By Sreeram Chaulia
May 18, 2015
The sentencing of Egypt’s democratically elected and militarily overthrown President, Mohamed Morsi, to death by a politically biased court illustrates everything that is wrong with dictatorships. Since the coup d’etat against Mr Morsi in July 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has taken Egypt back to the old, pre-Arab Spring totalitarianism, where justice is an instrument not to protect the vulnerable but to suppress them.
Gen. Sisi has consolidated power in the last two years by ruthlessly persecuting the entire political Opposition ranging from Mr Morsi’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to the secular Leftist students who organised the April 6 Youth Movement for democracy. The voices that had risen in defence of human rights and accountable government have been systematically muffled by Gen. Sisi, who rules with the veneer of a “civilian” presidency following a dubious, uncontested election marked by low voter turnout in May 2014.
While Mr Morsi is pushed towards the gallows after being declared guilty of jailbreak during the tumultuous Arab Spring revolution of 2011, Egypt’s much-hated former tyrant Hosni Mubarak and his indulgent sons have been exonerated of serious and credible charges. The acquittals of Mr Mubarak and his cronies by kangaroo courts dancing to Gen. Sisi’s tunes contrasts with tens of thousands of innocent opponents of the military regime who are languishing in prison and paying the price for rebelling against the establishment.
The order that Gen. Sisi has imposed in Egypt after interrupting the Arab Spring rests on state terror. People are obeying the regime and keeping their heads low out of fear rather than respect or acceptance of Gen. Sisi’s legitimacy. To remind the population that there is a heavy human cost of revolt, the state is unleashing security forces to conduct brazen shootings of activists on the streets and pressing a pliant judiciary against dissenters through absurd mass death verdicts. For instance, in April 2014, a whopping 683 defendants of the Muslim Brotherhood (now a banned organisation) were farcically pronounced guilty of murdering a single policeman and slapped with capital punishment.
Gen. Sisi has revived institutional means of authoritarianism even more viciously than Mr Mubarak and his military predecessors had done in their heydays. The first tool he uses extensively is suborning the courts to give a legal cover to his oppression. According to the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, which measures inter alia the extent to which countries enjoy impartial justice and limit governmental abuse, Egypt is ranked a lowly 74th out of 99 nations.
Although some Egyptian judges had hitherto refused to kowtow before Mr Mubarak and Mr Morsi himself, when he was briefly President of the country, a chilling Code of Omerta is currently prevailing in the legal fraternity. Despite knowing that the show trials and draconian sentences are patently ridiculous, most judges are keeping their own counsel to avoid trouble from the megalomaniacal and vindictive President, Gen. Sisi.
Recent leaked recordings of phone conversations of Gen. Sisi and his aides, which have become an online sensation as #SisiLeaks, uncover how exactly Egypt’s notorious “deep state” (military plus subservient civilian entities like the judiciary) is framing the innocent and freeing the criminals.
The second institution which Gen. Sisi is manipulating to eviscerate the Arab Spring revolutionary spirit is the news media, which is trumpeting the regime’s supposed popularity and branding his detractors as terrorists. These days, visitors to Egypt who are not familiar with the shenanigans of dictatorships come back with the impression that Gen. Sisi is truly beloved and admired by most Egyptians, and that the masses are dejected by the Arab Spring’s disorderly denouement.
This perception is reinforced by almost the entire gamut of Egyptian television and print media sources in Arabic and English, which are acting under orders to glorify the regime or quietly self-censoring to be on the safe side. The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index of 2015 places Egypt at 158th position out of 180 countries. Gen. Sisi’s fake democracy fares worse in media independence than even war-ravaged Libya or Iraq.
The third institution propping up Egypt’s authoritarian system is what Gen. Sisi proclaims as his “comprehensive fight against terrorism”. After his coup deposed Mr Morsi, the Egyptian security apparatus has launched a brutal counter-insurgency in the Sinai region against Islamist extremists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Lately, these guerrilla fighters have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) and are carrying out numerous bombings and assassinations against police and military personnel.
The rise of such hardline Islamist terrorists is the direct outcome of the coup carried out by Gen. Sisi. They were neither lethal nor prominent during the short interlude of Mr Morsi’s presidency. This new form of terrorism was virtually created due to the secular military’s takeover of power by force and denial of the mandate given to the Muslim Brotherhood through the ballot box.
Observers had warned just after the coup in 2013 that Egypt may go down the path of Algeria, where a popularly elected Islamist party like the Muslim Brotherhood was prevented from ruling by a secular military establishment, and terrorism ensued as the only outlet for grievances in a politically frustrated society. That prophecy is coming true now.
In the make-believe universe of the Egyptian military regime, it is protecting the citizens from a diabolical terrorist menace that is allegedly an offspring of the moderate Muslim Brotherhood. But the reality is that power-hungry, corrupt and greedy military officers create conditions or root causes for hardcore terrorists to emerge and then present themselves as the saviours and the last resorts against these monsters.
Savants like George Orwell and Gabriel García Márquez have laid bare authoritarianism as an enterprise that thrives on falsehood, fabrication and mind games. Gen. Sisi has the blood of thousands of Egyptian civilians on his hands, but is raking in tens of billions of dollars of aid from the United States and conservative Gulf monarchies by painting himself as a reliable bulwark against Islamist fundamentalism.
Countries like Egypt which are writhing under tyranny can only liberate themselves once their societies reject the fables of dictators. The journey to freedom is paved by refuting what Orwell called “political language designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”
Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs