By Khaled Diab
Unable to extinguish the ideas awakened by the revolution, the Egyptian military has focused its efforts on violently and brutally crushing almost every form of open dissent. This is an extremely dangerous and reckless game.
Monday 11 January 2021
A decade ago, a spark of hope lit in Tunisia ignited a political wildfire that swept across the region, consuming the old guard in its flames. One after another, many of the Arab world’s long-reigning republican autocrats fell: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
For a glorious moment in which history seemed both to speed up and slow down, all the world’s eyes were on Egypt, where millions took to the streets not only to topple a dictator but also to demand bread, freedom and social justice.
The day of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak was the greatest incident of collective euphoria and elation in Egypt in living memory. For a joyous moment, Egyptians discovered that everything they had been taught about their apathy and obedience was a myth, that they possessed the collective will and fortitude to move and remove mountains.
Sadly, a decade on, it all appears to have been in vain… at least at first sight. Rarely have so many people sacrificed so much for so little. At a certain level, Egypt has come more than full circle over the past 10 years, with a full-blown tyrant taking the place of a semi-authoritarian dictator.
Since seizing power in 2013, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has been on a single-minded mission to slay the genie of revolution and make his people regret ever having rubbed that lamp to wish for freedom.
In his bid to seize back control, the former director of military intelligence has shown little intelligence or sophistication. Instead, he has preferred to use overwhelming force and violence, including the murder, in a single day, of over a thousand citizens. The Sisi regime has detained, jailed or disappeared untold thousands of activists, revolutionaries and journalists of every political colour, making Egypt’s prisons its most democratic institution.
The people who had once pursued the dream of freedom on Tahrir (Liberation) and other squares up and down the country are either behind bars or have packed up their shattered dreams of liberty and are trying to piece together their broken lives either in exile abroad or in the soul-destroying metaphysical exile of disengagement.
For an expatriated Egyptian like myself, it is difficult to watch what is going on in Egypt and not feel saddened, not to mention powerless and guilty.
Saddened because of the shattered lives of millions and the missed opportunity to transform a country with so much potential into a place that serves its citizens rather than reduces them to servitude.
Powerless because there is nothing I or others can do except express our opposition to the Sisi regime’s brutal behaviour and our outrage with the countries arming, enabling and supporting this criminal enterprise.
Guilty because people I respect, including friends of mine, continue to stand in the line of fire while I observe the situation from a safe distance.
The overwhelming success of the counterrevolution in crushing the revolution has caused many to revert to the old idea that democracy does not work in Egypt or the wider region. But Tunisia is the convention-defying exception that proves that despotic rule need not be the rule in the Arab world.
However, in Egypt, as in much of the region, it is not the people who do not understand democracy but the country’s leaders who refuse to accept it. When confronting a heavily armed military that refuses to retreat from politics, and faced with a leadership vacuum created by decades of repression, the people desiring freedom and dignity did not stand a chance… at least, not for now.
The idea, which is enjoying a revival inside and outside Egypt, that Egyptians only understand the language of repression and need a ‘pharaoh’ to govern them is as inaccurate as it is insulting. This profoundly misreads the moment and history.
Sisi is no pharaoh. He is wildly unpopular and, despite being an authoritarian, he enjoys remarkably little authority. His regime’s heavy reliance on violence is actually a sign of weakness rather than strength.
If Egyptians really did desire and were cut out for autocratic rule, then one would presume that Sisi would not have required such a show of monumental force to gain command of the country – people would have just placidly rolled over rather than mount a spirited resistance that cost them so heavily.
In addition, Egyptians are by far not the most deferential to authority in the region nor the world, and there are plenty of leaders who behave more like a Biblical pharaoh than any Egyptian leader ever did. Moreover, authoritarianism is, sadly and troublingly, putting down deep roots in some long-established democracies.
So what does the future hold for Egypt?
Although the ideas and aspirations awakened by the Egyptian revolution have taken a battering, they are still alive and appeal to a larger segment of the population than when Sisi rose to power because many of his one-time supporters no longer see him as their hero or saviour. Although the political revolution has been defeated for now, a social revolution is in full swing.
However, there is currently no space in the political landscape for any positive change. Insecure on his throne, Sisi not only tolerates no dissent but is also terrified by any potential challenge to his authority, as reflected in how everyone who planned to run for president in the previous ‘election’ was either intimidated or jailed.
This is very worrying for the future. Although Egypt has not yet plunged off the side of the cliff like Syria or Libya did, that does not mean this is off the cards. The more Sisi ups the ante of violence and repression, the higher the likelihood of the regime sparking widespread conflict.
Though not yet completely failed, the Egyptian state is certainly on the path to failure. Preoccupied with enriching the military, it consistently fails to provide the services citizens expect from their government. In fact, for the majority of citizens, the state’s presence in their lives has become almost entirely oppressive. If this situation does not change soon, Egypt will end up in a very dark place.