"Egyptians fear for their security"

The Egyptian intellectual Amr Hamzawy accuses both secular groups and Islamists of betraying the ideals of the 2011 democracy movement, but does not believe the current situation will trigger a new revolution. Daniel Steinvorth spoke to him

By Daniel Steinvorth

Mr Hamzawy, five years after the Revolution, Egypt's military dictatorship has effectively been restored. At the same time, the regime of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi evidently enjoys widespread support. Have Egyptians lost interest in political experiments and is this why they accept these authoritarian conditions?

Amr Hamzawy: Firstly, it must be said that the widespread support enjoyed by Sisi after the military putsch of 2013 no longer exists. This was evident from voter participation in the last parliamentary elections: it was just 25 percent, half the level it was in 2011. Secondly, last year there were more than a thousand smaller protest rallies involving students, labourers and civil servants. Dissatisfaction with the regime has grown. On the other hand, the fragile situation in the region and the terrorist threat at home is held up to Egyptians every day. They have it drummed into them: do you want conditions comparable to those in Iraq, Syria, Yemen or Libya? State media call on people to thank God that he has given them a ruler like Sisi in this situation.

What's the official view today of the 2011 Revolution?

Hamzawy: Egyptians are encouraged to believe that the political experiments after 2011 were no good for the country and that, in the end, only the military can guarantee more work, food and security.  At the same time, the people are told that only those who give their unconditional support to the president can be true patriots. The saviour of the nation is the saviour in uniform. This logic has been part and parcel of the political culture in Egypt since the 1950s. Anyone who questions it is defamed.

Just like you were . . .?

Hamzawy: I wasn't allowed to leave the country for a year. After 2013 there were several defamation campaigns against me when I called for a process to deal with the human rights violations of the regime. It was no longer possible for me to be politically active or to speak openly. That's why I'm currently living in US exile, in Stanford. And the same applies to many others. Most critical voices are outside the country.

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi election poster in Cairo (photo: Arian Fariborz)
The saviour of the nation is the saviour in uniform: "Egyptians are encouraged to believe that the political experiments after 2011 were no good for the country and that, in the end, only the military can guarantee more work, food and security", writes Amr Hamzawy

In hindsight: why did the uprising for "bread, freedom and dignity" fail? And what, in your view, were the biggest errors made by the democracy movement?

Hamzawy: The political actors at the time made many mistakes, which they have yet to process. One was that between 2011 and 2013, far too much time was devoted to identity campaigns that most Egyptians couldn't understand. They wondered: what do debates on Islamism and secularism have to do with our daily lives? The concept of democracy and change lost its credibility with the people as a result of this ideological trench warfare. The secular, left wing and liberal forces appealed to the military to engage in politics again because they did not agree with the Muslim Brotherhood. So democracy was undermined in a bid to get rid of the Islamists. The Islamists, for their part, also made plenty of mistakes during their short time in office. They tried to impose their will against all opposition and they conducted a highly aggressive discourse on issues concerning the Copts and other minorities. It is no surprise that the Copts are now Sisi's most fervent supporters.

Did the Muslim Brotherhood not also betray the democracy movement by trying come to an arrangement with the old elites?

Hamzawy: Yes, just as many left wingers and liberals were certainly prepared to co-operate with the Islamists in 2011 to develop a democratic order. There was a one-off window of opportunity for democracy; also because the old elites didn't intervene initially. But the Muslim Brothers, once they had secured power, were obsessed with their idea of an Islamist state and social order and listened less to their partners in the left wing and liberal camp than to the Salafists. This marked the start of a style of identity politics in which everything revolved around sharia and every election was seen as a battle for religion. The Muslim Brothers did come to power by democratic means. But then they wanted to come to an arrangement with the business and finance elites, the military and security apparatus, just as Mubarak did, instead of insisting on reforms to the security apparatus. That was their second betrayal of the democracy movement.

. . . which resulted in the putsch of 2013.

Hamzawy: I was one of those who wanted to give the elected President Morsi a chance. But when it was clear that he was drifting further and further to the right, excluding all former partners in the secular camp and at the same time ingratiating himself with the military, that was a bad sign. Hatred of the Islamists grew in the secular camp, which then also turned to the military for support. But of course it was wrong to assume that the military would simply dismiss Morsi and return to their barracks. In the same way, it was underestimated what signal this would send out to the people: basically that the left wingers and the liberals weren't strong enough to change anything themselves, and that they were also essentially reliant upon the military.

Poster of Morsi in front of a barbed wire fence erected by the military in Cairo (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Elfiq)
Politically sidelined and repressed: in June 2012 Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi was elected president; one year later he was toppled by Sisi. Since then the latter has ruled Egypt with an iron fist. More than 1,400 Morsi supporters have been killed. Tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been arrested, with hundreds condemned to death, including Morsi himself

Many Sisi supporters relativise the repression of the regime today by citing the Morsi era and the threat they say is still presented by the Muslim Brothers.

Now we are in the grip of an outbreak of mass hysteria. The climax came in the summer of 2013, when the Rabaa sit-in was brutally crushed, killing up to one thousand Egyptians. How did large sections of the population react? They applauded! The regime had successfully dehumanised the Islamists, along the lines of: these are no longer human beings, so they can also be eliminated. I'm still shocked at the silence over Rabaa and how current levels of repression are accepted. This cannot be justified by referring to the Morsi era, because when Morsi was in power there wasn't anything like the level of human rights violations that we're seeing at the moment.

Do you think this is the end of the road for the Muslim Brotherhood, or does the movement still have a political role to play in Egypt at some point in the future?

Hamzawy: The last two years were probably the worst in its history – even compared to the 1950s. Its leaders and thousands of its members are now in either in detention, dead or in exile. The movement as a whole is confused and directionless, while several groups on the periphery have begun using violent tactics. Its discourse is barely distinguishable from that of Islamic State (IS): in it, state representatives are described as infidels and the state structure as a whole as un-Islamic. At the same time, to this day the Brotherhood refuses to work through its own errors and to understand and analyse the fears of its opponents. If it doesn't conduct this debate, it will continue to remain directionless. And in the meantime the process of radicalisation forges ahead, but what do you expect when the prisons are full to bursting and when we constantly hear new reports of torture and extra-judicial killings?

If you agree with me that the conditions that initially lead to the popular uprising in 2011 are still the same: is a new revolution conceivable?

Hamzawy: I'm inclined to think that a major period of upheaval in the history of a nation will not be repeated.  But the situation that triggered it in Egypt is similar or even worse: the serious human rights violations, the bleak social perspectives, the huge gap between rich and poor, the corruption.  The difference is that in 2011, people were not afraid to take to the streets. Opposition figures were also more credible back then. It's a very different picture today. The Egyptians fear for their security, on a regional level too. This prevents them from taking to the streets. But if the Sisi regime doesn't manage to introduce reforms and create social justice, then it won't be able to retain power in the long-term.

Daniel Steinvorth

© Neue Zuricher Zeitung 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Amr Hamzawy, who was born in 1967, is one of Egypt's best-known pro-democracy figures. During the 2011 Revolution, the journalist and human rights activist was appointed to the "Council of Wise Men", which mediated between the protest movement and the government. In the same year, he was directly elected to parliament as the only liberal deputy. He was critical of the toppling of President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, after which he fell from grace in Egypt. The political scientist now lectures at Stanford University in California