Egypt’s security forces still haven’t got it right
By H. A. Hellyer
I remember all too clearly the day I met Bassem Sabry. We’d been in touch over social media for quite a while; we had many friends in common, but our paths had never crossed in person. Social media in Egypt, in 2012, was already a window into another world—an exceptionally narrow universe—but one that allowed for a variety of activities. Protests were arranged on Facebook, and fairly openly. Four years on, no one really arranges anything political on Facebook anymore: Activists in Egypt know full well that Facebook is widely monitored by the authorities. It’s now arguable that people may be simply walking down the street in downtown Cairo, and a police officer may halt them, demand they open their smart phones, and reveal their most recent Facebook posts. Some reports indicate that people with critical postings of the government may be detained.
Back in 2011 and perhaps until today, there were those who tried to insist that the revolutionary uprising of January 25—I still remember it as #Jan25, the hashtag of the revolt—was a ‘Facebook revolution.’ It wasn’t—Egyptians beyond social media were deeply involved, but in any case, there won’t be a repetition of that kind of mobilization strategy. Social media is tightly controlled—and activists seem to be looking at other ways to organize.
Sabry and I met in the Sufi Café & Bookstore in Zamalek. You probably can’t get more cliché than this; Zamalek was one of Cairo’s richest neighborhoods, and disproportionately full of Western residents. It still is, though most foreign diplomatic staff are acutely aware of security considerations, far more so than they were back in 2012. The crackdown of the post-Morsi political order in 2013, when the army removed Egypt’s first civilian president since the monarchy, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi, following widespread protests against him, hasn’t meant that concerns as to security have disappeared. On the contrary; the strife in northern Sinai, where the Egyptian military continues to fight against insurgents, isn’t abating. Despite continual reminders by various allies of Cairo to amend tactics and strategies in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s leaders seem convinced that they are on the right track. Even though the insurgency persists, and by some assessments, is getting worse.
Sinai isn’t the only security issue for the Egyptian state; the border with Libya is porous, and the various radical militant groups that lie beyond it are implacably opposed to Cairo anti-Islamist establishment. A non-Islamist overthrow of an Islamist president by the military was bad enough for them; the killings of tens of pro-Morsi protesters in Cairo some five weeks later, in what Human Rights Watch described as “probably a crime against humanity,” has indelibly instituted a narrative of “Arab Spring” martyrdom among pro-Islamist groups. Those who supported Morsi during 2013—and many who did not support him—have family members or friends among those who perished, and the repercussions of that kind of resentment have yet to be fully seen. But few are naïve about it; it may yet come. The possibility that radical Daesh elements, just as they despicably targeted Brussels or Paris, may yet target Cairo—and particularly foreign nationals in the capital, still exists.
Sabry was a founding member of the Constitution Party in Egypt, at a time when new political parties were being founded against a backdrop of more political freedom than any other time in recent Egyptian history. Today, political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and political non-Islamist groups like April 6 have been banned, and the cacophony of different voices has diminished.
Sabry was focused on the role of religion and religious institutions in public life, keen to see a positive role realized, but without the instrumentalization of religion for partisan power. At that time, the appellation of tuggar el deen, or ‘traders of religion’ was already in circulation, applied to the Muslim Brotherhood’s cynical way of using religion for political partisanship. The group still does that in 2016; but then, they are not the only ones. The Egyptian government brandishes religion on a regular basis, to justify and bolster its own credentials, in ways that if the Brotherhood had done, it would have been decried as cheapening religion in the public arena. But non-Islamists can instrumentalize religion just as much as Islamists can, it seems.
Sabry’s blog was called ‘An Arab Citizen’. He was a patriot of Egypt, acutely aware of his Arab identity, without being a xenophobic nationalist. His Arabness wasn’t a cheap excuse to evade genuine policies, and he was a pluralist, almost to a fault. In Egypt in 2016, alas, the contrary is exceedingly common, particularly in the echelons of power, where ultra-nationalist talk of conspiracies against the state are rife, and where accusations are thrown against internal and external sources like confetti. When an Italian student, Giuilo Regeni, was found dead in a ditch on February 3, having been tortured horrifically, the Egyptian state refused to admit the possibility of foul play from within its ranks, while Italian public opinion (and much public sentiment) suspected as such. It had to be someone or something else—and the explanations that ensued ranged from a car accident, to a gang posing as police officers that specialized in kidnapping foreigners, to an international plot aimed at besmirching the noble name of Egypt globally. Chauvinism was and is deployed, time and again, by various media outlets, and senior state institutions have recently tried to deflect international criticism of Egypt by focusing on reports of dead Egyptians in the U.S. or the U.K.
In 2012, a security sector reform was desperately needed for the long-term sustainability of the Egyptian state, but that need was never taken seriously. Instead, we now see media reports of policemen killing a driver and shooting another. These incidents are spurring public sentiment in a highly negative fashion; and the outcome is difficult to predict. For a time, the security sector had been rehabilitated in the perception of a substantial section of the public, but today, even among former supporters of the president in the pro-state media, there is criticism of how the state is managing the security sector.
And dissent is certainly there. In recent weeks, Cairo opted to transfer authority over two islands off the Sinai Peninsula to Saudi Arabia—without any public discussion, despite the existence of a parliament.
Even though the way in which that parliament was elected was roundly criticized by rights organizations inside and outside of Egypt, it still wasn’t brought into what was a predictably controversial decision. And patriotism, even if the actual sovereignty of the islands is open to genuine dispute, led to a few thousand protesters on the streets. Those protests weren’t about to bring down the state—they were far too isolated—and yet, the state reacted with rank paranoia when protesters announced they would demonstrate on the anniversary of the liberation of Sinai, last Monday, April 24. The streets of Cairo saw probably more security forces deployed against the protesters than protesters themselves; no real threat against the stability of the government was evident, but the narrative promoted by the state saw simply their presence as evidence of something far more sinister.
The recurrence of a 2011 moment is not expected anytime soon, it appears. The power is deeply fragmented, to be sure; to the point where it makes little sense to speak of a cohesive ‘regime.’ Opposition to that state, nevertheless, is also remarkably disconnected, and the presidency maintains a certain critical mass of support within the state, as well as among a substantial part of the populace. Nor should one necessarily be naïve about the repercussions of another mass uprising—it’s hardly likely to be pretty, and the ramifications would probably be tremendously costly. The Egyptian population has already gone through a great deal in the past five years, and is exhausted on so many levels. But the sustainability of this current situation also remains elusive, with an economic situation that is deeply challenging, a threatening security situation that is real; and political elite that are unable to deal with the challenges from a young population that wants change for the better.
Last Friday, April 29, marked two years since Bassem Sabry passed away in a tragic accident. Like so many who struggled for a better future for Egypt, he witnessed the undoing of Egypt’s 2011 revolutionary promise, but not the ending of the processes that were unleashed by its 2011 moment. Egypt’s future remains unclear and uncertain, but Egyptians remain full of vitality, despite the trials and tribulations that face them. Sabry was unable to write Egypt off—and neither should the rest of us—but its leaders remain in desperate need of a course correction. One hopes they will do so, sooner rather than later.
The writer is a Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, is the author of the forthcoming book, A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt.