Ezzedine C. Fishere is the author of “The Egyptian Assassin” and a visiting professor at Dartmouth College.
Nobody likes Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s military regime, not even its own supporters. Those who do not oppose it reluctantly tolerate it for one reason: because they believe it will help Egypt maintain stability and reform the dysfunctional state.
The problem is that it is failing at both. On politics and economics, rather than building partnerships and thinking long-term, Sissi has chosen the easier path — and undermined his ability to achieve reform or stability in the process.
Sissi’s version of economic reform has been limited to removing subsidies and freeing the exchange rate, without a deeper restructuring of the nation’s economic and regulatory structures. Expectedly, this has impoverished many Egyptians. In multiple public addresses, Sissi reiterated his determination to proceed with his policies “even if we have to go hungry.” While he might be willing to do so, the majority of the nearly 100 million Egyptians he governs are tired of it. Their resentment is growing — and the government has increasingly resorted to repression to check this resentment.
And the regime has been taking on enemies left and right. In addition to the millions who reel as the economic situation deteriorates, there are millions of angry Islamist supporters waiting for an opportunity to avenge their dead and tortured. There is also an armed militia in Sinai that has not been defeated. Add to this millions of young people who hate everything the regime stands for, and millions more who had believed that liberal democracy was within reach only to be thrown back to a 1960 military rule.
As if that was not enough, the regime has hollowed out political institutions more than any time in the past. When a group of young activists, led by former member of parliament Ziad El-Elaimy, tried to run for legislative elections, it threw them all in jail. Using a combination of juridical and extra-juridical tools, it has eviscerated civil society, purged the civil service and silenced the media. The result has been the eradication of the regime’s safety valve and removal of the buffers between the regime and its unhappy citizens.
In other words, Egypt’s dictatorship is sitting on a cloud of fear. Below is a powder keg. If this cloud is punched, the regime will be consumed by the ensuing fire. And this cloud of fear is bound to be broken through because the regime’s so-called reforms, and the repression it must use to enforce them, are raising the temperature even further.
The events of the past few weeks have made this clear. A single disgruntled Egyptian contractor — doubling as a television actor — managed to rock Egypt’s “stability” with nothing more than few videos detailing his corrupt deals with the military and calling for a new revolution. The regime’s response was revealing: TV programs leveled all sorts of accusations at the contractor; influencers were called upon to remind the public of what they presented as 2011′s chaos and mayhem; religious sermons emphasized loyalty and warned against treason; and artists were brought in to curse the “conspirators.” And just in case all of this didn’t work, security forces were deployed all over Egyptian cities.
Yet, people still took to the street and protested. These were sporadic protests, quickly dispersed, but they burst the bubble of immunity around the regime. Immediately, Sissi had a rare chat with “ordinary citizens,” in which he claimed that security was solid. He later addressed the corruption accusations in detail. The ministry of supplies requalified more than 1 million people to subsidized commodities, claiming they were removed by mistake. And for the first time in decades, fuel prices were brought down. Promises of political reform were hastily made, including by the speaker of the parliament (although he added that repression was necessary to build “a strong infrastructure,” like he said Hitler did).
The real response, however, was more repression. Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mahinour Al-Masry, two Tahrir Square uprising activists who were recently released from jail, were rearrested and abused in jail. Also arrested were Esraa Abdel Fattah, a longtime democratic activist who retired politics since Sissi came to power, who was also beaten up; Khaled Dawoud, former leader of Al-Destour party; and Hasan Nafaa and Hazem Hosny, two critics of the regime and political scientists.
Even tourists — including ones from Sudan, Jordan and the Netherlands — were arrested and forced to admit charges of espionage on television. Public sector workers who were on strike demanding bonus were arrested. Security personnel started stopping passersby and checking their phones, arresting those who refused, including Sanaa Seif, a young human rights activist previously jailed for demonstrating. The list goes on. In total, more than 3,600 — including children — have reportedly been arrested since Sept. 20.
That is no sign of stability. If anything, it is a warning shot. Beating up Alaa Abdel Fattah and Esraa Abdel Fattah is not going to make Egypt’s formidable challenges go away, make the majority of Egyptians more accepting of their deteriorating living conditions or reduce the number of the regime’s enemies. Only an end to the repression and a national reconciliation can achieve the elusive stability — and the deep reforms Egyptians need and deserve.