Effective threats are often delivered in a voice not much above a murmur and with a smile. Fate drew me to this important conclusion when I tripped upon the Oscar nominated “The Imitation Game” for the second time just recently. In it, an MI6 agent who oversees the group of scientists and mathematicians says in an eerily even tone “Behave, with a bit of luck you will never have to see me or the others ever again”.
Such thunderous silence is a trait that must be common to intelligence men of a certain ilk. In Egypt, a former high level intelligence man rules the roost. But President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s success in intelligence circles must undergo questioning for he is not a man who hides his feelings well. When he threatens the Muslim Brother or swears revenge upon terrorists, his face contorts. When he seeks to comfort a worried citizenry and gives them his best “come sit on my lap” paternal look, he dons an easy to read smile.
In the months to come, Al-Sisi will need his best poker face if he is to survive. The worst is yet to come and by far. As political forecasts increasingly call for a future confrontation the threat level in the Nile Delta is at “Threat level 3”.
Those who believe that Al-Sisi himself is the problem are not seeing forest but only, seemingly, the highest tree. It is the many institutions, competing all at once, for the Egyptian pie who threatened not just stability but the shape, form, and political being of the modern state.
In an international political/economic construct that operates on the basis of specialisation, Egypt’s problems are many but chief among them is: its military institution has insisted, since the 1952 revolution, on tightening its grip on rule. Who and what makes these old men think they are most capable of ruling Egypt via a most political post, the presidency, when the entirety of their experience lies in the military field?
After 18 months of official Sisi rule, more politically realistically 2.5 years, all indicators point to the precipice of disaster on four main fronts: economically, politically, security, and rights. Doubt the veracity of the aforementioned? Simply look at increasing stress agents such as a demonstration estimated at well over a thousand in the hours after a driver was killed by Egyptian policeman in El-Darb Al-Ahmar. That was preceded days earlier by 12,000 doctors shouting down the ministry of interior in mid Cairo. No less significantly, a day earlier on the North West coast in Masa Matrouh, a sit in by angry lawyers at treatment by the police.
The government knows it is under severe pressure. In a country where accountability, in the higher reaches of governance is consistently virtually non-existent, the Minister of Interior, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, actually said “sorry”. “We apologise for the acts of some policemen, we kiss the head of every citizen subjected to abuse or insult,” he said.
But such a stance, while noteworthy, reflects a nervous but haphazard regime. On the very day the minister made his remarks, a policeman shot and killed another as a result of the victim mocking him on Facebook. In the grand scheme of things a small detail it is, nonetheless, an incident which uncovers a shoot first, second, and third mentality.
With tourism a rock falling to the bottomless pit of inactivity since the likely terror attack on a Russian plane over the Sinai peninsula on 31 October 2015 and a mushrooming currency crisis projections for growth have been cut back significantly from 5% to 4%. From a foreign policy lens, the past year has increasingly shown gulf allies, behind closed doors, questioning Al-Sisi as a losing bet. It is no wonder that domestic popular support is undergoing noticeable depletion. As Amr Hamzaway put it, Al-Sisi’s is a regime that “prevents Hossam Bahgat (leading HR figure) from traveling, puts Ahmad Nagy (novelist) on trial for a literary text, jails thousands…and yet it is the one afraid”.
Rulers of this tumult have every right to be fearful. There isn’t much that is being handled correctly and signs abound that anger is building and that the scare tactics of the massive repression underway are waning as the increasing demonstrations foreshadow. But the billion dollar question is: what does this rising anger foretell. Is Egypt weeks, months, or years away from another but more massive explosion than January 25?
On a threat threshold ranging from a low of one and a high of five, from this vantage point, Egypt is squarely in the middle but heading in the wrong direction and gaining speed on a downhill. The one came weeks after Al-Sisi’s ascendency to the chair, with massive popular support, a disorganised revolutionary camp, and a pummeled Brotherhood, state control over the domestic scene was at its highest.
But as repression increased, numbers of political prisoners soared beyond the 50,000 mark and freedom of speech was squelched the inklings of a downwards spiral raised threat to a two. The descent quickened as soon as it became clear the regime was struggling to maintain a security noose around the rising insurgency in Sinai, increased militant activity in the Delta.
Additionally, Al-Sisi was writing verbal checks his floundering economic policy could not cash: whether it be the agricultural development of 1.5m acres or tragicomedy of an $8.5bn gamble on a failing new Suez canal that has only lost money since inception. Most dangerously, the inability to entrench fiscal policy in place to control ebbs and falls of the dollar threatens to unleash inflation of the sort that can quickly unseat an overwhelmed autocrat.
It is the economic element of the equation which figures to spread dissent to the largest percentage of the population as it hits hardest in the most obvious of places: the pocket. This has in turn brought us to threat level three.
From a good news perspective, no sector, whether it is various sectors of the economy, political structure, communications, social structure, or security, has yet to collapse. Conversely that collapse is part of the conversation a short time after the removal of the failing Muslim Brotherhood state apparatus is telling of the size of the potential disaster at hand. Despite dismal dynamics, the regime is not backing down one millimeter.
If anything, the past 96 hours have seen writer Nagy receive a two-year sentence because the regime insists on bearing “Islamilitary” teeth in punishing those who fall outside its moral parameters. A young promising writer will call jail home because a judiciary decided to use a vague criminal code to define “moral indecency” rather than the constitution, used in the first trial. This blatant use of, what many suspect is, an increasingly politicised judiciary follows similar judicial decisions in the recent past against a talk show host Islam El-Beheiry and writer Fatma Naout.
Many, naively, support this crackdown on thinkers under the false protection of societal values narrative, neglecting in the process that freedom of expression will protect the very rights they need to live with dignity. No less crucially, they fail to understand that a regime that continues to lose moral authority by systematically and arbitrarily jailing all dissenters is in no position to dictate “values”.
In this environment it is no surprise the deep state went after the Nadeem Centre, an organisation performing dual roles of human rights advocate and psychological rehab centre for victims of torture, a brutal tool prominent in the regime arsenal.
In this binary you are “with us or against us”.
Such a reductive pairing will be the very undoing of Al-Sisi era. In oversimplifying a complex society to dualities Al-Sisi and his allies bring the ghost they fear most to the political table: revolt.
Before that occurs however, we will see a threat level four and ultimately the final stage: explosion, threat level five.
Until then, it is worth noting “the more the regime bleeds popularity…the more they look for dissidents to scapegoat”, as Hossam Bahgat said on the same day he was denied travel to, ironically, a conference on “justice in the Arab world”.
To be continued…
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr