Egypt seems to be headed back toward the 1960s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser set a precedent for the whole Arab world by creating a police state that brutally suppressed dissidents and instilled fear among its citizens.
Last week, on what seemed a calm Tuesday afternoon, I witnessed firsthand what it means to live in a hypernationalist atmosphere where ordinary citizens, encouraged by the state and allied media, snitch on fellow Egyptians.
I was sitting at a Cairo café with my sister and Le Monde Diplomatique’s editor, Alain Gresh, discussing the situation in Egypt when another customer at the café got up and yelled at us: “You are ruining the country!” We tried to ignore her. But we didn’t realize that she had reported to police officers outside that a foreigner and two Egyptian ladies were plotting against Egypt.
Once we finished our meeting and left the café, located near the American and British embassies, we were stopped by a security officer who immediately took our ID cards and Mr. Gresh’s French passport and began to interrogate us, asking Mr. Gresh why he was in Egypt and asking me how and why I got to know a French journalist.
He told me that they found out, through eavesdropping on us, that I write for an Egyptian newspaper. They also gleaned that I hold a bachelor’s degree in political science, as if it was evidence of seditious activity.
While I was kept under de facto arrest for two hours, I recalled my meeting with a Syrian friend at a café in Damascus back in 2008. I started talking casually about politics when, to my surprise, he quickly stopped me and whispered that the waitress could report us to the Syrian police. Only then did I realize how bad the situation in Syria was, and how we had a margin of openness in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt by comparison. Although I would have probably ended up in jail if found in a similar situation in Syria, I see Egypt now heading in the same direction. I never imagined that we would reach such a point just three years after overthrowing Mr. Mubarak.
We all should have seen this coming. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former defense minister who toppled Mohamed Morsi amid popular protests against the Muslim Brotherhood, has been repeatedly warning citizens against a “conspiracy” to bring down Egypt. Several Al Jazeera journalists have been jailed for months. Media outlets owned by pro-Sisi businessmen have systematically instilled in Egyptians a fear of anyone who dares to criticize the status quo or question the performance of the government and the security apparatuses. “Support the state and refrain from criticizing it, or else Egypt will descend into the fate of Syria, Libya or Iraq.” So we’re told.
This is worse than the situation under Mr. Mubarak, when only state-owned media adopted an unwaveringly pro-government editorial policy whereas privately owned media were more open to diverse views. Now the ruling elite seems less confident of its ability to withstand criticism.
Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story The space for freedom of expression that used to exist is narrowing. At first, shortly after Mr. Morsi’s ouster, pro-Muslim Brotherhood TV stations were suspended and Islamists were essentially banned from appearing on state-run and private Egyptian channels.
Over the months, non-Islamist and liberal voices also started to disappear, and it became evident that critical voices of every kind were no longer welcome. A famous case in point was the halt of satirist Bassem Youssef’s Egyptian version of “The Daily Show” (perhaps more due to pressure to self-censor than an overt shutdown).
More recently, after militants killed 30 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula, the editors of 17 private and state-owned media outlets issued a joint statement vowing to combat “the infiltration of elements supporting terrorism into the press.” In effect, anyone casting doubt on the competence of the government, the Interior Ministry or the armed forces is automatically considered a supporter of terrorism. This message is widely believed by many Egyptians who are desperately supporting a repressive state in the hope of avoiding the destiny of the country’s turbulent neighbors.
And so we are regressing to the 1960s, when sons and daughters were known to call the police on their parents.
The woman who informed on us looked like any average Egyptian woman — like my mother or my neighbors. She was upper middle class, appeared to be in her 50s, and was wearing a head scarf like me and my sister.
She sounded angry and sincere. I’ve seen many like her in the past months, even in my own circle — ordinary people who really believe they are serving their country by doubting the loyalty of fellow citizens. It doesn’t matter what they look like or which socioeconomic class they belong to. They could be men or women, secularist or anti-secularist. Divisions are so deep that those with opposing views are finding it more and more difficult to challenge mainstream opinion. And why not if the politicians and prominent TV hosts whom they trust repeatedly incite against “traitors” who plot with “foreign players” against the Egyptian state and the army.
After Mr. Gresh contacted the French Embassy and the head of the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate, one of the security personnel interrogating him received a call. He then assured the caller that Mr. Gresh would be given his passport and allowed to go. Luckily for me and my sister, our companion insisted on staying until he saw us released, too. After much defiance, the officers gave us back our IDs and let us go abruptly.
One can assume that whoever called them from the government feared a scandal going viral in international media about a French editor being held and interrogated for no reason. This is probably why Mr. Gresh was later contacted by the Interior Ministry and asked to go meet the ministry’s top human rights official, who apologized to him for what happened. After all, the Sisi government is savvy about wanting to keep foreign press reasonably onside, while chilling domestic reporting.
Little do Mr. Sisi and his worshipers know that crackdowns on freedom of expression haven’t protected authoritarian states in the past and they will not make today’s Egypt more secure