First published here March 26 2016
To understand the Egyptian Rubik’s Cube, your eyes must turn to the unholy trinity of terrorism, state terrorism, and systematic human rights abuses. Close examination of each arena reveals an Egyptian Body Politic in desperate need of remedy but heading downhill with meteoric speed. Attacks on Egyptian non-governmental organisations are at an all-time crescendo, attacks on citizens in their homes in broad daylight by government forces and massive terror attacks are only the events of the past week. Turning the tide, in all three directions, will not prevent Egyptian haemorrhaging, but it would be a step in the right direction. Facts on the ground, instead, show steps in the direction of danger.
Traditionally, governments of the dictatorial ilk have justified the iron fist as a necessary response to terrorism. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s Egypt is an embodiment of this nefarious ethos. There is little question that the regime is being hammered with body blows, on daily basis, particularly in North Sinai by its nemesis “Sinai Province”. Regardless of whose version you believe, the latest major attack bore the hallmark of the Sinai “Islamic State” (IS) branch’s bloody handprint. By the time the desert dust settled, last week, at least 18 Egyptian policemen lay dead.
Time and again, Egyptian police and army prove the old adage true: guerrilla tactics will, consistently, outwit organised forces. But the government is in a complex catch-22 that it does not even comprehend. On the one hand, Al-Sisi needs the terror attacks to justify the state of war he requires to press on with his stranglehold and continue to rule. Yet, those very same attacks undercut his regime in two key ways. With every drop of Egyptian bloodshed, public opinion backlash becomes louder, questioning the government’s ability to provide security, while simultaneously uncovering a lack of accountability that has become the regime’s Achilles heel.
Cairo’s problem in Sinai is best summed up by American historian Max Boot: “To defeat an insurgency you must provide security for ordinary people to live their lives.” There is nothing magical about Boot’s counter-insurgency tactical paradigm: he who wins the street wins the war. “Sinai Province” understand this and Egyptian security forces do not. An insistence on treating the locals as terrorists until proven otherwise has been a naïve staple of the Egyptian security operation.
Worse yet, there have been numerous incidents of haphazard firing on innocent civilians at checkpoints, missiles striking homes, and bodies dumped just a few hundred metres from army and police camps. So, rather than co-opt the crucial Sinai tribes as allies, security forces have inflamed that important constituency while also refusing their assistance. As a result the Sinai’s volcanic heat is felt hundreds of kilometres away in Cairo. It is a dual-threat insurgency featuring terrorism and state terrorism.
With a well-documented whirlpool of conundrums ranging from teetering tourism, to an economy near collapse, and state institutions that Al-Sisi himself, during a conference with intellectuals days ago, called “decrepit and defunct”, the regime nonetheless insists on choking dissent. That mechanism brings with it a witch’s brew of repression, oppression and state terrorism, with the old umbrella of the “war on terror” serving as the standby excuse. The dynamic triggers massive human rights abuses with a healthy dollop of state terrorism.
This week’s supreme embarrassment came from a government led by a man who famously said “listen to no one but me”. After the current Regeni fiasco, few may listen to anything he says, let alone everything. Since Giulio Regeni’s murder, Al-Sisi’s government has persisted in refuting the obvious: the increasing likelihood of the culpability of Egyptian security forces in the Italian’s murder. This week things took a gruesome turn: five men murdered in broad daylight. Believe the Ministry of Interior’s comically macabre theatre or not—and most do not—five Egyptians are dead.
Egypt has become a Darwinian disaster: those who possess guns are given the right to ‘’exterminate’’ those who do not. Whether those men were indeed criminal or innocent is a fact that will never be known; the old adage that dead man cannot talk, ironically, is a mafia truism. Extrajudicial killings are not a step short of state terrorism Mr President, they are its very definition.
The government not only damages rule of law in exterminating those outside its narrative or those who serve its narrative, it also severely undermines a necessary element in its relationship with the citizen: respect. Put another way, when the government lies in such grand style, it simultaneously projects a lack of respect for the mind and analytical ability of the average citizen, while losing what little respect, even of those within its camp, these citizens have for its ability to be transparent.
After all, what are the chances that a criminal gang who operates for profit, not for political purposes, would retain three sunglasses, drugs and the money of its so-called victim Giulio Regeni? For that matter, why would Giulio have taken three sun glasses with him for an evening outing, as shown in the Ministry of Interior’s pictures? These sort of intellectually-lazy, easily-punctured lies not only embarrass the regime both domestically and internationally, but serve to underscore the degree to which Al-Sisi has lost control over the most important of apparatus: the police. Even as the government tried to back paddle from the laughable story in the local press on Friday, the damage was done as Regeni’s parents were reported to be “hurt and embittered”, while the Italian prime minister told AP: “I’m sorry I don’t buy it.” Neither do we, sir.
In Egypt’s deep state, it is clear: the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. The far-fetched gang story appears only days after Al-Sisi’s meeting with intellectuals, after which, to appease the opposition and attempt to quell a rising international tide of condemnation, he released Mahmoud Mohamed, the anti-torture t-shirt detainee. As one hand appeases, the other inflames.
Torture, which the Al-Sisi regime indefatigably justifies as “individual cases”, is a wicked synthesis of human rights abuse and state terrorism. This week brought to light the latest case of an Egyptian journalist in the vice grip of this abomination.
“You son of a bitch… I will exterminate you, show me your heroism then … I pronounced the ‘shahada’ [Islamic declaration of faith in God uttered before certain death] … he pulled the trigger, my heart jumped from my body … it was an empty chamber … he laughed.” These were the words of Mahmoud El-Saqqa, the young journalist at the centre of this brazen abuse. He is now out of jail, after receiving many beatings by that officer’s underlings, but these practices are daily helpings of sadism administered to tens of thousands of Egyptians behind bars. Hours after El-Saqqa’s release, video evidence emerged showing the homes of political prisoners, allegedly burned by Egyptian security forces in the northern port city of Damietta. State terrorism is the rule, not the exception.
Those courageous enough to attempt to quell the torture tsunami are also under severe attack by the Egyptian government. Names such as Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid, veterans of the Egyptian human rights community, are being pummelled, with a freeze of assets and a travel ban, joining an ever-growing list of rights NGOs.
Previously, under Mubarak for example, those attacks meant slowing down NGOs. Now, it is a full frontal assault. Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch added its voice to a growing list of international condemnation of Egypt’s rights record. “The Egyptian authorities have moved beyond scaremongering and are now rapidly taking concrete steps to shut down the last critical voices in the country’s human rights community.”
These moves by the Sisi regime are further buttressed by insistence of all Egyptian officials, led by foreign minister Sameh Shoukri and Al-Sisi himself, on repeating the credo “stay out of Egypt’s internal affairs”. Throwing temper tantrums in the international arena does little to improve Egypt’s reputation. Systematic human rights abuses that run contrary to both the Egyptian constitution and the United Nations charter cannot be muted by shouting “sovereignty”. These convulsions are not just a display of brutal force by an autocratic ruler, but rather an attempt to permanently remove the notion of human and civil rights checks and balances from the conversation all together.
Ugliness, lies, naiveté, disorganisation, lack of historical perspective, and zero accountability: it is a toxic cocktail, a regime favourite. Every drop of innocent blood shed via the unholy trinity will hasten the forced departure of a regime that cannot even lie well.
Egypt does not require a regime change; its rescue demands a paradigm shift.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr.