Egypt: Into the Unknown
by Steven A. Cook
November 9, 2015
The Egyptian state is weak. The country's leaders are in a state of either panic or perpetual confusion. No one is in control. As in the darkest, most contested days of former President Mohammed Morsi's tenure, Egypt's failure once again seems plausible. Despite what supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claim about webs of conspiracies hatched in Washington, Doha, Istanbul, Jerusalem, or wherever, Egyptians have no one to blame but themselves.
One need not have some special insight or training to understand that all has not been well in Egypt: The garish Sisi-mania of 2013, the Jacobin-like nationalist discourse, the scores upon scores who have been arrested, and the intimidation of the press. Against the backdrop of all this is the disturbing, craven, vehement insistence that all is well and that only a Muslim Brother—meaning a terrorist—would see things otherwise.
The last ten days have been particularly bad and especially revealing of Egypt's pathologies. Two Saturdays ago, Metrojet flight 9268 disintegrated high above the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 souls aboard. In their insistence against mounting evidence that the plane was not blown out of the sky and thus security at the country's airports failed to meet international standards, officials brought back memories of the mad scramble to deny the culpability of First Officer Gamil al-Batouty for intentionally flying EgyptAir flight 990 nose first into the Atlantic Ocean near Nantucket Island sixteen years to the day earlier. One can understand the Egyptian government's panic after the Russian jet fell given the importance of Sharm el-Sheikh to what remains of the country's tourism sector. Yet when confronted with American and British intelligence, had Sisi acknowledged the likelihood of terrorism and publicly vowed to improve security, he would have no doubt been showered with international assistance to help Egyptians in their increasingly nasty war with terrorists. Despite the ongoing threat of violence, tourism would likely have picked up again in due time with the confidence that, in time, Egypt, with the help of international partners, would establish proper procedures for baggage screening and ensure that ramp workers were above reproach. Instead, Egyptian officials maddeningly chose to dissemble, deflect, and blame others.
Things have been just as damning on the domestic front. On Wednesday, a judge extended the detention of a young woman named Esraa al-Taweel for forty-five days, who wept as she pleaded for the medical assistance she desperately needs that has seemingly been denied to her by the authorities. As Nervana Mahmoud explains, Taweel, a photojournalist, is on crutches after suffering a spinal injury when she was shot as security forces dispersed a protest in January 2014 and has already spent 155 days locked up pending the outcome of an investigation. Taweel is alleged to have used her Twitter account to call for violence against the police and is accused of belonging to an extremist group. There is no actual evidence of these charges, but even if there were, why deny her a visit with the doctors? It seems that the presiding judge, Counselor Moataz Khafagy, paid no attention to her request because he could, leaving the young woman trembling and in tears. There can be no justice without mercy. The fact that Taweel is likely innocent only adds to the cruelty visited upon her.
Then, on Sunday, Military Intelligence detained, interrogated, and charged one of Egypt's most well-known journalists and human rights activist, Hossam Bahgat, with publishing material harmful to the armed forces. On the same day, Salah Diab, the founder of the newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm, was also arrested over an alleged shady real estate deal. Bahgat has received the most attention because of his track record of extraordinary and meticulous work exposing the misdeeds of Hosni Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Mohammed Morsi, and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. I once told Max Fisher of Vox that Bahgat and Amr Hamzawy, who recently left the country fearing arrest, were the only two liberals remaining in Egypt. I was exaggerating for effect, but they were the most effective and, for now, at least both have been silenced. For what reason? One is tempted to say no reason, but both men are dangerous to the regime in an important, though nonobvious way. Neither Bahgat nor Hamzawy command legions of followers, but through their work they have highlighted the gap between what Sisi and his media machine tell Egyptians about their lives and how people actually experience it. That difference is important because it is available to political entrepreneurs to advance an appealing alternative to Sisi's vision—such that it is. That's why the soft-spoken, bookish Hossam Bahgat is a threat. The simple fact is that he would not be if Egypt's leaders were confident that their people were buying what they were selling.
Sisi has failed spectacularly when it comes to learning the lessons of the Mubarak era. The new Egypt, with its over-reliance on violence, coercion, and lies, looks strikingly similar to the old one—the difference being that the deposed president seemed far more adept than the incumbent. The unfortunate result is an Egypt that combines the worst of all possible worlds: A flailing, groping, vainglorious effort to establish legitimacy and political control that does precisely the opposite. There is no precedent for this particular set of circumstances in Egyptian history, no familiar pattern that might help observers make sense of what is happening and what might come next. Whatever it is, it seems it will be self-destructive.