One of Egypt’s top human rights defenders, a leader for young lawyers, an established politician with leftist tendencies and a former presidential candidate, Khaled Ali is among few voices in Egypt who believe power is to the people and that street mobilisation is not impossible for Egyptians once they are fed up with the regime’s failure.
In an interview with Daily News Egypt Sunday, Ali explained what has become of the young revolutionaries, spoke of the shortcomings of the security system, and told us why he thinks the popularity of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has been shrinking.
Is there ongoing targeting of activists or revolutionaries?
I would say there is a strategy to tie down the youth that participated in the revolution, either through judicial prosecution, or through the different media outlets which portray them as traitors and so on. All of this aims at paralysing them on one hand, but also socially isolating them, under the claim that they are to blame for everything. Add to that fabrication of cases, unjustified harsh prison sentences, and I am not speaking of those involved in political Islam. I am speaking of a group or current that stands neither with the deep state nor with the deep [Muslim Brotherhood] organisation. All of this made people feel more defeated and frustrated.
Do you think state security has succeeded in silencing them or other opposition voices? We see less and less protests every day, and some people think it would be impossible to mobilise people like on 25 January or 30 June?
It’s not true that the state ‘succeeded’ in silencing voices. On the contrary the state is unable to silence voices; it is trying to do so in a random and unorganised way, by using foolish means of oppression, meaning that state policies indicate that the ruler is a nervous dictator. You know, the more discreet the repression, the more intelligent the head of the state looks.
It is also not correct to speak of the impossible, because the future is unpredictable. The movement of Egyptian people in the streets evolves quickly and dramatically. Also, currently President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s popularity dropped in an unexpected way. Moreover, state institutions are troubled. Different powers in the state are in a fierce conflict with each other, which is obvious to the public in some instances. The Egyptian people did not give carte blanche to anybody, and it would be delusional for anyone to assume they have full control of the people.
Now if you are asking if different revolutionary forces are unable to mobilise on the streets like they used to, then the answer is definitely they cannot. Nonetheless, to think that this is the result only of “successful” state control strategy is a mistake. The state only partly contributed to this situation.
What are the other factors?
First there are the drastic regional circumstances of Libya, Syria and Iraq. I think that since January 2011, Egyptians have been the perfect example of political wisdom, meaning that they mobilise when needed, they mark their stance, but still keeping in mind regional conflicts. This is why, no matter how unsatisfied or frustrated people become, they refrain from taking miscalculated steps, fearing a similar deterioration of the country. The second factor is the political Islam groups. They are opposing the state using violence. When armed parties are in conflict (ie explosions), politics disappear. Expressing our opinions is not worth such troubles. So with the increasing bloodshed and violence everywhere, people are less eager to take to the streets. Once again, it is inaccurate to say that the state successfully restored security by eliminating protests, because it could be a temporary situation. Also, the absence of protests within that context is not a measure of how much people are with the regime, or how much they are willing to mobilise against it.
But it seems that the state is not changing these oppressive measures any soon and the crackdown continues. What would be a way out then?
It is true that the state might not change its policies, but the nature of people’s anger can vary. For example, there was a time where nobody would speak of the president in the streets and coffee shops, not anymore. Now Al-Sisi is being severely criticised, frequently, in rather insulting speech, and by the very same people who backed him in the first place. So overall, things are changing.
Secondly, government performance is strongly failing; political freedoms aside, this is in terms of economics and corruption. People now have absolute faith that corruption is not only widespread, but state-sponsored as well. People who were hopeful at first have now shifted from supporting the regime, to being at least neutral due to large numbers of poor people still suffering from a lack of economic and social rights amid implemented policies endorsing the elite. People expected reform in the state’s administrative body, which a well-disciplined military man would impose, but that didn’t happen. All those who are now neutral towards Al-Sisi have the potential to become opponents, not in a political quest, but more for economic rights. The situation is favourable towards a new uprising.
Which do you think is most likely to happen to stir change? That people mobilise on their own, or that the state pushes them to do so?
The second one, because the state is replacing reason with force and doing it with arrogance. This superiority is like a disease that destroys everything. If by one call you can close down a political party, defame any person in the media, this reflects so much arrogance.
In a previous conference, you described state violence as the “state’s assassination gangs”. What did you mean by that?
I did and I repeat it now. I do not have proof, but it is my political analysis of what is happening. Does the state have its own assassination gangs? Accidents, murder, assassinations that are taking place makes me think that these are no individual cases but rather a system. This is dangerous for us and we must be concerned.
I gave three examples for this: Mohamed El-Gendy, who was taken, then thrown back, dead in the street. Then the killing of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, where official police records do not account for the use of weapons, yet videos taken by reporters on the day of the incident show the officer loading his gun, shooting, then his aide replacing the arm with a tear gas rifle. Now was this officer acting on his own, bringing shots from home, with the intention to kill? Or is it more like a systematic practice that has become a norm for the Ministry of Interior? Finally, the case of Islam Ateeto, who was taken from his university, then returned dead, in a so-called exchange of fire. All of this leaves questions unanswered.
Our questions must be answered either by a denying such a thing exists, which I truly wish for. Or in case it turns out to be true, it must stop. When a citizen carries a weapon we call him a terrorist, but when ordinary peaceful citizens are targeted, kidnapped, arrested with no information to their families on their whereabouts for days, we have to ask.
Indeed, the state does respond to those claims by denying them, or by pointing out to the referral of suspect police officers to trial for those crimes. Yet, we do not see real change on the grounds, so what is the solution?
Well, the absence of the parliament plays a role in this, because it is the parliament’s responsibility to bring officials to question and when they do, the Minister of Interior is obliged to give accurate accounts. Right now, he can leave politicians’ concerns unanswered. In general, ministers are not held accountable for their performance. On the other hand, any initiative to do so by politicians is immediately attacked in the media and framed as an attempt to spread chaos.
From a human rights point of view, Egypt’s image is deteriorating. Doesn’t that represent stress on Egypt before the international community?
Let’s put aside Egypt, this sometimes represents stress on the government. Are there double standards? Yes there are. Who says Europe does respect human rights? Who says the US, as an administration, respects human rights? The US eludes signing the International Criminal Court (ICC) agreement. The state of human rights in Egypt doesn’t wait for a report from Amnesty International [for example] to explain it nor any organisation’s report. I feel it and know it through the faces of people in the streets, governmental authorities or markets through prices, traffic, garbage, streets, non-progressing projects in the way authority officials deal with ordinary citizens.
From professional, humane and political perspectives, is there a difference in tackling the situation of an ordinary person and a convicted terrorist?
What are we talking about here is fundamentals and there is certain level of awareness where this doesn’t merit a debate. Any defendant gets a lawyer no matter what is the charge. If the defendant is charged of committing a terrorist action so the presence of a lawyer is an expression of the guarantees of a fair trial, isn’t there a chance the investigations are misleading? Is this [debate] being used in a political context? Yes and it reflects political polarisation in the society, and both blocks want you to fully support them and fully oppose the other. There is exploitation of the term “terrorism”. Yes there is terrorism, the terrorism of the state and the terrorism of organisations and individuals. The state and its supporters exploit this status.
Lately violations against lawyers have been on the rise and the role of the Lawyers’ Syndicate has not been strong in their defence, how do you comment on that?
There are around 500 sentenced lawyers and around 300 who have potentially the same fate. Of course there are large numbers of lawyers who are subject to violations. At first violations were at police stations now they transferred to courts. Nowadays we have courts being held at police locations, so there are frictions all the time, plus the frictions between judges and lawyers on the grounds of the limits of defending, lawyers themselves are being referred to investigations by judges. As for the weakness of the Lawyers’ Syndicate, we are living in a period where the performance of all the syndicates, civic forces and organisations is poor due to a number of reasons. Syndicate members are part of this polarisation themselves.
June will mark a year of Al-Sisi rule, how do you comment on the status of labour in this year?
I claim that the state of labour is very bad. There was a horrifying incident this year with the issuance of the civic service law that aims actually to reduce the public sector labour and decrease their number from 6 million to 3 million under the claim of reforming the administrative arm of the state. A law for the syndicate freedoms was not issued, a minimum wage was not set and minimum of pensions was not set yet either. This is a year for labour that is poor on the front of worksites and compressive on the front of affording living. The wages are poor if you measure it by the purchase power of the pound and the prices of goods.
Until when can we keep functioning without a parliament and concentrated legislative and executive powers in the hands of Al-Sisi?
The more the president holds both powers, the worse it becomes. This is a one-person rule. The legislative entity must be independent and even if the next parliament comes to be a supportive wing of the presidency, it is still better than now. I honestly believe Al-Sisi is worried about not being able to have control over the parliament.
Many of the figures categorised as political opposition have disappeared from the scene or left the country. Do you expect that Egypt will have an established opposition in the next parliament?
First of all, speaking of opposition as a united bloc is catastrophic. Opposition is not one group. There is competition over parliamentary seats, but the main fight that is ongoing is over being part of Al-Sisi’s camp. The rivalry is between some of the current state supporters and some of the former Mubarak supporters who want to come back. I would even say Al-Sisi versus Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Other than that, there is Al-Nour Salafist Party, which I think is outside the picture of electoral alliances. Then you have the rest of the political parties, those we call ‘opposition’, inside which some members insist on following Al-Sisi. Their real problem however is that they have not yet presented any programmes to the people, as an alternative from the state’s strategy. Only if they are able to do that they will be able to win, but if they continue to wait to satisfy some state authorities, they will lose a lot.
In that way, politicians are competing over state approval and nobody will act as opposition inside the parliament?
Again the bet is on how much those politicians would be able to unite efforts to perform well in the parliament. They must present themselves to the public as various organised groups capable of working together, especially since most political parties such share the same ideological basis regarding the revolution, social justice and so on. People always say “You can’t even agree on one thing”, and they are right. Only if political forces present a joint programme of work, would they be able to win people’s votes in the parliament as reformist group.
What do you think of reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and which camp do you think is most eager to do so, the state or the opposition?
There will be no reconciliation between Al-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, because the conflict has reached its peak and even become personal. Both sides currently cannot do that. The other way is also not on the table, neither by the political forces not by the brotherhood.
As a politician, what is different now?
In 2012, there were divisive open elections even if there were candidates who were counted as state-candidates, Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa. The state of the street and the social and political dialogue were close to the revolution path. If in 2012, Field Marshal [Mohamed] Tantawi decided to run the elections, would I have participated? Of course, my decision would have been similar to mine in 2014. What happened was that the defence minister who was ruling the transitional period decided to run the elections. He was administrating the country in that period and at the same time ran the elections, no matter what was the size of his popularity.
Finally, would you recall one particular case that was difficult or painful?
Many, of course. (Shows pictures of beaten citizens and a child at a police station). This little boy’s arrest was one of the harshest situations, more than anybody could imagine. He was arrested with some people under former president Mohamed Morsi’s regime for protests at the Itihadiya Palace. At some point during the investigations at the prosecution’s office, the boy fell asleep. The prosecution officer halted all investigations until the boy rested and woke up on his own. Prosecution officials strongly stood against Morsi in that case.