Starting in 2014, Sisi rigorously enforced his authoritarian rule. He expanded the security apparatus and state surveillance system and took action against anyone who dared to question him. Bloggers, journalists, human rights activists – many of them former revolutionaries – have been threatened, kidnapped and imprisoned.
And Sisi has also taken pains to re-write history: According to the official narrative, there was no revolution in 2011; the real revolution took place in 2013. This refers to the protests that accompanied Morsi's overthrow. Many democracy activists hence believe that the military may have planned everything from the start: Mubarak's fall, Morsi's seizure of power, the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood – the army's only serious rival – and finally the comeback of the generals.
It is difficult to say if there is any truth to this theory. What is clear, though, is that Sisi has exercised his power according to the principle of "Divide and rule!" He plays the various religious groups off against each other, for example by posing as protector of the Christians against Islamists to boost his image in the West. Anyone who criticises him is vilified as a terrorist and enemy of the state. In this way, Sisi has only managed to strengthen the real terrorists. Some of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood adherents, for example, ended up joining terrorist groups such as the "Islamic State" (IS) after family members were executed with gunshots to the head. Instead of fighting real extremism, Sisi is using the so-called war on terror to crack down even harder on his own people.
Sisi has done even more damage to his country as well. Under his corrupt leadership, poverty and unemployment have spiralled. Like other oppressed peoples, Egyptians, too, are now trying to cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats in the direction of Europe because they no longer see any prospects for themselves in their own country. The media have been brought into line and the few independent journalists that remain live in constant danger. The courts act as minions of the regime.
Paranoia is all-pervasive
Until 2013, free spaces still existed in Egypt where female photographers, graffiti artists and theatre producers could draft social utopias. Today, leaden fear dominates the everyday lives of Egyptians. More than 60,000 people are languishing in Sisi's prisons for trivial reasons, such as mentioning the high unemployment rate in a Facebook post. Many are tortured, forced to sleep on icy floors without blankets, or die because guards deny them medical care.
Even those who survive detention cannot feel safe. This applies above all to the former revolutionary youth. For example, the photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan. He was arrested while documenting the savage police actions during the Rabaa massacre. Shawkan was released from prison in March 2019, but is required to report to a police station every night. Or there is the blogger Alaa Abd al-Fattah, an icon of the revolution, who enjoyed a brief spell of freedom in 2019 after five years in prison but was arrested again in September of that year. He has since been subject to torture in the high-security wing of the notorious Tora Prison in Cairo. Or take human rights lawyer Mahinur al-Masri from Alexandria, who has been in prison since September 2019. Many others have experienced the same fate.
Sisi has destroyed civil society. The few organisations that still document the crimes of the regime have to face intimidation. As recently as November 2020, three employees of the internationally respected Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) were arrested. International outrage led to their release, but a fourth employee, Patrick Zaki, is still in custody. In Egypt, no one knows when the next arrest will come. This paranoia has become part of everyday life.
The power of civil society
Two myths colour the Western perception of the Egyptian revolution: First, the myth that it failed. Second, the illusion that people were better off before 2011. Both assumptions are incorrect and even dangerous.
The revolution has not failed once and for all. A revolution does not happen overnight; it is a prolonged process. The fall of Mubarak may not have brought about the hoped-for freedom in Egypt, but it has shown people what is possible when they stand up together for their rights. Those who grew up after the revolution would do many things differently today than their parents did.
Both women and men in Egypt are for example fighting more resolutely than ever before to ensure that incidents of sexual assault are investigated and the offenders punished. Furthermore, many people in the region have had their fill of the corruption and self-enrichment of those in power and the poverty that results from it. This is evident from the protests that keep springing up in Cairo and Tunis, in Baghdad and Beirut, which are often more demanding and persistent than they were before 2011.
These demonstrators are challenging a tacit agreement that Arab despots have used for decades to legitimise their repression: We will supply bread and security, you will keep your mouths shut. Many protesters are not only demanding that the state see to their basic needs; they also want political change. Lebanon is one example, where many want to abolish the decades-old proportional representation system by which government posts are distributed not according to competence but by denomination, leading to extensive nepotism.
Nor were people in the region better off before the 2011 uprisings, at least not most of them. Rather, many Western politicians and diplomats simply accepted that Arab despots ruled with an iron hand, because at least this ensured stability. They tacitly condoned the crimes committed under Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi and Al-Assad, and they still do. Many Egyptians accuse the German and French governments of acting as accomplices to their country's regime. Despite the dictatorship, German companies still invest in Egypt – in fact, Sisi's regime is one of the German arms industry's best customers. French President Emmanuel Macron said during Sisi's visit to Paris in December 2020 that the poor human rights situation would not prevent France from continuing to supply arms to Egypt.
Many of the grievances that people in Middle Eastern and North African countries protested in 2011 are still prevalent today: poverty and hunger, lack of work and prospects, lack of co-determination. Only today, the belief has grown in wide sections of these societies that citizens can make a difference when their government fails at its duties. Against all odds, people from Tunisia to Yemen are now organising, for example, to advance women's rights, protect the work of journalists, or care for the poor and ill. Civil society is doing valuable work in this region – and it deserves support in its efforts.
In The Square, Ahmed Hassan says of the night Mubarak stepped down: "We took back our freedom." Today, it seems more unlikely than ever that this can happen again. And yet that's what people thought at the time as well.
© ZEIT ONLINE/Qantara.de 2022
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor
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