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Egypt’s el-Sisi marches on

By Tom Stevenson in Cairo
Posted on Wednesday, 10 August 2016 15:54

The Egyptian Air Force made its customary pass over Cairo on 30 June. Flying US-made F-16 jets over the city, it marked the third anniversary of the 2013 protests that unseated former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi and brought Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power – first through a military coup and then an election.

It goes without saying that this is a much more brutal regime than Mubarak’s

Few would disagree that the peace and prosperity Sisi promised three years ago have failed to materialise. Egypt remains racked with debt and unemployment, dependent on aid from its Saudi and Emirati sponsors, and subject to the repeated attacks of the Islamic State group’s affiliate in the Sinai peninsula.

But under the current order, expressions of dissatisfaction with the state of the country can carry a high price. Liliane Daoud, the Lebanese host of the television show Al-Soura al-Kamila (‘The Full Picture’), which aired on the privately owned station OnTV, had repeatedly invited guests who openly criticised President Sisi.

On 15 May, OnTV was sold by its former billionaire owner, Naguib Sawiris, to Ahmed Abu Hashima, a steel magnate more supportive of the regime. On 27 June, Daoud’s contract with OnTV was terminated and the following day officers from Egypt’s internal intelligence agency, Amn al-Watani, visited her home in Cairo, separated her from her daughter and had her deported to Lebanon.

Deportation ranks relatively low on the list of punishments dissidents face. The harsh realities of life in Egypt under the rule of ageing generals have resulted in extensive state repression. Thousands have been imprisoned and hundreds more tortured.

Of late, Amn al-Watani has taken to night raids and the use of indefinite detention. Even relatively tame Facebook posts can lead to a home visit from security officers.

Despite the many popular grievances, it is almost impossible for opposition voices to overcome this repression long enough to organise effectively, says Heba Morayef, a long-time human rights campaigner and associate director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the country’s foremost rights groups.

“There’s been a very steady, very brutal, unrelenting repressive path with the aim of closing down all political space,” Morayef tells The Africa Report. “And it’s been a very well-managed operation on behalf of the regime. If the objective is to deter and weaken the opposition, then it’s on track,” says Morayef.

While activists struggle on, trying to keep out of prison, the formal political opposition is all but dead, even according to its own representatives.

The few openings the civic opposition has managed to create have consisted of jumping on, even hijacking, minor shows of disaffection: the government’s decision to cede two sandbar islands to Saudi Arabia, and protests by high-school students against the movement of exam dates. However, even the small expressions of dissent prompted by these developments are marked chiefly because of their rarity.

Labour unrest, and the state’s harsh responses, such as the subjection of 26 striking Alexandria shipyard workers to military trial on 18 June, has remained disconnected from political organisation in the capital.

“It goes without saying that this is a much more brutal regime than Mubarak’s, with no checks on security services excesses, and there’s an added measure of cruelty thrown in. There’s really very little hope at the moment,” Morayef explains.

The interior ministry felt confident enough of the passivity of the country’s newspapers to mark World Press Freedom Day on 1 May by storming the Journalists’ Syndicate. The head of the syndicate, Yehia Kalash, is now being tried on a charge of harbouring fugitives, for helping two journalists protesting the state’s decision to issue arrest warrants for them.

“A lot of the opposition activity has been pushed back to online activism, which is really the weakest form of organising,” argues Wael Eskandar, a popular dissident writer and analyst. “The power of it used to be in being able to translate it into something on the street.”

Eskandar argues that the April and June protests against the ceding of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir show there are some opportunities to translate online dissidence into street activism and notes that the regime has alienated many constituents, from pharmacists to doctors, students, the educated youth and even the parents of high-school students.

“But fundamentally, when you don’t have freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom to object, there’s no ability to hold anyone in power to account,” Eskandar says. “The system isn’t sustainable, however for those of us in the activist community, the question is: what price will we have to pay personally before anything changes?” ●

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