from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Silence in Egypt

June 26, 2014

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My research associate, Alex Brock, is in Cairo getting some well-deserved rest.  I thought you would be interested in his thoughts on recent developments in Egypt.  Enjoy.

Cairo, Egypt—I waited, and waited, checking Twitter.  I stopped by Tahrir Square a few times, figuring if anything would happen it would be there.  Some BBC employees staged a moment of silence, but that was in London. There was nothing in Cairo after a court convicted three Al Jazeera journalists and sentenced them to 7-10 years in prison.  Just silence.  The Twittersphere went crazy over the verdicts while the rest of Egypt went about its business.  The political turmoil in Egypt has become a fight between elites, while the rest of the country seems to want some sense of normalcy.

Egypt has come full circle: the old regime has resumed control of the country and the majority of Cairenes seem to be OK with it.  The days of making large sacrifices for the sake of political freedoms appear to be over. Egypt is exhausted.  The familiarity of the old order and the stability it promises is to many Egyptians progress, especially compared  to the instability that has dominated the time since Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011.  This is how the old guard has managed to establish political support when on the eve of the January 25 uprising it had none.

There is also the intimidation factor. The tourism police, who used to carry semi-automatic weapons equipped with blank clips merely to create a sense of security for foreigners, are now replaced with police with fully functional semi-automatic weapons, backed up by sandbags, blast walls, barbed wire, and the like. To be sure, these preparations are largely a response to the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters some of whom the regime accuses of conducting attacks in Cairo since former president Mohammed Morsi was ousted. But it also seems to send a clear message that organized dissent in the form of protests will not be tolerated. Even those who do have strong opinions about the verdicts fear the repercussions should they organize and go out into the streets, thereby breaking the anti-protest law. Al-Sisi also gave his implicit endorsement of the court’s decision when he telephoned Justice Minister Mahfouz Saber to express his intention not to interfere with the judicial branch’s authority, ruling out the possibility of a presidential pardon and implying that he would not accept strong opposition from the public.

This Egypt is the Egypt I knew when I lived here in 2006-2007, and again in 2009-2010. There is not the constant buzz of political chatter that I overheard everywhere during a visit in November 2012.  Where previously there would have been debate and protest, now Egyptians express only some head-shaking embarrassment when pressed for an opinion about the Al Jazeera verdicts. They once again seem to accept the worst excesses of their government in the service of stability.  This backsliding is stunning given the fervor for political change in the post-Mubarak period.

There also seem to be a lot of Egyptians who believe that the defendants Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed, are, “guilty by association” because of Egyptians’ deep suspicion of Al Jazeera more generally.  It does not matter to them whether the journalists did what they are accused of doing.  The mere fact that they work for Al Jazeera, which many Egyptians believe supports the Muslim Brotherhood in its efforts to undermine the political process and worse, makes them guilty of something deserving of long prison sentences.

Stability, familiarity, and some sense of order have all now become the priorities of Cairenes. Shop owners want to be able actually to open their doors for customers without the fear of a riot disrupting their transactions yet again; travel agencies and tour companies are nostalgic for the days when the world did not fear traveling to Egypt to see the Great Pyramids of Giza, or the countless monuments in Luxor and Abu Simbel, or to enjoy the beaches in Sharm al-Sheikh and Dahab.

Al-Sisi benefits from this reorientation of the public’s priorities. Given his military background, Egyptians reason that the new president will be able to bring stability. Even if a strong hand is successful in bringing order, it will not likely last, however.   Force will ultimately produce more instability in the country when the demands for freedom of expression and assembly that were the impetuses for the uprising in 2011 begin anew as they almost certainly will. But for the time being, it seems that Egyptians are more than happy to return to the predictability of everyday life that once was a source of discontent and frustration.