Egypt is now in a state of constant psycho-emotional intransigence. Old neighbours who once enjoyed daily cups of tea are turning on one another, some Christians are being accused of being Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers and some mothers are turning against sons. Egypt is not in a state of civil war but it is a very uncivil state of affairs that are the calling card of, what history will label as, the Al-Sisi period. How we got here and more crucially where Egypt goes from here will have very profound impact on the daily lives of ninety million Egyptians who call the Nile delta home.
Since the fourth anniversary of the revolution of January 2011, there has been a marked uptick in, both the frequency and the intensity, of explosions raking many major Egyptian cities, including, most notably, Cairo and Alexandria. That violent crescendo reached new heights in the week preceding the Egyptian Economic conference in Sharm El-Sheikh. Many observers pointed to the phenomena as a marked escalation in the insurgency whose origins can be traced back to Sinai, since the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi. Those observers would be wrong for nothing is ever simple in Egypt. Those bombs speak more of instability following a coup than they do of ingredients for a state of affairs that may have Egyptians lining up on different sides of the political fence in a future not too distant. It is this danger that is a far more mortal threat to the modern Egyptian state.
Take for example a Christian friend, well educated, professional, urbane and middle class, certainly not your prototypical Muslim Brotherhood supporter. But this is precisely the tragicomic ‘accusation’ levied against her – by family members no less. Her story is a typical one, she found herself accused because she belongs to a dithering and waning camp: those who support the 25 January Revolution and stand against both military and Islamist fascism. But the Egypt of today is not one that tolerates contrarian or nuanced views. You are either ‘with us or you are a traitor’ is the headline of this political dance card. As the Egyptian citizen in question practiced, what she believed to be, her inalienable rights to democracy by posting on social media views critical of the current Egyptian regime, the consequences soon unfolded. A phone rang, her mother answered and the voice on the other end, calling from overseas, informed her that her daughter is a paid agent of the of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Under ‘normal’ circumstances such a caller would have been laughed off or aggressively shooed away, but in today’s Egypt the mother in question took a defensive posture. In the new Egypt, criticism is viewed as both treasonous and potentially terroristic. Those two characteristics are the constant descriptive companions of anyone, pro regime/Al-Sisi, when addressing dissenting voices that they systematically lump with one group, whose name often goes unspoken: the Muslim Brotherhood. It is when citizenry begins to self-police when analysts begin to worry about what the future holds for nations. In the same way that Germans looked the other way as a man with dark aims took the reins in the 1930’s, because they sought the abolishment of the Versailles treaty at any cost, now Egyptians remain compliant, and are indeed helpful, in the quelling of any and all dissent to the man they view as ridding them of the Islamist rule. While Egypt is by no means Nazi Germany, the train is certainly headed the wrong way and at breakneck speed.
It is this vicious division, powered by a self-policing dynamic, which continues to plague Egyptian families far and wide. Indeed, for weeks, while contemplating writing this analysis, this writer shied away because writing it would, inevitably, lead to nearly impossible self-reflection on the most personal of circles: his own family. Many months ago, a politically satirical piece I penned ended with “a noticeably disheveled Amr k… being escorted away, down a darkened corridor, by 2 well-dressed officers twice his size”. Upon publication of the piece, the reactions of the readers, unfailingly, mirrored the dichotomy that is Egypt today. Those with Al-Sisi attacked the author as a traitor and those against Al-Sisi, both laughed and applauded. That was to be expected. Stunning was the reaction of the familial inner circle. That inner circle warned of going down a journalistic road that may lead to the very conclusion satirically written about in the aforementioned article. Some might say this isn’t division but rather a concerned act of love and, at the time, they may have been correct.
But as the nation has swerved unto the most right wing, ultra-nationalistic fork in its modern road the familial bombshells continued to drop. After a volley of articles which held little back, the moment arrived when a member of the author’s family informed him: “you are a big boy who understands the consequences of your journalistic choices”. In case that wasn’t clear enough, it was further explained, if those choices continued to involve the expression of strongly dissident views that ‘no matter what happened’ they would accept whatever fate befell the author – even arrest or worse. There are those who have written less and done less and currently languish in well-known prison cells in Egypt and there are those who have written more explosively oppositional views and yet enjoy freedom. Nonetheless, to know that self-policing and division have entered your own family is a wake-up call of unparalleled heights; one which derides all notions of democracy. Effectively, the vast majority of Egyptians, in a cult like following of Al-Sisi, views opinions critical of their leader as more than insult but rather as a national security matter.
While the previous examples highlight searing lines of division sans Islamists as part of the equation the clearest forms of attack verbally, psychologically, and physically take place, with unabated fury, upon those belonging to political Islam’s camp. Those assaults take form both personal and systematic. With great regularity highly prestigious media and reputable journalists continue to document a barrage of well documented torture cases in Egypt’s prisons and precincts and the victims, with great frequency, are Islamists. Only a few weeks ago, Human Rights Watch asserted in a sternly worded report that “detainees appear to have died after being tortured or physically abused”. In February alone three men died of alleged torture in Matariya police station, reported many news outlets. While such fascistic repression is not reserved solely for Islamists that sector of Egyptian society has a running reservation on the torture train. The practice only serves to turn up the temperature on the boiling pot of potential civil strife and portends a truly divided republic; particularly when coupled with the Rabaa massacre, a day that saw nearly 1000 Egyptian killed.
Well-documented structures of a “parallel system of detention outside the law” operated by military and paramilitary forces only add to a combustibly divisive Egyptian mixture that place political dissidents and their families on one side and the regime and its mainstream support on the other. In a seminal piece, in the London Review of Books, Tom Stevenson laid out a nightmarish scenario that sees 60 men shoved into an incomprehensibly tight cauldron of three by six meters cells. So crowded are these cells that prisoners “have to stand on one leg for periods of up to two hours”. Their break from this hell was being “stripped, hung from the ceiling, beaten with sticks…beaten on the souls of their feet, some were given electric shocks”. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights states that more than 41,000 Egyptians have been arrested in the 20 months since the coup in July 2013. WikiThawara also backs up those numbers along with western news agencies and while not all experience this kind of brutal torture one can only conclude the obvious: in Al-Sisi’s Egypt you will be ostracised, in one fashion or another, if you stand against the overwhelming clout of the Al-Sisi camp.
So while optimists point to economic projects such as the new Suez Canal and the new ‘new’ Cairo project, estimated at over $45bn, as harbingers of hope and pessimists speak of an increasingly robust insurgency it is this rhetorical division within Egyptian ranks that threatens Egyptian stability. Sisifites like to say and think that numbers close to the 96.7% who supported Al-Sisi’s electoral bid for the presidency speak of an Egypt united behind a president with a vision. But the tens of thousands of political prisoners who rarely see the sun in Egypt’s jails and the increasingly incessant bombing campaign tell a far more nefarious tale.
Most sinister of all, with each passing Nile sunrise, Egypt has become the divided republic and to my family I say that is the greatest danger of all.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr. Follow him on Twitter