Cairo: mission impossible?

Cairo: mission impossible?

Opinion writers, more so than their hard news brethren, have a running conversation with the reader. Ideally, that monologue is, paradoxically, a dialogue in the writer’s mind, with the goal being to clarify a muddy picture for the reader. Objectivity, is not a goal per se for anyone. So you look, you feel, you analyse, …

 

Opinion writers, more so than their hard news brethren, have a running conversation with the reader. Ideally, that monologue is, paradoxically, a dialogue in the writer’s mind, with the goal being to clarify a muddy picture for the reader. Objectivity, is not a goal per se for anyone. So you look, you feel, you analyse, you read, you listen and discover the inner workings of your subject matter in an effort to relay the good, the bad, and the ugly—or in Egypt’s case the very ugly, the state potentially imploding. But what is ideal and what reality presents us with on a daily basis, when covering the Egyptian paradigm, are two vastly different images. Time and time again the governing gang in Egypt makes it Mission Impossible, even for Tom Cruise, to cover major news stories positively.

To read of Egypt and to write about her, for the past 64 months, has often been a highly masochistic travaille, particularly if you are of Egyptian persuasion. But as has been the case with remarkable consistency, this week’s events would require a magician, not an analyst, to put a positive spin on them. Mind you, the task at hand is to render the facts comprehensible, not pliable, with the truth your sole partner on the trip.

It was a trip, a monumentally disastrous one for EgyptAir flight MS804, which began a highly sombre week. Somewhere, approximately 290 km north of Alexandria, lies the fuselage of the aforementioned plane, with it 66 souls and, quite possibly, the dreams of a more invigorated Egyptian tourism industry. While there is no questioning the tragic human toll of the crashed plane, Cairo bound from Paris, at stake was much so more. Not only could Egypt not withstand another major terror attack, should investigations prove that to be the case, but the very integrity of the current regime is on the line. Why such high stakes? You need only look as far as the summer and autumn of 2015 to assemble the pieces of an ugly puzzle.

A self-inflicted wound by Egyptian security forces cost 8 Mexican tourists their lives in mid-September 2015, as they sought to discover the visceral beauty of the Western Desert. It was a grotesque mistake but one the Egyptian army deflected to the Interior Ministry. In an embarrassing display of lack of transparency and of arrogance by the authorities who failed to apologise for the incident nor investigate sufficiently. Instead, the world was met by two salient images. Visually, the Mexican foreign minister Claudia Massieu shooting visual darts at her Egyptian counterpart. While verbally, an Egyptian general declared: ‘’this incident has nothing to do with the army…this is the system of the country and you don’t have the right to question it’’. This mindset is precisely why Egypt continues to dig its own grave and it comes from the very top. After all, quite recently, it was the Egyptian president who uttered, the now infamous words, ‘’listen only to me’’.

Only weeks after the Mexican disaster did the tragedy of the Russian plane follow. Two hundred and twenty-four people perished, Egyptian tourism was decimated and quite likely so by an explosives laden soda can claimed Islamic State (IS). But while intelligence agencies, one after the other, lined up to say this was a clear case of terrorism Egyptian reputation was not pulverized by merely the crime but by stalling, lack of transparency, and double speak. Only when Al-Sisi, during a speech, months later, acknowledged it was terrorism did Egypt come clean. Yet even now, nearly 6 months later, there is no official report that admits terrorism in the Metrojet crash.

With those two, recent, black eyes it was only natural that the eyes of terrorism and security analysts would turn to the government to see how it would handle the fallout and the investigation of flight MS804. In an environment replete with repression and information suppression, just this week a French journalist was denied re-entry into Egypt, one can be anything but hopeful regarding the timely dissemination of information about the, week old, tragedy. Nonetheless, in the hours that followed the crash there were mixed results. On the one hand, EgyptAir, itself, did yeoman’s work in outlining all available info hour by hour but, simultaneously, Egyptian state TV had a singer wailing away, instead, as the disaster broke all across the globe. Since then, there have been some contradictory statements from official Egyptian aviation sources in contrast to Greek and French reports which said the pilot spoke to the Egyptian tower and that the descent of the plane was highly irregular. At this point, the jury is still out on how this particular disaster will be handled.

Just 6 days after this blow came a, no less important, strike to the Egyptian body politic. The story, and as with all stories there are variations, as told by Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), centers on an elderly woman from a small village in the southern governate of Minya who was stripped nude, and beaten by a mob of 300 individuals. At its outset, the issue exploded in the, hyper conservative, village of Abou Kourkas when a relationship, rumoured or true depending on whom you ask, arose between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, both married. As these reports circulated on Friday the mob proceeded to burn the home of the Christian male, who had earlier escaped, and committed, according to multiple reports, the atrocious crime of beating, stripping naked and marching the 60+ year old man’s mother through the village. In addition, the property damage by the armed mob of 300 to seven Copt homes was estimated to be in excess of EGP 350,000, all while local authorities did nothing to impede the building unrest.

Speak to human rights activists, ask Egyptian Christians within and without Egypt and the response is the same: anger but zero surprise. While the Egyptian foreign minister and his boss bellow that the Minya incident does ‘’not reflect the Egyptian people’’, all minorities and particularly Egyptian Copts have been on the receiving end of similar injustices for years. Moreover, as with this case, the government often stands by and watches. Even though Sisi, 5 days later, ordered ‘’all necessary actions be taken by the appropriate parties’’ it certainly begs the question where were Egyptian police and fireman as the woman was assaulted and humiliated and seven homes burned?

Whether it is the Coptic Cathedral under assault during Muslim Brotherhood rule, the murder of Coptic demonstrators during Supreme Council of Armed Forced (SCAF) leadership or the systematic sectarianism that plagued the Mubarak period Copts have been on the short end of the power divide in Egypt. In all these cases the governmental response has been to pay lip service but little else. Christians, who have supported Al-Sisi in great numbers, must be asking themselves when will things change?

Whether it is next week, next month, or next year, at some point statistical analysis says there must be a positive news story out of Cairo. Till that time Mission Impossible will remain the headline.

Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian journalist/analyst published in the New Arab, Ahram Online, Mada masr, Tahrir Institute and Muftah. You can follow him on Twitter @Cairo67Unedited

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Heat rises in Cairo

Heat rises in Cairo

Egypt is set to explode. When and how is dependent on who pulls the trigger and why. Those who had the opportunity to peruse the previous article came to quickly understand that Egypt has galloped to a 3, on a danger scale of 1-5, in 2.5 years of de jure Al-Sisi rule. A combination of …

 

Egypt is set to explode. When and how is dependent on who pulls the trigger and why. Those who had the opportunity to peruse the previous article came to quickly understand that Egypt has galloped to a 3, on a danger scale of 1-5, in 2.5 years of de jure Al-Sisi rule. A combination of human rights abuses, security failure, and economic failures have each contributed to increasing pressure on a regime that history may judge as, potentially, the most brutal in modern Egyptian history.

Even though Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak and Morsi were anything but lovers of democracy Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has managed to make those who preceded him look like Gandhi. By heading, with speed and certitude, towards Maximum Threat Level, Al-Sisi poses a mortal danger to the Egyptian nation state.

If you have come here looking for specifics – in terms of day, week, or month – of the onslaught you have come to the wrong place. The best we can hope to achieve in this ongoing discussion of a murky Egyptian domestic scene is to strip down a more linear diagram of the protagonists, causes and where they will lead us. As Al-Sisi gallops towards Threat Level 4, desperation has become the dominant currency.

Egypt awoke Sunday to a flood of news that provided a political snapshot of the confused cabal at the helm of the Egyptian political apparatus. Still dazed by daily accusations of security forces torturing and killing Italian graduate researcher Giulio Regeni, Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar had no problem spinning up a fantastic tale which in an attempt to distract from the Regeni murder.

While claiming Regeni’s arrest was a rumour regurgitated by Western media to stain Egypt’s reputation, he simultaneously levelled outlandish accusations in the direction of Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas. A tripartite of enemies, real and imagined, plugged into an all-too-convenient theatre of the absurd, narrated by the man installed as Al-Sisi’s domestic enforcer.

“Orders were issued by the escaped ministry of health spokesperson [during the Morsi era] who heads up terror elements within the Muslim Brotherhood to execute operations. Simultaneously Hamas was ordered to carry out the operation [Hisham Barakat assassination]… elements were trained in explosives and assisted by tribal [Bedouin] elements to enter Egypt via Sinai’’. Credit must be given for imagination – however, one must stop and ask what this story says about Egypt’s power bloc?

This ‘’look at the birdie’’ manoeuvre has long been the modus operandi of Egypt’s security apparatuses towards those whom they protect. Stop to think: what if this was an accurate retelling? Wouldn’t this imply that the army has not only lost control of Egyptian borders, thereby endangering Egypt domestically and uncovering an Egypt incapable of fulfilling the Camp David accord? We are left with a troubling binary: The rulers are either stupid or they are desperate, each avenue darker than the other. Hisham Barakat’s ‘killers’ were supposedly “eliminated”  in a gun battle in Maadi Gardens, as they prepared for another attack, utilising a car with diplomatic licence plates last week. So who are the young men on this video admitting to the assassination? Someone is lying.

The leadership, sadly, has started believing its own untruths. Despite nearly daily proclamations of Egyptian military control over Sinai, news of the killing of three people – two military personnel and an ambulance driver – in a two-stage attack on Sunday discredits such claims. Militants ambushed and killed three on board. Receiving little coverage, since it is part of a daily barrage in an out of control Sinai, the attack nonetheless exposed strategically flexible militants and a flat-footed military.

A day earlier, five bullet-riddled bodies were found in a mass grave some hundreds of metres away from a well-known army base in Sheikh Zuweid. State-controlled Cairo press simply said five unidentified bodies found killed. But local journalists reported that “a hummer disposed of the bodies in plain sight, and among the murdered were a child and a deaf and mute victim”. An endless tit-for-tat.  As the situation deteriorates in Sinai and bombs explode near Cairo, next to the Oman Consulate, in an IS-conducted attack, desperation grows, and the danger metre points, evermore, to Threat Level 4.

But, again and again, the deep state continues to undermine itself with fairy tales. “There are no enforced disappearances in Egypt”, claimed Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar on Sunday, only 24 hours after the publication of a seminal, deftly researched article strongly linking the National Security Apparatus, which falls under the interior ministry’s umbrella, to both enforced disappearances and systematic torture. To deny the charge when one of the nation’s most revered human rights organisation, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), in its 2015 year-end report, reflects that disappearances could vault to three per day is laughable. When 90 families per month cannot locate sons and daughters but the minister has the gall to call enforced disappearances a falsehood, we have an issue. Arrogance begets implosion and that begets revolt.

National implosion is where Threat Level 5 lurks, behind the foggy political reality, ready to attack. An economic time bomb has the potential to produce a faceoff, the likes of which the Middle East has yet to see. Whereas lack of security, massive human rights violations, lacking political direction, police impunity, and nearly 60,000 political prisoners continue to drive Egypt to the threshold of danger, the rise of the value of the dollar to EGP 9.75 may push it over.

Traditionally, when you hurt people’s pockets, they will hurt you. Few factors have struck the economy like the sudden rise of the dollar against the Egyptian pound. In mere weeks, it has zoomed from slightly under EGP 9 to EGP 9.75. This sort of rise in the parallel markets will likely force the government’s hand in devaluing the dollar. Devaluation is closely linked to price rises and subsidy removal. Just remember the bread riots of 1977.

Rationally, no one can expect investors to flock to Egypt if bombs are going off consistently. With the hotchpotch of economic issues discussed here, the billion dollar question becomes: what will be the trigger?

The possible sparks for uprisings, revolutions and or civil wars are infinite. Revolution, at its most basic level, is an emotionally explosive and chaotic entity; accordingly, virtually unpredictable. But facts are facts:

  • Uncertainty about reigns of governance with an economy in shambles.
  • Freedom of speech under constant attack by a counter-revolutionary regime.
  • Numbers of disappeared political prisoners and torture victims are mushrooming.
  • A politicised judiciary and a parliament of ‘Yes Men’.
  • Speeches showing a president coming apart at the seams (think Gaddafi 2.0).
  • Terrorist attacks have tripled since the commencement of Al-Sisi’s presidency

 

For increasing numbers of Egyptians, the situation, as it stands, is untenable. Not all, but many analysts, both within and without, are coming to the conclusion that Al-Sisi’s tenure will not reach its constitutional conclusion. But those analyses presuppose Al-Sisi’s survival for the medium term. This, I strongly believe, is optimistic.

Aforementioned pressures, coupled with decreasing Gulf support, multiple power struggles, and popular support decreasing daily, suggest that a singular event can tip the scales in favour of confrontation. But this time, there is no way of telling whether this will be a revolution, an economic uprising that burns all in its path, or even worse: an armed uprising that divides the nation.

Initially, Al-Sisi worried about two camps: the Islamists and the 25 January revolutionaries. That has all changed. Increasingly, intellectuals, journalists, and many of those outside Al-Sisi’s core support group can be counted in the ranks of dissidents. Should these camps organise, or the economic buzzsaw galvanise alliances across classes powered by lower classes and youth unemployment, and if economic goliaths join ranks with important military cadres, or the Mubarakists turn the screws, Threat Level 5 will become the next deadly reality.

When push comes to shove, the Egyptian police have shown they will run and abandon the street, as they did on 28 January. But Al-Sisi is no Mubarak. The desperation he exhibits makes him combustible. During his most recent speech, he made no secret of his blood-stained outlook. “By God I will obliterate from the face of the earth” those who threaten Egyptian stability. Juxtapose this sentiment with a faceoff with dissidents, and there is a little doubt Al-Sisi would call the army to the streets to defend power at any cost. From his first days of his de facto rule, stretching back to Rabaa in 2013, Al-Sisi has waged a war against opponents without fearing the consequences. His political strategy has lacked strategy. With anger rising, along with arms in Sinai, the Western Desert, and an active arms market in the south of the country, there is no shortage of kindling to ignite Al-Sisi’s failing presidency.

I have shied away for months from spelling out this descent into the Egyptian inferno due to cognitive dissidence. But we may be two summers away from Egypt returning to the front pages for all the wrong reasons.

Al-Sisi has brought the impossibly destructive closer to political reality.

Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah a

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Sisi and the Can’t Shoot Straight Gang

Sisi and the Can’t Shoot Straight Gang

When Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi is just a blip on history’s radar, discerning eyes will look back on this week as revelatory of the current polemic. Both the soul crushing murder of Regeni and the explosive gathering of the Doctors’ Syndicate in protest of Ministry of Interior abuses come at a crucial juncture in Egypt’s rule. …

 

When Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi is just a blip on history’s radar, discerning eyes will look back on this week as revelatory of the current polemic. Both the soul crushing murder of Regeni and the explosive gathering of the Doctors’ Syndicate in protest of Ministry of Interior abuses come at a crucial juncture in Egypt’s rule.

These two events divulge details of a regime, a ruler and a deep state who are a combustible mixture of naïveté, arrogance, and a lack of strategic depth perception. Interestingly, Sisi and the Cant Shoot Straight Gang are in a catch 22. These two highly revealing face-offs are virtually guaranteed to be lose-lose propositions for a man in such desperate need of a win. By crossing red lines with astonishing consistency, Sisi’s regime is writing its political obituary.

Arrogance habitually overrides logic. This is how impunity is born, and it is precisely why Egypt’s security forces are consistently teetering on the edge of red lines. Whether via judicial decisions doling out life in prison, death sentences by the hundreds or eviscerating hundreds of lives, the Sisi regime has been consistent in tightening the noose around its own neck. Yet the regime has survived for nearly 30 months. Falsely, this gives the impression that Sisi is untouchable. Yet popular support is only a mirage when you control public discourse through various media. There is no escaping political reality as each misstep weakens the hold on power. This week there were two gruesome faux pas.

The first ill judgement cost a precious life. A young, brilliant man with a Cambridge education came to complete his journey in a nation that piqued his intellectual interest at a dangerous time and paid with his life. Under no circumstance should an interest in the labour movement of a nation cost one’s life. But, in a nation where conspiracy theories resonate across every social strata and most prominently at the security level, that irrationality likely cost Regeni his life. Security services who arrested Regeni, asserted the New York Times and other reputable sources, did not believe Regeni was a mere graduate student. In their minds ‘’they figured he was a spy,’’ an Egyptian security official explained to the Times, ‘’after all who comes to Egypt to study trade unions?’’ But the Ministry of Interior, which has made a most vicious comeback since it was taught a lesson by the people during the 25 January Revolution, does not care. There are no breaks because its officers realise Sisi desperately needs the muscle, now more than ever.

There was nothing haphazard about the police’s decision to stop Giulio. He had been followed since, at least, December when he was photographed while attending ‘’an independent union gathering’’ by an unknown man. On 25 January, Regeni disappeared after being stopped by two plain-clothes men who searched his bag, phone and passport. What cinches his arrest are phone contacts that include ‘’people associated with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the leftist 6 April Youth Movement’’. To the security mind, these groups are terrorists and to associate with them is equally to partake in terror. The Times, as well as sources who spoke to this writer, both indicate that the confidence with which Regeni answered, in the minds of an arrogant security officer used to being in control, sealed his fate. Wonder what they were expecting? For Regeni to welcome them with a hug as they kidnap and murder him?

When Giulio resurfaced days later, after pressure from the Italian embassy, there were signs of ‘’seven broken ribs,[…]electrocution on his penis,[…]cuts from a sharp instrument (likely a razor multiple sources confirmed), […] injuries all over his body, abrasions and bruises[…] from being kicked and punched’’. No Egyptian, pro-Sisi or not, needs to be told that these are the hallmarks of torture by police and the National State Security Apparatus. What happened to Giulio has happened, no less tragically, to countless Egyptians. But Regeni was a foreigner, a red line state security virtually never crosses. Italian pressure is shining an embarrassing and unceasing light on Egyptian security brutality as well as Italian hypocrisy.

When Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi attended a major economic conference meant to energise the Sisi presidency, it is doubtless he was well aware of his counterpart’s draconian calling card. However, where the needs of the state arise, the rights of individuals fall by the wallside, particularly those of Egyptians. When the victim is Italian, Renzi’s tone naturally changed and Italy’s friendship with Egypt became contingent on the emergence of truth regarding the brutal murder, said the PM on Friday.

Indeed, the addition of independent Italian investigators on Egyptian soil is sure to uncover truths the Egyptian state would much rather see evaporate without the attendant scrutiny that their unveiling will provoke.

Damage to the Sisi regime is also being done by security forces domestically. Weeks ago, when several police officers marched into a hospital in Matariya, a Cairo suburb, demanding stitches for a policeman who didn’t require them, the situation quickly spiralled out of control, according to the doctors. Two doctors were alleged to have been assaulted. And the medical profession responded with thousands of doctors pouring into central Cairo streets for a general meeting of the Doctors’ Syndicate. That such a gathering could be uncovers the tip of an iceberg that may, ultimately, puncture the Sisi bubble. Police have, by most accounts, outpaced the abuses of the Mubarak era. Police have developed a case of intentional amnesia: police abuses were one of the chief causes of the Egyptian revolution. So when the same precinct responsible for killing 14 Egyptians over 2 years is responsible for the fiasco at the hospital, there is no accident. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights (EIPR) called the support the doctors received “a reflection of the level of police abuse of authority.’’

Rather than bend to the winds of anger of a powerful union, the government continues to shoot itself in the foot. Days before the syndicate meeting, several officers from Matariya police station were arrested. However, 36 hours later, they were released based on job recognisance. In a nation that has seen thousands arrested and held in remand for over 36 months for far less, this risked and did engender anger. The result? Thousands in the street, destabilising a regime continuing to haemorrhage popular support, and a hashtag of Support the Doctors’ Union that dominated social media channels internationally for hours. Lessons learned from 25 January? Apparently not. Still operating with the mentality of the 1960’s, when computers weighed as much as a car, the regime continuously underestimates the power of social media to galvanise popular opinion. This writer, an avid observer of the political power of Twitter in Egyptian circles, witnessed many pro Sisi Egyptians yesterday issuing their support for the Doctors’ Syndicate.

A group of organised, intelligent professionals politically embarrassed a government far less aware of the dynamics of political theatre in 2016. Ultimately, the upcoming week will require what Sisi has yet to show: a firm but just hand. Sisi could bow to law and the doctors’ demands for punishment of the guilty. Punish the guilty and he may appear to be backing down;  remain stubborn and he risks a partial national strike by doctors. Lose-lose. Sisi is betting, and against the casino at that, that the seeds of fear planted will carry the day. He will learn: gambling and politics don’t mix well.

Nearly three years before the uprising of 2011, labour unions faced off with Egyptian security in Mahla, Egypt’s textile centre. It was perceived, correctly, as a warning shot and later understood to be a long-term cause of revolution. Friday may prove to be as significant. For thousands to chant ‘’the Ministry of Interior are thugs’’ in central Cairo is not a moment lost on many.

It was a warning shot.

With history as a guide, the state will likely remain violent, blind, and deaf when it comes to these grievances. Lessons have not been learned.

They will learn the hard way.

 

Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr

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Threat Level Rising

Threat Level Rising

Effective threats are often delivered in a voice not much above a murmur and with a smile. Fate drew me to this important conclusion when I tripped upon the Oscar nominated “The Imitation Game” for the second time just recently. In it, an MI6 agent who oversees the group of scientists and mathematicians says in …

 

Effective threats are often delivered in a voice not much above a murmur and with a smile. Fate drew me to this important conclusion when I tripped upon the Oscar nominated “The Imitation Game” for the second time just recently. In it, an MI6 agent who oversees the group of scientists and mathematicians says in an eerily even tone “Behave, with a bit of luck you will never have to see me or the others ever again”.

Such thunderous silence is a trait that must be common to intelligence men of a certain ilk. In Egypt, a former high level intelligence man rules the roost. But President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s success in intelligence circles must undergo questioning for he is not a man who hides his feelings well. When he threatens the Muslim Brother or swears revenge upon terrorists, his face contorts. When he seeks to comfort a worried citizenry and gives them his best “come sit on my lap” paternal look, he dons an easy to read smile.

In the months to come, Al-Sisi will need his best poker face if he is to survive. The worst is yet to come and by far. As political forecasts increasingly call for a future confrontation the threat level in the Nile Delta is at “Threat level 3”.

Those who believe that Al-Sisi himself is the problem are not seeing forest but only, seemingly, the highest tree. It is the many institutions, competing all at once, for the Egyptian pie who threatened not just stability but the shape, form, and political being of the modern state.

In an international political/economic construct that operates on the basis of specialisation, Egypt’s problems are many but chief among them is: its military institution has insisted, since the 1952 revolution, on tightening its grip on rule. Who and what makes these old men think they are most capable of ruling Egypt via a most political post, the presidency, when the entirety of their experience lies in the military field?

After 18 months of official Sisi rule, more politically realistically 2.5 years, all indicators point to the precipice of disaster on four main fronts: economically, politically, security, and rights. Doubt the veracity of the aforementioned? Simply look at increasing stress agents such as a demonstration estimated at well over a thousand in the hours after a driver was killed by Egyptian policeman in El-Darb Al-Ahmar. That was preceded days earlier by 12,000 doctors shouting down the ministry of interior in mid Cairo. No less significantly, a day earlier on the North West coast in Masa Matrouh, a sit in by angry lawyers at treatment by the police.

The government knows it is under severe pressure. In a country where accountability, in the higher reaches of governance is consistently virtually non-existent, the Minister of Interior, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, actually said “sorry”. “We apologise for the acts of some policemen, we kiss the head of every citizen subjected to abuse or insult,” he said.

But such a stance, while noteworthy, reflects a nervous but haphazard regime. On the very day the minister made his remarks, a policeman shot and killed another as a result of the victim mocking him on Facebook. In the grand scheme of things a small detail it is, nonetheless, an incident which uncovers a shoot first, second, and third mentality.

With tourism a rock falling to the bottomless pit of inactivity since the likely terror attack on a Russian plane over the Sinai peninsula on 31 October 2015 and a mushrooming currency crisis projections for growth have been cut back significantly from 5% to 4%. From a foreign policy lens, the past year has increasingly shown gulf allies, behind closed doors, questioning Al-Sisi as a losing bet. It is no wonder that domestic popular support is undergoing noticeable depletion. As Amr Hamzaway put it, Al-Sisi’s is a regime that “prevents Hossam Bahgat (leading HR figure) from traveling, puts Ahmad Nagy (novelist) on trial for a literary text, jails thousands…and yet it is the one afraid”.

Rulers of this tumult have every right to be fearful. There isn’t much that is being handled correctly and signs abound that anger is building and that the scare tactics of the massive repression underway are waning as the increasing demonstrations foreshadow. But the billion dollar question is: what does this rising anger foretell. Is Egypt weeks, months, or years away from another but more massive explosion than January 25?

On a threat threshold ranging from a low of one and a high of five, from this vantage point, Egypt is squarely in the middle but heading in the wrong direction and gaining speed on a downhill. The one came weeks after Al-Sisi’s ascendency to the chair, with massive popular support, a disorganised revolutionary camp, and a pummeled Brotherhood, state control over the domestic scene was at its highest.

But as repression increased, numbers of political prisoners soared beyond the 50,000 mark and freedom of speech was squelched the inklings of a downwards spiral raised threat to a two. The descent quickened as soon as it became clear the regime was struggling to maintain a security noose around the rising insurgency in Sinai, increased militant activity in the Delta.

Additionally, Al-Sisi was writing verbal checks his floundering economic policy could not cash: whether it be the agricultural development of 1.5m acres or tragicomedy of an $8.5bn gamble on a failing new Suez canal that has only lost money since inception. Most dangerously, the inability to entrench fiscal policy in place to control ebbs and falls of the dollar threatens to unleash inflation of the sort that can quickly unseat an overwhelmed autocrat.

It is the economic element of the equation which figures to spread dissent to the largest percentage of the population as it hits hardest in the most obvious of places: the pocket. This has in turn brought us to threat level three.

From a good news perspective, no sector, whether it is various sectors of the economy, political structure, communications, social structure, or security, has yet to collapse. Conversely that collapse is part of the conversation a short time after the removal of the failing Muslim Brotherhood state apparatus is telling of the size of the potential disaster at hand. Despite dismal dynamics, the regime is not backing down one millimeter.

If anything, the past 96 hours have seen writer Nagy receive a two-year sentence because the regime insists on bearing “Islamilitary” teeth in punishing those who fall outside its moral parameters. A young promising writer will call jail home because a judiciary decided to use a vague criminal code to define “moral indecency” rather than the constitution, used in the first trial. This blatant use of, what many suspect is, an increasingly politicised judiciary follows similar judicial decisions in the recent past against a talk show host Islam El-Beheiry and writer Fatma Naout.

Many, naively, support this crackdown on thinkers under the false protection of societal values narrative, neglecting in the process that freedom of expression will protect the very rights they need to live with dignity. No less crucially, they fail to understand that a regime that continues to lose moral authority by systematically and arbitrarily jailing all dissenters is in no position to dictate “values”.

In this environment it is no surprise the deep state went after the Nadeem Centre, an organisation performing dual roles of human rights advocate and psychological rehab centre for victims of torture, a brutal tool prominent in the regime arsenal.

In this binary you are “with us or against us”.

Such a reductive pairing will be the very undoing of Al-Sisi era. In oversimplifying a complex society to dualities Al-Sisi and his allies bring the ghost they fear most to the political table: revolt.

Before that occurs however, we will see a threat level four and ultimately the final stage: explosion, threat level five.

Until then, it is worth noting “the more the regime bleeds popularity…the more they look for dissidents to scapegoat”, as Hossam Bahgat said on the same day he was denied travel to, ironically, a conference on “justice in the Arab world”.

To be continued…

Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr

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Citizen X speaks to Al-Sisi

Citizen X speaks to Al-Sisi

Dear Mr Al-Sisi, This letter will do something you are not used to: it will force you to listen to a citizen rather than lecture or imprison him. I recognise this will be incredibly difficult for you, as you are accustomed to giving orders, rather than receiving advice. This letter is not about venting or …

 

Dear Mr Al-Sisi,

This letter will do something you are not used to: it will force you to listen to a citizen rather than lecture or imprison him. I recognise this will be incredibly difficult for you, as you are accustomed to giving orders, rather than receiving advice. This letter is not about venting or releasing steam. Instead, you will find words from a former member in your cult who believed, along with many of your backers, that you could be a hopeful transition to something better than Muslim Brotherhood rule. Get ready, for, if as I believe, you have been drinking your own “jasmine tea” (Kool Aid) and have begun to deeply believe your own lies, you are in for a shock.

“You have political prisoners who demonstrated against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood who are now in jail,” says the incredulous citizen X, who will remain anonymous for security purposes. “If that is the case, then all of us who signed up for Tamarod (the campaign to remove Morsi, which later turned out to be led by the deep state), including Al-Sisi, should be in jail.”

College educated, this retired engineer – previously firmly entrenched within the most ardent support camp for you Mr President – supported your coup for two reasons: the removal of the Brotherhood, and security. But you are losing him Mr President – and quickly.

His concerns are numerous, so I will begin with the draconian Protest law. “We had hopes that this law would be among the first to be removed” from the political environment, but it remains, and “it has fractured Egyptian society”, he says. Peaceful demonstration is a right and should, under no circumstance, lead to jail sentences, he explains. But it has, Mr President, and the latest example is a brilliant young Egyptian surgeon, employed in Germany, named Ahmed Said whose two-year prison sentence was recently upheld, and as a result he is held in solitary confinement in Al-Aqrab Prison.

Did I mention, Mr Al-Sisi, that Said was one of the thankless doctors who treated demonstrators for free during the revolution?

Yet you wonder why the youth are not taking well to your message? They have become politically apathetic, and in many cases, the Islamists among them are considering taking up arms against your government.

And yet, naively, on the anniversary of the horrific massacre of 74 Ultras Ahlway fans, you extended an invitation to 10 representatives to discuss the matter. Where was this offer four years ago? Do you know that youth unemployment among those aged 15-24 has surged to the dangerous levels of nearly one in two during your tenure, and that many would sooner remove you than trust your promises?

“Mr President, we do not want a religious state, we want a civil state. How is it that you allow the Salafi Al-Nour Party and others to be part of the parliamentary fabric?” continues citizen X. Far from a civil state, the current paradigm is best summarised as Islamo-military police fiefdoms, rather than a contiguous sovereign modern state. Instead of walking away from the binary of military or Islamist rule, you, sir, have effectively taken the worst of both socio-political brands and given birth to a stultifying amalgam. This costs you political capital and the citizenry’s freedom, stability and security.

Those ruled had no rosy dreams, fully recognising that there was much that ailed Egypt. “We understood that the Egyptian body was fighting cancer, we could ignore some falling hair and other side effects,” citizen X elucidates. But what has transpired since Al-Sisi, de facto ruler of Egypt since 3 July 2013, was not a side effect, but a blow to any visage of hope. Other than aforementioned fractures brought on by Protest Law and mushrooming numbers of political prisoners what deeply concerns those on the verge of jumping the Al-Sisi ship is a lack of security.

Tellingly, days before this interview, there were multiple IED explosions in various parts of North Sinai, which cost numerous Egyptian military and police lives. Angrily, the engineer wonders why “Armoured Personnel Carriers equipped with explosives detection equipment” are not standard issue for the soldiers bearing the brunt of daily, “Islamic State”-affiliated “Sinai Province” attacks in North Sinai.

After the mistaken killing of eight Mexican tourists by the military, and the apparent terror attack on a Russian plane that took 224 lives, tourism collapsed in November and December, traditionally high season. Bloomberg reported that tourism, during the period, fell by 41% compared to 2014 – the lowest levels in more than a decade.

The consequences of eroding security do not end there. Gulf allies are growing impatient with Al-Sisi, a report by the German Institute for International and Security affairs stated. Though Saudi Arabia and the UAE are delighted with Al-Sisi over the military intervention in Yemen and his position on Syria, the list of past incidents in Egypt highlight the deteriorating security and economic situations. Criticism in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi “of al Sisi’s balance sheet in financial and economic policy and domestic security” is soaring.

When issues of security arise, accountability slams its rhetorical head against the wall of impunity surrounding your inner circle Mr Al-Sisi. In formulating alliances, you have forgotten the most important ally of all: the people.

I should tell you, the citizen – the very same one who for 900 days offered unending support and understanding – believes that where free speech is concerned, you, sir, have lied. “One of the first laws we expected and wanted to see changed was the ‘Contempt of Religion’ law,” asserts citizen X. But the opposite occurred: You out-Morsied Morsi and the Brotherhood themselves when it comes to such issues.

Many cases, during your tenure, have come to public light; most recently, talk show host Islam El-Beheiry and writer Fatma Naout. The latter was sentenced to three years in jail for speaking out against sacrificing lambs during Eid Al-Adha, and the former to five years for “contempt of religion”. How does this reflect your statements to the UN in September that Egypt enjoys “unprecedented freedom of speech”? People believe what they see on the ground sir. Words evaporate and facts remain. Unsurprisingly, Egyptian affairs analysts recognise your rule as a toxic mixture of militarism with healthy doses of Islamism.

Problems do not end there. Justice, its very concept and core, is under attack on your watch. Two incredibly embarrassing episodes “should have had the minister of justice fired immediately”, argues our engineer. “400,000 Members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood should be killed” to avenge the death of Egyptian military personnel, Minister of Justice Ahmed Al-Zind suggested recently.

More perturbingly, Al-Zind, in another setting, questioned the entitlement of the defence to witnesses, and was accordingly lambasted by the State Council for interference in its affairs. Statements such as these, coupled with question marks about the minister’s purchase of state lands on the North West coast and huge increases in the budget allotted for the Judges Club, at the very least make his continuation as minister murky. Without rule of law as the compass, where does Egypt go?

The answer to that question is nowhere positive, suggests the citizen, using the example of on of a popular cartoonist – who was arrested this week for 24 hours, allegedly due to his anti-government stance – Islam Guawish’s cartoons as explanation. “The best drawing Guawish ever made was one where a man asks another: ‘How is Egypt doing?’ and the other answers by holding up a piece of paper with scribbles on it.”

Both the cartoonist and citizen X believe Egypt is heading into no-man’s land Mr Al-Sisi. Increasingly, many of those in your own camp are agreeing with them.

Stop the lies, derail the liars in your milieu, and learn from recent history, lest your own future become a foggy swamp Mr President.

As I type these final letters, news comes of the prevention of prominent human rights advocate Gamal Eid from leaving Egypt.

Patience is in short supply. Political fog is ample.

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Defining 25 January

Defining 25 January

I kneeled down to the floor, knees pressed hard to the floor, tears of rebirth rolling down my cheeks, forehead to the parquet, in prayer: Mubarak was leaving. The reaction was not unique. That day, throughout the country, while some of Hosni Mubarak’s supporters’ cried tears of sadness, millions let loose screams of freedom and …

 

I kneeled down to the floor, knees pressed hard to the floor, tears of rebirth rolling down my cheeks, forehead to the parquet, in prayer: Mubarak was leaving. The reaction was not unique. That day, throughout the country, while some of Hosni Mubarak’s supporters’ cried tears of sadness, millions let loose screams of freedom and tears of joy. Writing this now, five years later, I am, at once overcome with joy at such a grand, life-changing memory, and despondent for what the revolution has come to. Such is life for the millions who believed in the “revolution”.

Why has revolution been bracketed? For many readers the notion of bracketing the term “revolution” is sacrilegious. But questioning is not treason. Those who think so align themselves with darker neo-fascistic forces drunk on power that stalk the dark halls of Egypt government. So let us question then: did what happened during those 18 glorious days in 2011 constitute a revolution? Was it an uprising? Perhaps a coup? An intellectually discombobulating combination of all the aforementioned?

Initially, calls for protest on 25 January 2011 were largely disseminated via the Internet, with a reliance on Facebook. Numerous media outlets would later call it “The Facebook Revolution”. Names like Khaled Said, a young man hailing from Alexandria, would be the short term spark, as his murder by Egyptian police tapped into a long dormant mass anger against draconian Egyptian police practices. From there, Wael Ghonim, and others, would take over trumpeting the cause on a now-famous Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Said”, powered by the idea that ‘’today they killed Khaled… if I don’t act for his sake, tomorrow they will kill me’’. On YouTube, Asmaa Mahfooz, on 18 January 2011, said: “If you are a true man… if you have any dignity left, come down to the streets on the 25th.” Twitter, particularly once the uprising exploded, played a pivotal role in organisation and reporting. Together Facebook, Twitter and You Tube formed a revolutionary social media trinity.

The answer to the question of whether or not it was a revolution depends on the criteria. If it is individual moments of revolution, they are aplenty. A moment seared into the memories of millions: one young man stands alone, hands at hips, challenging a behemoth of an Armed Personnel Carrier that could have easily run him over – but he wins and stops the APC from attacking hundreds of demonstrators at the outbreak of confrontations. An Egyptian family standing in a balcony overlooking the faceoff shouts in hyper-emotional language: “My brave son, my brave son,” telling onlookers all they need to know about unity, and about the walls breaking down between the citizenry and the authorities. In letting fear go, Egyptians embraced the potential for freedom.

In days to come, countless Egyptians would challenge the beastly system’s apparatus. There was a brave soul who walked stoutly towards police forces lining an Alexandrian side street, lifting his shirt for the security forces to show the absence of weapons or explosives. That nameless youth is now one of at least 862 Egyptians murdered by the Mubarak regime during those tumultuous January/February days, gunned down in cold blood as two women screamed in horror from another balcony overlooking the scene. But such bravery made the impossible a reality.

On a larger scope, Tahrir Square was where revolutionary change was visible in action. A society that had a systematic sexual harassment problem, encased within a larger sexist framework, evaporated for 18 magical days. Not one woman reported harassment, women played leading roles, were respected, and ‘Tahrir World’ became an embodiment of what many civil rule supporters would call an egalitarian society. Women, such as prominent activist Mona Seif, explained that the spirit created in Tahrir Square carried the day. “The turning point for me was when I saw the number of people ready to face death for their beliefs,” Seif said.

Tahrir also presented a utopian religious harmony. During those 18 days in Tahrir, Egyptians of both faiths commonly guarded one another while each prayed during the extended sit in. For many felt the Deep State was responsible for a “divide and conquer” policy. In fact, to this day, many suspect that the Deep State may, at the very least, have strong ties to the bombing of a prominent church in Alexandria days before the outbreak of the uprising. For the cynical figures in circles of power, the unity witnessed in Tahrir Square was a death knell for the Mubarak regime.

In these many respects, 25 January was indeed revolutionary. But it was not a revolution. Feel it. Believe in it. Have it course through your progressive veins. But a revolution, it was not. Revolutions are not fleeting, nor transient. To succeed, a revolution must find its way into the tiniest crevices of a society’s machinery. Indeed, to take hold, it must invade the rotting carcass of a state apparatus being eaten away by inefficiency, corruption, and underemployment. This did not happen.

The youth who were the engine for those momentous 18 days were Young with a capital Y. Lacking political experience, moved by ethereal cries for “bread, freedom and social equality”, the youth failed to understand that persistence and political cynicism were a must to advance the revolution and its noble intent. Painful as it is to pronounce, what actually happened was a furious uprising that allowed us to stand, momentarily, atop the mountain. But tumble down, we did, not only due to the counter-revolution’s success but due, simultaneously, to our own failures.

Further complicating the deconstruction is semantic political calculus. Though a corrupt dictator who has recently been ruled a thief by the Egyptian judiciary, Hosni Mubarak, at the time of his removal, was the Egyptian president. The election of Mubarak was likely an act of political theatre more than a reflection of the people’s wishes – nonetheless it was official.

Within the arena of political science and history books, though a popularly-backed uprising, this was, in effect, a coup. There was no doubt the army would not stand for the passing of the baton from Mubarak to the “heir to the throne” Gamal Mubarak, who was, based on all indications, being groomed. In 2010, Al-Sisi purportedly “predicted that Mr. Mubarak would try to pass the country’s leadership to his son”. He was in prime position to posit this, as the country’s head of military intelligence.

Conflicting messages from the military were the rule during the uprising. In one important showdown, the “Battle of the Camels”, video evidence shows the army standing idle as regime supporters attacked demonstrators in Tahrir Square. That day, tanks stood still amidst the blood flowing in the square. But on another occasion, on the preceding day, where an F16 flew over Tahrir Square, and some analysts read this as a veiled threat, the army never followed through.

Finally, on the all-important day, 11 February 2011, with a long walk for hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from Tahrir Square to Itihadiya Palace, the army could have, should it have chosen, taken harsh measures against the vast crowds. But why do so when the people’s agenda overlapped with its own? By remaining silent and politically disciplined during those heady days, the army, it could be argued, was utilising the people as a bulwark to advance a non-military coup. Action by inaction.

When the next confrontation comes – and it shall, so long as Al-Sisi continues on the current path – those seeking change must learn the lessons of 25 January 2011.

The first step in understanding those lessons is to understand that while 25 January was heroic, wondrous, and uplifting, it was not a revolution, but an uprising that dared to dream.

To revolt, the changes must occur from within, and without overwhelming, in the process, the corrupt stranglehold of a military that has not relented in its chokehold of Egyptians since 1952.

Amr Khalifa is freelance journalist and commentator recently published by Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah, the Tahrir Institute, and Arab Media Society. You can follow him on Twitter @cairo67unedited

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A message from ‘Islamic State’ to Al-Sisi

A message from ‘Islamic State’ to Al-Sisi

By Amr Khalifa The sun rose in Cairo on Saturday morning with a fury: another explosive message from “Islamic State” to Al-Sisi. The attack on a building, associated with the Italian consulate, left eight injured and one dead in its wake, and marks the beginning of a far bloodier phase in an insurgency gaining momentum by …

 

Amr Khalifa
Amr Khalifa

By Amr Khalifa

The sun rose in Cairo on Saturday morning with a fury: another explosive message from “Islamic State” to Al-Sisi. The attack on a building, associated with the Italian consulate, left eight injured and one dead in its wake, and marks the beginning of a far bloodier phase in an insurgency gaining momentum by the day in Egypt. Insofar as casualties are concerned, this was not a large bombing but the location, central Cairo, and the responsible party, “Islamic State” (IS), according to a statement released by the terror group, make Saturday’s bombing a highly worrisome sign for the Al-Sisi regime.

For president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who rose to power on a platform whose headlines screamed: ‘security and stability’, the events of the past two weeks instead bellow of failure. First came an unprecedented attack on a major political figure: Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat, on 29 June. A mammoth attack in Sinai, possibly by as many as 300 to 400 militants belonging to IS-affiliated “State of Sinai”, killed at least 21 soldiers, according to the army, and as many as 64, as reported by major news organisations both within Egypt and without. The latest shot across the bow came Saturday, when 450 kg of explosives woke up residents of Cairo as far away as 6th of October City, over 11 km away.

Echoing across the loudest chamber of all, social media, was the reasonable question: why the Italian consulate? ‘’Who hates pizza and good wine?’’ was heard more than once on Twitter, in fact. But Saturday’s attack was more about an organization sending a message to a regime terrorising its citizens in a manner not very different from its IS counterpart. The timing, at approximately 6:30am Cairo Local Time and on a Saturday when the consulate-affiliated building is shut down, and its location, in a side street in midtown, are tell-tale signs that the intent here was not to inflict mass causalities. Rather, the statement released is a loud of announcement of the arrival of IS in Al-Sisi’s capital. The explosion was, in fact, more political than military.

The loud subtraction of “State of Sinai’s” name from the IS statement puts the strongman’s regime in direct confrontation with a terror group that has wreaked havoc in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The timing of the attack is devastating to an Egyptian government that sought to paint the massive Sinai attack as a victory for the armed forces. The army claimed to have killed over 100 terrorists and caused the group to flee under a barrage of fire from Egypt’s F16s during the initial defence of the Sheikh Zuweid area. In the days following the assault, termed ‘’Isis’s most complex ground assault outside Iraq and Syria’’ by the Institute for the Study Of War, a total of 205 terrorists were said by the army to have been eliminated.

Saturday’s attack speaks instead of the strategic military and organisational capacities of a terror group that successfully controlled a major town in Sinai for nearly 12 hours through the use of heavy and light weapons, RPGs, mortars, guided missiles and air defence weapons. Saturday’s headline-making explosion was more about sending the following messages to Al-Sisi by the Jihadists:

  • We have the tactical strength to hit you in your capital without the aid of darkness.
  • The insurgency is alive and well, and may well be entering an even more violent phase, covering larger sectors of Egypt.
  • Singularly security-based solutions only bring more terror and do not quell it.
  • The timing and location of the attack were a calculated political statement rather than a terror attack meant to inflict heavy casualties.
  • Yet another attack that showed the systematic failure of the Egyptian security forces, who did not stop an explosives laden car in central Cairo.

But whereas IS (“State of Sinai”), and other Jihadist outfits, such as the Revolutionary Punishment and Ajnad Masr, continue to show a political coyness, that currency is in short supply on the regime’s side. Indeed, on the very same day of Italian consulate attack, the regime showed why it continues to exacerbate the situation to a boil rather than cool it with diligent and intelligent decision-making.

Shortly after the attack, Egyptians were greeted with repugnantly dictatorial headlines in the official gazette: a presidential decree that allows President Al-Sisi to, for national security purposes, fire, at will, heads of independent monitoring organisations. The language of the decree, another in a long line with the current power vacuum giving Al-Sisi autocratic powers, is so vague that several analysts quipped that the decree gives the strongman the power to do away with political enemies on a whim.

More specifically, it is reasonable to look to Hesham Genenah, the head of the Central Auditing Organisation (CAO), as the man for whom the decree was tailored. Coming on the heels of the promotion of Ahmed Al-Zind to Minister of Justice, a man who has been attacked on multiple occasions by Genenah as corrupt, Saturday evening’s decree appears to potentially signal defeat for the very man tasked by Al-Sisi, himself, as Egypt’s number one corruption czar. This sort of decree presumes a nation, analysts and journalists alike are in a naïve stupor, but political reality says Al-Sisi may be digging his own political grave.

No less stunning is the degree to which Al-Sisi’s ministry of interior consistently buries him in shameful and institutional acts that indicate a carte blanche for gun-carrying members of the Egyptian state. On a busy Saturday on the last week of Ramadan, yet another police shooting brought more embarrassment for Al-Sisi. This time, the victim was a lawyer with a bullet to the stomach at the hands of an Egyptian policeman. The reason was as senseless as the shooting: an argument that devolved into a shooting. The shooting – initially thought to have been fatal – is believed to have severely injured the lawyer, according to the latest news reports. But the repercussions for Egypt are grave in either case: a Ministry of Interior tasked with protecting the people appears, as an entity, far more proficient at shooting them.

On an otherwise typically slow news day, Cairo continues to provide plenty of reason to worry about what lies ahead for Egyptians.

Unless Al-Sisi manages to change the narrative through well-constructed policy, and quickly, future messages from “Islamic State” are likely to be bloodier, more destabilising, and a huge thorn in the side of a regime that cannot get out of its own way.

Al-Sisi needs to say “message received”, and do something other than firing back bullets.

Amr Khalifa is freelance journalist and commentator

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