The arrest of eight leftist politicians and activists in June 2019 once again showed that the Egyptian state will not allow any mobilization of the opposition against its increasingly repressive rule.
Constitutional amendments, granting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sweeping powers over the judiciary and allowing him to stay in office until 2030, were approved in a referendum in April. It forced secular opposition parties to rethink their – already highly marginalized – role in the political sphere. The 25-30 Alliance, consisting of 16 independents not merely rubberstamping regime decisions, called upon the liberal Civil Democratic Movement (CDM) to join them and form one front. “We are at a crossroads,” Member of Parliament (MP) Ahmed Tantawi said in a document sent to the parties, to either “revive and rescue the political path” or resort to a “state of frustration that would push people towards other means of change”. He urged the opposition to unite and push for the “correct political path” as “the nation cannot afford the cost of other paths.”
“Our party leader and several MPs received phone calls from the national security warning them not to come together,” Mamdouh Habashi, a member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPAP), told Fanack. Still, SPAP members agreed to move forward. “We had a meeting on 19 June with the CDM parties and decided to go on,” Habashi said. On 24 June, politicians, activists and several MPs had a follow-up meeting and decided to form a ‘coalition of hope’, with the aim of running in the parliamentary elections planned for 2020.“This is the hope that change can be achieved peacefully. Almost all Egyptians lost this hope,” Habashi said.
A few hours after the meeting, in the early hours of 25 June, three of the participants were arrested: Ziad el-Elaimy, a lawyer and member of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party, Hisham Fouad, a journalist and member of the Revolutionary Socialists, and Hossam Moanis, a member of the Nasserist Karama party.
Also arrested were businessman and owner of the Alef bookstore chain Omar al-Shenetly and four other less prominent activists. For two days it was unclear where the detainees were being held, lawyer Malek Adly told Fanack, until they were located in the notorious Tora Prison in Cairo. Charges include spreading false news and ‘joining a terrorist organization in achieving its goals’ – rather vague charges that are typically brought against political detainees.
The wave of arrests represents the next chapter in a series of repressive measures by a state that is increasingly intolerant of any other narrative than its own. In May 2018, several high-profile activists, bloggers and politicians were arrested. One of them, blogger Wael Abbas, was conditionally released in December 2018 but has to report to the local police station twice a week.
In August that year, seven more people were arrested, among them the leader of the Karama party and former diplomat Masoom Marzouk. He had called for a referendum on the political leadership and a protest in Tahrir Square. He was released from prison only in May 2019. Many believed the arrests were an attempt to pre-emptively silence potential opposition to the constitutional changes. With the parliamentary elections ahead, the authorities appear to have a new reason to keep the opposition down.
Al-Sisi’s firm grip on the country seems a fait accompli. He has the support of the security bodies, which control the media; the parliament is almost entirely on his side; and since the constitutional amendments, he de facto controls the judiciary. It is hard to imagine how the few opposition politicians and activists left would pose a threat to the regime. “Everybody needs to be on the same line,” Habashi explained. “[Ultimately], the goal of every dictatorship is to forbid any discussion.”
This was apparent during the presidential elections in 2018. Even potential contenders close to the regime, like army general Sami Anan and former Mubarak-era minister Ahmed Shafiq, were barred from running through intimidation or arrest. While al-Sisi would arguably have secured a victory even with these other candidates running, the state apparently considered any sort of political debate that would have come out of an actual presidential race as too risky. Instead, it opted for a one-man show with a counter candidate who is a staunch al-Sisi supporter and posed little threat.
Even if opposition comes from Mubarak-era figures, to which the current regime is generally much more favourably inclined than the so-called terrorist Muslim Brotherhood, the state takes a zero-tolerance line. In September 2018, Mubarak’s two sons were arrested, in an apparent response to their heightened public profile and political tweets. In July 2019, the administrator of the Facebook page ‘I am sorry, Mubarak’, featuring posts praising the former president, was arrested on charges of spreading false news.
There is a lot up for discussion in Egypt. The country has been through a severe economic crisis and subsequent economic reforms as part of an International Monetary Fund loan deal. The reforms aim to resolve issues at the macroeconomic level, but poverty levels are rising. Some 60 per cent of Egyptians are either poor or vulnerable and inequality is on the rise, according to World Bank figures. Fuel and electricity prices continue to be raised periodically, putting an extra burden on already stretched households. Persistently high birth rates will keep pressuring the labour market and education and health-care systems in the foreseeable future.
Clearly, the state fears renewed social unrest. Hundreds of websites critical of the government in one way or another are blocked in Egypt. At any high-risk event, whether it is a football match in the Egyptian league, the anniversary of 2011’s 25 January Revolution or the death of former president Mohamed Morsi on 17 June 2019, the police steps up security around Tahrir Square and all cafes in downtown are ordered to close. Media coverage of Morsi’s death was tightly controlled by the state, which distributed prescribed articles and TV bulletins that did not make any mention of Morsi having been president. A new press law ratified earlier this year granted regulatory bodies far-reaching authority over media outlets and classified social media users with over 5,000 followers as media, putting individual users at higher risk of prosecution for violating media standards.
“This kind of system is not sustainable, it leads to explosion,” Habashi believes. “People see elections are faked; it leaves them without hope. We see ourselves [the secular opposition parties] as protectors of peace, more so than the regime.”
Mohamed Anwar el-Sadat, former MP and participant in the coalition of hope discussions, voiced similar concerns. “I don’t see any politics,” he said. “If they are wise, they should open up and give space [for the opposition to practice politics and express their views].”
Discontent lingers below the surface. When a train accident in central Cairo killed 25 people in March 2019, the hashtag ‘we are returning to Tahrir’ quickly began trending on Twitter. It took an all-out propaganda campaign and widespread vote-buying to reach a mere 44 per cent turnout (which according to some is unrealistically high in itself) in the constitutional referendum. Despite severe punishments for illegal protesting, some people took to the streets to protest metro ticket price increases in 2018, and again after the train crash earlier this year.
The government’s main selling point is that it brings stability and security, something at which it has been relatively successful compared to the violent years during and directly after the revolution. ‘Fighting terrorism is a human right’, a banner next to a major thoroughfare in Cairo reads. For many Egyptians, the improved security situation is indeed a reason to put their support behind al-Sisi, having lost hope that either Islamists and secular opposition parties or a new popular uprising could change things for the better. Nevertheless, Islamic State attacks in North Sinai surged in the first half of 2019, despite a major army offensive launched last year.
As The Economist noted, Egypt’s collapse is not an unrealistic scenario, the consequences of which would be catastrophic. However, the magazine raises serious doubts about whether al-Sisi, with his policy of increasing political repression, is the right person to avoid such a collapse.