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Op-Ed

Governing Egypt: A Contest to See Who Can Do a Worse Job

H.A. Hellyer

Egypt’s immediate post-Mubarak phase saw a bungled transitional process led by Mubarak’s own generals – a process that squandered a historic chance to reform the state from within, with overwhelming public support. When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces then relegated itself to outside of the messy business of governing, the first democratically elected president of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Mursi, then squandered another chance to lead a political coalition to restructure the state. On the contrary, he incredulously managed to not only alienate his would-be allies in a reform agenda – but lead to the empowerment of the enemies of any reform process in Egypt. It seems that at least part of Egypt’s establishment may be under the mistaken impression that post Mubarak, governing Egypt is a contest – to see who can do a worse job.

Over and the above the objections of human rights activists, civil rights organizations, the United Nations, foreign governments, and even elements within the military-backed interim government, Egypt’s transitional leaders have insisted they will enforce a new law on protests. Since that law came into play, one protester called Mohammad Reda, a young student at Cairo University, has died in the midst of clashes with the police. The fact police are now even allowed to enter campuses without the prior authorization of university administrators or the judiciary is in itself indicative of the need to immediately reform Egypt’s security apparatus. Hundreds of people have now been detained, from protests both calling for the reinstatement of Mursi, as well as those non-Islamist activists opposed to the protest law itself and calling for a ban on military courts trying civilians defendants.

Some of those activists have a dubious political past. Dubious in so far as they have managed to attract the ire of the authorities under four different political regimes. The non-Islamist, left wing Alaa Abdel Fattah, for example, has been arrested under Mubarak in 2006, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011, Mursi in 2012 and this government this past week. Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 movement, that was so active in the popular uprising that led to the departure of then-President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has also been detained. Their crimes are interesting: “inciting” people to break the newly created (and very much denounced) protest law. This legislation is not simply aimed, it seems, at those who protest violently – nor even those who protest non-violently – but those that even call for non-violent protests.

A Challenge

One wonders: Would Ziad Bahaa Eldin, the deputy prime minister, who has also expressed his opposition to this law, be considered guilty of such incitement? Or perhaps his political party, the Egyptian Social Democrats, members of which are not only in government but in the constitutional assembly? After all, they also declared that they would “continue to fight by all means, in coordination with the other democratic forces, to overthrow this unjust law and confront all attempts to circumvent the demands of the revolution.” Perhaps arrests of this nature ought to target international organisations as well that have expressed their opposition to the law? Perhaps when such personalities are arrested, they ought to suspect they might be treated similarly to those female activists who claimed they were beaten, harassed, and left stranded in the desert after their arrest? Maybe, like Abdel Fattah and his wife (who was not arrested), they can expect to have their laptops and phones confiscated, and then (coincidentally, one imagines) find their social media accounts hacked with hours? Perchance, if the protest law is so laudable, it ought to be applied retroactively, and cancel not only the protests that led to the ouster of Mohammad Mursi, but also the ouster of Hosni Mubarak? (Probably not the best idea to be floated around).

Of course, while Abdel Fattah, Maher, and non-Islamist activists have been detained, there have been thousands of Islamists detained in the past four months. Most of which at least face charges – and one hopes that the verdicts they receive might be more appropriate than the ones handed down to a group of unarmed pro-Mursi female demonstrators in Alexandria last week, which recommended more than a decade in jail. The interim president’s office has since said that once the case is completed, the president will issue a pardon – which still begs the question as to how such laws can exist in the first place. But at least they faced charges in open court. Civil rights organisations, which were (justifiably) vigorous opponents of Mursi’s government when it was in power, have also drawn attention to the continued detainment, without charge, of several advisers to the ousted president. Mursi himself has been charged and put on trial for inciting violence against protesters in late 2012, but these advisers remain forcibly detained (for more details, please see the Human Rights Watch’s report here).

A government spokesperson earlier this week described unauthorised protests as “a challenge to the state and its prestige”, and warned that while “the protesters want to embarrass the state,” the state is “capable.” Since the Jan. 25, 2011 uprising, Egypt’s revolution has never been about a binary opposition between Islamists and “secularists.” Rather, it has been about those in power, whether Islamist or anti-Islamist, trying to control the public space by empowering the security apparatus against even non-violent dissent. It seems the state is capable of embarrassing itself entirely on its own, by not only encouraging challenges to itself, but making such challenges entirely necessary.

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