There is certainly a difference between being a dissenting citizen and being a traitor. Yet, the first category does not seem to exist in the book of the Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi. In a speech he gave on July 23, 2014 to commemorate the military’s 1952 ouster of the monarchy and the capture of power by the Free Officers movement, the president spoke about two types of Egyptians. The first was “the predominant bloc of the Egyptian people,” whom he addressed as “you, Egyptians” and courted in his speech. The second group was “others:” in today’s Egypt, there is no room for opposition.
During this speech, the president spoke about the major conspiracies being plotted “to bring down the Egyptian state.” His words about this “existential challenge” were contextualized by the map of Egypt that appeared in the background as he spoke. In the past three years, maps have been increasingly used to remind citizens of the danger that the country is facing—a divided Egypt. During the 2011 of governance under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (of which Sisi was a member), the offices of a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cairo were raided by police and soldiers. Egyptian authorities cited maps that they found in the raided offices as the legal basis for the prosecution of the NGOs’ workers. The maps, they said, divided Egypt into zones (In fact, according to NGO workers at the raided offices, these maps had been provided to the organizations by the Egyptian government’s Higher Electoral Committee, signifying the distribution of the zones of the three phases of parliamentary elections).
Along these lines, President Sisi called on Egyptians to stay alert and to keep in mind the regional context within which Egypt exists.
Many citizens have taken this call quite seriously, stigmatizing those who dare to object to any of the decisions made by the president and the government. Opponents are most often automatically rejected as traitors. One Facebook post that has been widely shared by the regime’s supporters reads, “In war, there is no such thing as an ‘opponent;’ there is only a ‘traitor,’ and standing against the country’s sovereignty and its army is called ‘treason.'”
Although the president did not make this statement outright in his speech, he implicitly endorsed it by highlighting the dangers that the country is facing and the importance of citizens’ cooperation with the army and the police to confront those dangers. He also praised the “great Egyptians” who defied many experts’ expectations by not protesting his decision to cut down fuel and electricity subsidies, sending a covert message that opposition to the president’s decisions is an unwelcome behavior that disqualifies opponents from being among the “great Egyptians.”
In a firm tone, Sisi glorified the military and its sacred role in “taking blows for Egyptians” and sacrificing for the country’s sake. His words seemed to be directed to those who have criticized the army’s role in politics and the economy, as well as the immunity of its budget against public and parliamentary scrutiny.
Sisi’s July 23 speech has served to reinforce an atmosphere in which dissidence is not tolerated, and conformity with the regime’s lines defines good citizenship. Not only is this atmosphere unsuitable for pluralism and democratic dynamics, but it also makes it difficult to eliminate corruption in a country where corruption has prevailed for years, penetrating all aspects of the economic and political spheres. Corruption cannot be combated when it is unacceptable to criticize the army, a state body that should be monitored and held accountable like all state bodies, or to call for putting an end to its constitutional (and extra-constitutional) privileges and the secrecy surrounding its budget and economic empire. Although in the past year the military has been awarded a number of government contracts and it is now playing a more overt role in the country’s economy, it is immune from monitoring and accountability by virtue of the constitution. Not only that, but also Egyptian politicians and pro-regime pundits are increasingly promoting the rhetoric that no public criticism should be directed at the army while it is on an almost sacred mission to fight terrorism
It also becomes harder to criticize the president’s decisions. Against this backdrop, it is less likely that the powers of the regime’s bureaucracy or the “deep state,” which is widely perceived as a core pillar in the network of corruption, could be challenged.
Instead of encouraging unity among Egyptians, President Sisi addresses his supporters only—a mistake that cost his predecessor Muhammed Morsi his post as president: Morsi, who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood. Once condoned the forceful dispersal of his opponents’ protests at the hands of his supporters, his policies and his discourse contributed to planting the seeds of division among Egyptians.
In 2012 and 2013, Morsi defended his controversial policies and decisions in the context of his alleged fight against a grand conspiracy. Today, Sisi is rallying his supporters behind him for a war on a vague foreign conspiracy at a time when it could be arguably more constructive to rally all Egyptians in an urgent war against deeply-rooted corruption.
Of course regional and domestic security threats, as well as terrorist attacks, do pose a challenge for Egypt; the president is right to take them seriously. But the current anti-terror strategy adopted by the state—a strategy that shuns opposition and accuses opponents of treason and complicity with terrorists—might be effective only in the short term. Suppression of and crackdown on dissidents is a recipe for simmering anger and eventual turbulence.
It is understandable that the president needs citizens’ support and patience at a time when the country is facing major economic, political, and security challenges. At the economic level, while Sisi has not revealed a coherent and concrete economic strategy, he seems to be trying to take positive steps toward social justice (such as his decisions on minimum and maximum wages), perhaps to keep a segment of the impoverished masses on his side. But the president must also look back on what happened to his predecessor, Muhammed Morsi, in part due to a rhetoric that favored supporters and shunned opponents, creating unprecedented societal divisions that have only continued to widen.
If the president and his supporters do not start to demonstrate more tolerance for opposition and accommodate all Egyptians (not only those supportive of the regime), polarization is set to deepen under Sisi, and genuine reform will become even more difficult to achieve.
Many Egyptian and international observers are eyeing Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary election and betting on an elected parliament as another step in the transitional road map and as a possible window for democratization. This optimism may be ill-founded in light of a wider political landscape that is decidedly undemocratic. In a context where genuine opposition is seen as a form of treason, a parliament—even if elected—would only comprise a tamed opposition and reflect cosmetic pluralism.