If you want to know about Egypt, come to live in Egypt for a time. And if you need to understand Egyptians, don’t read about them. Talk to them instead.
If you need to judge Egyptian politics and society, don’t only refer to political science and sociology reference books in your local library or Google the search term “Egyptian politics.” Definitely don’t solely rely on what professional media outlets may be reporting.
Such advise might normally be followed by hints offering alternatives and additional tools to understand Egyptian politics. But who mentioned anything about being normal? After all, we live in abnormal times.
A recent article in the New York Times, published on 24 January, on the forthcoming presidential elections in Egypt headlined “And Then There Was One: One Last Challenger to Egypt’s Sisi Drops Out” said that “the last main challenger (former presidential hopeful Khaled Ali) dropped out of Egypt’s presidential election, effectively clearing the field for President Sisi to run virtually unopposed in a vote that is shaping up to be a referendum on his military-backed rule.”
The article went on to claim that “neither Mr Ali nor Mr Anan [former chief of staff of the armed forces and former presidential hopeful Sami Anan] was considered a serious electoral threat to Mr Sisi, who has ruled with a tight, often harsh grip since the military deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected leader in 2013,” a reference to former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This article and dozens of similar pieces in the West have been causing many Egyptians to feel bewildered. With bewilderment comes distrust, some anger and a lot of frustration.
Many Egyptians are frustrated with the upcoming presidential elections. Whether they are staunch supporters of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, or are opponents of his policies or presidency, they had hoped, or dreamed, of living through debates between competing candidates and all the other events that usually make up the news before elections.
However, just as there are day-dreams and fantasies, there are also genuine dreams and nightmares some of which may come closer to reality than is comfortable. In reality, Egypt’s opposition has failed, and with this failure has come the writing off of much of many Egyptians’ wish list. However, failures come in all shapes and sizes and nationalities.
Many nations that have advanced before Egypt on the road towards democracy have been setting a bad example when it comes to media coverage. Following the events of 30 June 2013 and the mass demonstrations against the rule of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, much of the Western media, and of course many Western democracies, viewed what had happened as a “military coup” against the democratically elected Morsi.
Why? Because what had happened seemed to coincide with what the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, a UK reference work, says about coups, for example. However, this same dictionary says nothing about the will of the people to remove a democratically elected president, or their fears of theocratic rule, or, indeed, attempts by strong nations to sabotage the destinies of others.
The destiny of Egypt does not lie in the hands of Egyptians alone. However, what is being planned for Egypt will not materialise as long as Egyptians reject it heartily. Answering a few questions might help bridge the cultural, political and sociological gap between Egypt and the West.
Did Egyptians choose Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as their democratically elected president in 2014? An absolute majority did. Some considered him to be the saviour of the nation. Others viewed him as the only possible choice. A third group regarded him as the only way out of the theocratic rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
It was known in 2014 that the next set of elections would be held in four years’ time. They have thus neither come all of a sudden, nor have they taken anyone by surprise. Even so, it seems the opposition still woke up one morning and found it was election time and had to act accordingly.
Khaled Ali, a human rights advocate, said he was thinking of running in the elections. After several bumps on the road, and much contradictory rhetoric, he then decided not to, claiming that “the opportunity for hope in these presidential elections has gone.” But he said nothing about his original hope, or why he had let that hope go. Just metres away from the press conference in which Ali announced that “The Way to Tomorrow” (his presidential campaign) had ended, many passers-by were not even aware who Ali was.
NEEDED OPPOSITION: In order to engage in a presidential campaign, one has to be known, even if not loved, or hated, or even supported. Despite the fact that Ali had promise as a politician, he remained in the closed circles of activism rather than gaining genuine popular appeal.
Millions of people in Egypt, not being aware perhaps that human rights lead to economic rights, also believe that food and shelter come before human rights.
However, such reflections rarely emerge in the Western media coverage of Egypt. Another example of its questionable assumptions has been its claim that Sami Anan was “a serious challenger to Al-Sisi” as the UK Guardian newspaper put it.
Really? Says who? Based on what?
What the Western media said about army colonel Ahmed Konsowa’s decision to run in the presidential elections also reflects a lack of knowledge. The tone of shock expressed by many when Konsowa was court-martialled and sentenced to six years in prison for breaching military regulations prohibiting political activism was strange, especially when one bears in mind that what active military personnel can and cannot do when it comes to political activity in other countries is much the same as it is in Egypt.
Serving military personnel are not allowed to express political opinions, let alone run in elections.
The current deadlock on Egypt’s political scene is not only limited to the presidential elections or possible candidates. Egypt is suffering from an acute societal deadlock. Nearly everybody is politically active. Millions are solving the country’s problems over a shisha pipe and cup of tea. Most people have opinions and criticisms to make. The problem is that those same people do not know how to transform opinions into action and criticisms into realistic alternatives.
Belgian commentator David Van Reybrouck wrote in the UK Guardian in June 2016 that “a few years ago, the World Values Survey, a large-scale international research project, asked more than 73,000 people in 57 countries if they believed democracy was a good way to govern a country – and nearly 92 per cent said yes. But that same survey found that in the past ten years, around the world, there has been a considerable increase in calls for a strong leader ‘who does not have to bother with parliament and elections’ – and that trust in governments and political parties has reached a historical low. It would appear that people like the idea of democracy but loathe the reality.”
He goes on to say that “there is something explosive about an era in which interest in politics grows while faith in politics declines. What does it mean for the stability of a country if more and more people warily keep track of the activities of an authority that they increasingly distrust? How much derision can a system endure, especially now that everyone can share their deeply felt opinions online? Fifty years ago, we lived in a world of greater political apathy and yet greater trust in politics. Now there is both passion and distrust.”
Van Reybrouck was talking about the vote in the UK that led to Brexit, the decision by the UK to leave the European Union, but his words should ring a number of bells. How are people dealing with politics in this age of online political activism? Are elections the only cornerstone of democracies? Does what has worked, or even what hasn’t worked well for the West, necessarily work well elsewhere? Does the planet have only one check list for what should and what should not be done when it comes to politics and running countries?
This is not an apologetic piece on why Egypt might be facing a one-man show in the next presidential elections. But it is an attempt to explain what lies behind the scenes.
Chair of the US Senate Armed Forces Committee John McCain recently remarked on the seventh anniversary of the 25 January Revolution in Egypt on what he called the “crackdown on human rights and democracy” in the country and the “imprisonment of tens of thousands of dissidents.” He claimed that there had been the “execution of more than 20 prisoners sentenced to death in sham trials,” and he said these had been applauded by the same people who view the US as “the biggest enemy” or “the most dangerous imperialist power.”
Such remarks and the general Western media coverage of Egypt have angered many Egyptians who are still hoping for a better democracy, healthier elections and more freedom.
If you want to understand Egypt and the Egyptians, stop relying on reference books and delve deeper with us over here. However, even so, please bear in mind that this may continue to be an attempt at understanding the un-understandable.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly