Regime of Fear, 2.0

By: Albrecht Hofheinz, University of Oslo.

“People are scared to see instability”. People want stability, want to ‘get back to normal,’ to live normally, to survive. That’s what most people want. People fear instability.

That’s why they will elect moribund Bouteflika in Algeria this week (“as long as he is still alive on April 17, he will win the presidency”), and CC in Egypt next month.

The old order is based on fear; fear keeps it alive.

No News.

The regime in Egypt is fuelling this fear – terrorists are lurking everywhere. When inter-tribal violence between Nubians and bedouin Arab Banī Hilāl broke out in Aswān earlier this month, the military was quick to blame the Muslim Brotherhood (even though participants asserted that the Brothers had nothing to do with the deadly clashes). The Knights of Malta are involved in this big conspiracy of violence to destabilise Egypt and have to stand trial now, as do the monks of St Catherine who face a court case demanding their expulsion from Egypt and the destruction of Egypt’s oldest monastery for posing a threat to national security, according the founder of the army’s special anti-terrorism forces. And then there was April 6 Youth Movement, whose leaders – agents of the US – were sentenced to hard labour and lost their appeal; a court will decide on April 28 whether the movement should be banned. Meanwhile, al-Barādeʿī – principled though soft-spoken liberal elder statesman who exiled himself due to his disappointment with the army’s takeover of the anti-Mursī protest movement – stands to be stripped of his Egyptian citizenship.

The regime is fanning fear, and tightening its anti-terror laws, ignoring protests from local and international human rights movements that these are mainly used as a tool to crush political opposition. Ignoring protests against the impunity with which Egyptian police mistreats prisoners; or against the lack of a clear line separating police and judiciary (with prosecutors often interrogating people in police custody, and judges disregarding evidence of torture).

All this is no news to anyone who knows Egypt, and it’s only the latest in a long row of individual cases – stories of individuals that add up to horrific statistics. The largest mass death sentence in modern Egyptian history (529 demonstrators sentenced in a two-day trial mocking all juridical standards); over 3000 dead since the July coup, close to 20000 injured in clashes, almost 20000 detained, figures that in no time surpassed not only the worst years under Mubarak, but even the repression under Nasser in the 1950s and 60s.

But Nasser’s repressive side has been forgotten; it is the image of the strong leader, the hero challenging the whole world, that remains and that is being projected onto CC, the carbon copy. It is him the people want; iconic activists of former anti-regime struggles, from Aḥmad Fuʾād Neǧm to Shāhenda Muqlad, have thrown in their voice and lined up behind him, and a poet of the stature of al-Abnūdī has likened the Rābiʿa massacre to the massacre of the Mamluks by Muḥammad ʿAlī in 1811: necessary to rescue Egypt and lead it to new glory.

The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, is in denial. Apart from trying to maintain visibility of their yellow R4bia-stickers everywhere (“The blessings of R4BIA have been spreading rapidly around the world […] An act of mercy roves the earth in full flood”), they react defensively when asked about their mistakes while in power, and they have not come up with a constructive strategy to face their new ordeal. Having moved away from campaigning for Mursī’s reinstatement, they have come no further than to promote the sardonic hashtag #انتخبوا_العرص‬‏ (“Vote for the pimp”). Oddly illustrative of this state of denial is the claim by Mursī’s daughter Shaymāʾ that Mursī has been swapped with another person in prison and that her real father has disappeared.

Will Sisi fulfil the hopes, bring stability, economic progress? His announcements don’t bode well: people should stop striking, tighten their belts, and be patient for another 60 years. Meanwhile, the army’s contractors are showing what development is: “surging through” poorer neighbourhoods “with steady steps” to build Uptown Cairo, a “world class golf community [that] sits 200 meters above sea level giving its residents refreshingly cooler temperatures with lower pollution levels and hill top villas with a mesmerizing view of the city”. And the energy crisis is to be solved at the expense of worsening the ecological crisis (the campaign against this is syndicated under #NoCoalEG).

It’s hard to keep up hope under such circumstances. When it feels as if the regime is waging a “war on a whole generation”, on those who were the flag-bearers of the 2011 revolution. ʿAlāʾ ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ, released on bail on 23 March (unlike many of his less famous comrades) tries hard. In his first extended interview after four months behind bars, he talks of “defeat” as “temporary”, like “in a battle”. He bemoans the fact that people nowadays no longer feel liberated and free to imagine a different system, as they did in 2011. His hope comes from the conviction that the new-old system will fail to fulfil people’s expectations of security and economic stability. But he realises that “for it to be a revolution, you have to have a narrative that brings all the different forms of resistance together. […] And that’s, right now, a tough one. […] I talk about defeat because I cannot even express hope anymore, but hopefully that’s temporary.”

Back in 2011, people used to say: Whatever happens, we know our way back to Tahrir. We have broken the wall of fear.

Given the new protest and anti-terror laws that the regime is putting in place, allowing them to sentence people to death for participating in a demonstration where “there is a single individual” wielding a knife, they are struggling hard to maintain this spirit. After all, also activists are people who want to live.