satirist told The Observer. “It is about creating a certain atmosphere that would make this acceptable or doable, and I think it reflects badly on everybody.” Youssef had already experienced the judiciary’s mistrust under the Morsi presidency, and yet his programmes had never been cancelled. “We took to the streets on June 30th against religious fascism asking for democracy. Now look at what is happening to us” said the comedian bitterly and his opinion is probably shared by a growing number of Egyptians. Bassem Youssef now appears on Fridays on MBC Masr.
Translated by Francesca Simmons