The Pyramids are face-lift flawless, the grass is almost neon bright and even the air itself appears to have been retouched. This portrait of perfection, an ad introducing a “New Egypt: Peace, Prosperity & Growth,” was posted last month in Times Square.
What, exactly, is the “New Egypt”? Three very different answers appeared on three different billboards over three recent weeks.
On Sept. 24, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York. To coincide with his visit, advertisements like the one in Times Square went up across the city.
But if you look closer, the “New Egypt” in these ads is as much an illusion as Mr. Sisi’s address to the General Assembly, in which he cited a respect for human rights and a country where journalists worked and expressed themselves freely.
The reality is that since July 2013, when Mr. Sisi overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, at least 16,000 people have been jailed for their views — most for being members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime has also imprisoned secular activists, such as Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 youth movement, for an unauthorized protest, and journalists, including three from Al Jazeera who were convicted in July on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood.
Earlier this year, a judge handed down more than 1,200 death sentences in two mass trials, again mostly to those accused of being Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters. (The number of death sentences was later reduced to 277 and the judge was removed from his court after international condemnation.)
As a draconian “protest law” that went into effect last November has almost entirely eliminated street protests, university campuses have become one of the few places of opposition. Since the school year began on Oct. 11, with harsh new government-directed security forces on campuses, at least 200 students have been arrested across the country for protesting.
Much like those billboards in New York, Mr. Sisi’s trajectory from head of military intelligence to president is a political mirage being peddled by the regime and bought by its supporters, who detest the Muslim Brotherhood enough to allow themselves to be deluded into thinking that this authoritarian repression will somehow spare them. I was glad to see Mr. Morsi go, because he was more intent on a Muslim Brotherhood agenda than on fulfilling his electoral mandate of continuing the goals of our revolution. But I also adamantly oppose Mr. Sisi and the military regime that backs him.
Before Mr. Sisi’s General Assembly address, Human Rights Watch had urged the United Nations to investigate Mr. Sisi and at least nine senior security officials for their roles in the Rabaa massacre of Aug. 14, 2013, in which Egyptian security forces killed between 817 and 1,000 people while breaking up sit-ins at Rabaa and Nahda Squares in Cairo. The majority of those killed were supporters of Mr. Morsi. In a special report, Human Rights Watch called it one of the worst incidents of mass killings of demonstrators in recent history.
Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story On the same day that Mr. Sisi was selling the world a shiny, prosperous “New Egypt,” Farag Rizk, 48, hanged himself from a billboard overlooking a busy highway just outside Cairo. Suicide is a huge taboo in Egypt, a majority Muslim country where taking one’s life is considered a grave sin. A picture of Mr. Rizk’s limp body hanging from the billboard was circulated widely on social media, and even the state-run media reported on his suicide.
That Mr. Rizk chose such a public place to end his life forced many to see an Egypt they preferred to ignore and deny — one in which the anguish of poverty could force a man to die alone, swinging from a billboard. Mr. Rizk was a driver whose request for a raise was denied, leaving him unable to afford his children’s school fees.
On Oct. 3, more billboards drew eyes to yet another silenced Egypt. On the eve of the Eid festivities marking the culmination of the hajj — the annual Muslim pilgrimage — posters appeared along two busy streets in the upper-middle-class Cairo neighborhoods of Dokki and Mohandi. They bore the smiling faces of young political detainees, some jailed for peacefully violating the protest law, others still awaiting trial and others in detention without charge. Several are on hunger strike. The pictures were a reminder out in public — rather than just on social media, where the photos are widely shared — that these young men and women have been punished for simply asserting their right to that same public space. These Eid posters humanized the political prisoner, derided by the pro-regime media as a troublemaker or, if he or she belonged to or sometimes even just defended the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist.
I live in Cairo, but I was traveling during Eid. The day the posters first appeared, I woke up to a Twitter timeline full of the photos, along with excitement over the creative way they had brought back dissent to the public realm.
The posters are also a reminder of women’s role in Egypt’s uprising, even though the names of male activists have been much more commonly known. The faces included women such as the activist Sanaa Seif, 20, and the human rights defender Yara Sallam, 28, among a group of activists awaiting trial for violating the protest law.
Egypt barely registers on international news outlets these days. The galvanizing photographs and videos of hundreds of thousands facing off with security forces are gone. But almost four years after those mesmerizing scenes from Tahrir Square, these three different billboards tell the story of the dissent and unrest that still seethe beneath the surface.