Wednesday, July 02, 2014

State Prestige Redux

(Anadolu Agency)
When historians review this first year of Sisi’s rule, they will note that the military regime’s core priority was to crush popular mobilization. Under the doctrine of restoring “state prestige,” the entire state machinery went into avenger mode, brutalizing both supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi and his diehard opponents. For despite their myopic hatred for each other, the Muslim Brothers and their critics espouse the same dangerous belief, the conviction that they should be able to control the state, not the other way round. This revolutionary idea and its shortlived practice is what Sisi is out to destroy.

Some like to pretend that the scale of state violence since July 3 2013 is a sign of a government that’s out of control or somehow getting off track. In a stunning abuse of language even by the forgiving standards of diplomatspeak, the American State Department continues to proclaim that Egypt is on “a path to democracy” but unfortunately experiencing a “chilling detour.” In reality, the mass killings, mass jailings, mass death sentences, mass hysteria-mongering, and mass leader worship perpetrated by Egypt’s government are not some unfortunate aberration. They are what putschist generals do after they overthrow elected governments.

Egypt’s new military regime fits the grim pattern. The zeal with which it’s using state power to kill, incarcerate, and cow citizens aims to extinguish the practices and memories of a revolution. In 2011 and 2012, every government official at every level was on the back foot, quivering at the surge of collective empowerment that coursed through the citizenry. Egyptians didn’t just experience a change in consciousness with their revolution, they saw a qantum shift in political practices.

Think back to the sustained occupation of public squares, the repeated encircling and ransacking of fortified official buildings, the popular ejection of corrupt bureaucrats and local bosses, the near-daily filling of streets to demand government action and accountability, and the cleanest parliamentary and presidential elections we’ve ever had. For the first time in a very long time, maybe the first time ever, Egyptian officialdom truly feared the people.

This is the nightmare scenario for every statist and counter-revolutionary, and every conservative who loathes commoners and becomes incensed when they demand a say in how they’re governed. In the Egypt of 2011 and 2012, “state prestige” was being smashed and state accountability was on the horizon, and that’s precisely what Sisi is here to reverse. The military repeatedly killed citizens in 2011 and 2012, but saw its own quantum shift after the coup.

So it’s not surprising that after the military killed and jailed members of the Muslim Brothers, repression moved to the Brothers’ political adversaries. Did anyone seriously believe that a junta that suspends the constitution, arrests and imprisons the elected president, and massacres his supporters in the streets would show any scruples toward self-described revolutionary activists?

Because the revolution augured an era where the state had to be accountable to citizens, the Sisi counter-revolution is obsessed with re-sanctifying the state and re-enfeebling citizens. A raft of laws now criminalizes or cancels out hardwon practices of association, assembly, expression, election, and information. Banning the Muslim Brothers is not the only attack on association; the military gutting of the political arena means goodbye to any real political parties.

Assembly, that foundational tool of people power and the origin of the revolution, is now kaput. No one can set foot in Tahrir Square unless they’re participating in a military-sanctioned spectacle. The new Protest Law reactivates the colonial-era requirement of advance permission from the police for any demonstration. Every day, activists are arrested for months or sentenced to years in prison for daring to hold permit-less peaceful protests, most recently seven high school students. For the Muslim Brothers, their evening protest processions and Friday demonstrations are met with brute force, including live fire.

Expression is also criminalized. A new decree brings all mosques and preachers under direct government control. After the August 14 mass killings in Rabaa and Nahda, anyone brandishing the four-finger symbol is subject to arrest and imprisonment, the tragic instance of Sara Khaled being only one among untold others. The 20-year-old dental student is serving a two-year sentence for allegedly assaulting a police officer, but her real crime is possessing a Rabaa pin. 

Sisi has personally tried to silence the meaningful, stinging term "askar" (military), in his self-defined, self-appointed role as chief arbitrator of public discourse.

For the journalists imprisoned by the military regime, their confinement is not only about limiting freedom of expression. It's just as much about the government flaunting its impunity. As Peter Greste, one of the three imprisoned Al Jazeera English journalists observes in a letter from prison, “Our arrest doesn’t seem to be about our work at all. It seems to be about staking out what the government here considers to be normal and acceptable. Anyone who applauds the state is seen as safe and deserving of liberty. Anyone else is a threat that needs to be crushed.”

Elections are anathema to state supremacy, since they give citizens the opportunity to choose who runs the state. The Egyptian military and its adjunct civilian bureaucrats consider running the state to be their birthright, an inheritance that can never be left to commoners and outsiders. Sisi’s takeover of the presidency at the national level is only the beginning. Cancelling free and fair elections in every institution will follow, starting with presidential appointment of university deans and presidents in lieu of faculty self-governance.

Finally, the public right to information, always fragile even in democracies, has been decisively rolled back with two new legal provisions, one denying concerned citizens the legal standing to contest government sale of public assets, the other granting ministers and governors even greater leeway to award direct contracts. The legal framework for crony capitalism is thus back in place, undisturbed by legislative oversight or public deliberation.

When the historians begin to write this period of Egypt’s history, they will rely on the painstaking work of a heroic constellation of human rights organizations, lawyers, and journalists, people who patiently and courageously document the human toll of a post-revolutionary military dictatorship. They will be able to reconstruct how the state’s police, judicial, and penal apparatus vengefully controlled the fates of tens of thousands of Morsi supporters, and not a few Morsi critics, journalists, and innocent bystanders. Perhaps they will shudder at the more than 41,000 detained citizens, the conditions of their confinement, the details of their torture, and the terrifying underworld of unaccountable military prisons brought to light by an outstanding forensic journalist.

They will also come across this prison letter from activist and prisoner of conscience Alaa Abd El Fattah, meditating on the ideologies governments use to perpetuate their oppression and concealment of the truth. Alaa captures the perennial dialectic in Egyptian political thought and practice, between those who make it their “mission to repair the reputation of the institutions and patch up respect for the state” and those whose “mission is to reform the heart of the state and the reality of its institutions.”