The paranoid, authoritarian regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has turned the cultural capital of the Middle East into Brezhnev’s Moscow.
- By Rula JebrealRula Jebreal is a journalist and foreign-policy analyst.
This week, dozens of Middle Eastern artists and performers are being welcomed and celebrated at Bill T. Jones’s renowned annual Live Ideas event. This year’s festival, titled “MENA/Future — Cultural Transformations in the Middle East North Africa Region,” is focused on cultural transformations in the region and features films, lectures, panels, and community dialogues with MENA artists, addressing ideas and ideals through the lens of culture, all in an effort to forge a third way forward, in a world engulfed by terror and tyranny.
On Monday night, I had the privilege to co-host the opening keynote event of the festival with the Arab world’s most recognized comedian, Bassem Youssef, a.k.a. “Egypt’s own Jon Stewart.” Sadly, Egyptians no longer can enjoy Youssef’s work — or many of these other national treasures — in their own country. If you are an artist or intellectual in Egypt, your choices are stark: Give up your creative freedom, or be forced into exile by the vicious authoritarian regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose government murders, imprisons, and intimidates would-be critics into collective silence.
The Sisi regime’s systematic destruction of Egypt’s cosmopolitan cultural vitality has resulted in an epic, generational loss. Cairo has historically been the cultural capital of the Arab world. It is home to one of the world’s oldest opera houses and, since the 1920s, has been the Hollywood of Arab cinema, responsible for more than half of all Arabic-language movies ever made. The first Arab Nobel literature laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, was a lifelong Cairene. The director Youssef Chahine has been hailed as a giant of world cinema; the songs of Umm Kulthum have brought tears to the eyes of people across the Arab world for the best part of a century.
Millions of Arabs watch Egyptian movies, listen to Egyptian music, read Egyptian novelists, and laugh at Egyptian comedians. Cairo once served as a magnet for writers, artists, scholars, and students from across the region. For creatives, Cairo was the New York City of the Arab world: If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.
As a center of culture today, Sisi’s Cairo is more like Brezhnev’s Moscow. The intellectuals are dead, in prison, or have been forced into exile. So pervasive is the fear of arbitrary imprisonment among artists, journalists, and writers that many are terrified to do their jobs. The state’s crackdown on anything it deems to be dissenting from official narratives has left scholars fearful of conducting research.
Today, thousands of activists, critics, opponents, and bloggers are in hiding, dead, or languishing in jails overflowing with up to 60,000 political prisoners.
The fact that Youssef and others have to perform in New York as exiles rather than ambassadors of a thriving democratic culture — as they were in 2011 when they were central to the rebellion that brought down President Hosni Mubarak — is a sign of the defeat of Egypt’s revolution by a regime that manages almost paradoxically to be at once more barbaric and more technologically sophisticated than Mubarak’s had been.
The regime’s surveillance technology also appears to have been used to smear activists and critics on other media platforms. The private conversations and phone calls of activists, believed to have been collected by state security agencies, have been aired on the pro-regime TV show Black Box by self-described “Islamist specialist” Abdel Rahim Ali. Adding insult to injury, Ali was recently elected to the newly reformed Egyptian Parliament. Another TV host, Ahmed Moussa, recently aired images which allegedly depict celebrated film director and MP Khaled Youssef having sex with a woman — a move which outraged Egyptian journalists and led the country’s Journalists’ Syndicate to investigate disciplinary action against Moussa. Ironically, it’s these shows that have taken the place of the popular political satire — such as Youssef’s show — that the regime believed so threatening that they forced their removal.
The Egyptian revolution of 2011 was accompanied by a wave of youthful techno-optimism. Here was a new generation of Egyptians, instantly and intimately connected to their peers throughout the country, the region, and the world by social media and messaging platforms on mobile phones — a real-time electronic solidarity that seemed to offer the foundational tools of revolution and democracy. These new technologies helped Egyptian civil society bypass the state’s control of information through official media and allowed activists to organize demonstrations that eluded the clumsy repression of a police state whose methods had been honed a half-century earlier.
By negating the state’s monopoly on the control of information and communication, the Internet had threatened the stability of tyranny. It allowed public discussion of police brutality and eroded the impunity of the perpetrators; it created a platform for previously unthinkable public discussion among Egyptians on the need for political reform.
The power of Egypt’s Internet-enabled democratic movement reached its peak in the rebellion of 2011, when its dreams of achieving freedom, equality, and dignity through nonviolent change brought millions to the streets. The electronic town square that the activists had constituted via social media suddenly took a physical form on Tahrir Square, and the world was inspired and enrapt as young Egyptians faced down decades of authoritarian corruption and abuse, and took their future into their own hands.
The revolution was ultimately crushed, its democratic promise drowned in blood by the Sisi coup two years later. But its brief, yet profound disruption of tyranny’s tranquility has alerted police states across the Middle East to the dangers posed by the free flow of information on social media — and to the possibilities of turning the latest American and even Israeli technology (for which they are now eager customers) into the service of repression.
Five years on, the techno-optimism of the Arab Spring has given way to techno-despotism, as social media and communication technologies have been turned into tools of repression.
In the weeks before this year’s fifth anniversary of Egypt’s Jan. 25 revolution, Egyptian security services raided cultural venues and arrested 47 administrators of Facebook groups. The new government had clearly learned from the mistakes of the Mubarak regime, whose ineffective response to the first “Day of Rage” Friday in early 2011 had been to shut down all Internet and mobile-phone communications. By then, it had been too late to stop the mounting protest wave.
Egypt’s new securocrats prefer to leave the Internet up and running: You don’t have to kill it if you can control it. Social media, messaging platforms, and mobile devices, in the hands of a technologically literate autocrat, are tools of surveillance. Not only does this surveillance system, which includes the collection of every Egyptian’s bulk data, enforce the regime’s draconian anti-protest law, but it also recently resulted in a 21-year-old conscript and law student being sentenced to three years in prison for simply posting a picture of Sisi wearing a Mickey Mouse hat.
The past five years of Arab counter-revolution have given us “a potent example of resurgent authoritarianism in cyberspace,” writes professor Ronald Deibert of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. The surveillance technology in which Sisi’s regime is investing is designed to monitor and intimidate its own citizenry, re-establishing and expanding a climate of fear and extreme repression to suppress all dissent. The regime has reason to fear its citizenry: Sisi cannot deliver an economic revival that will reverse the poverty and despair that set the tinder for the 2011 revolution; his regime remains dependent on handouts from Gulf monarchies whose own riches are being squeezed by falling oil prices. And while it may have violently crushed the Muslim Brotherhood as an organized presence, history has shown that it’s not that easy to simply eliminate a political current whose candidates won the most recent democratic elections. The threat of more militant Islamist activity is growing.
In response, Sisi has been far more aggressive than Mubarak ever was in stamping out any sign of open dissent. Under his iron grip, the disappearance of suspected dissidents has become commonplace, and the murder and detention of journalists has reached alarming levels. The Committee to Project Journalists now ranks Egypt second only to China when it comes to imprisoned journalists.
The regime’s paranoid tactics are not confined within the country’s borders. Egyptian diplomatic missions and embassies around the world are reporting back to the authorities on activists abroad, effectively turning professional diplomats into spies. When Atef Botros, an Egyptian-German researcher and founder of the NGO Mayadin al-Tahrir, was recently banned from entering Egypt, authorities cited information furnished by the Egyptian Embassy in Berlin. So, too, was the evidence used to detain journalist and researcher Ismail Alexandrani.
It is tempting to compare Sisi’s Egypt to the communist dictatorship of the old Soviet Union, except that in this case, an increasingly totalitarian state actually enjoys the backing of the United States and other Western powers in the name of protecting liberty against extremism.
Far from protecting Egypt or the rest of the world from the likes of the Islamic State, Sisi’s methods all but guarantee that the terrorist threat continues to grow. Some of the young revolutionaries who went to Tahrir Square armed only with their passion and their ideas have since concluded that there is no peaceful path to ending tyranny in Egypt. An extreme example would be Ahmed al-Darawi, who as an activist had campaigned for the liberal reformer Mohamed ElBaradei’s presidential run — and who subsequently joined the Islamic State in the wake of Sisi’s crackdown.
There will be thousands more like him. The Sisi regime’s systematic elimination of all democratic and nonviolent avenues of opposing political expression simply ensures that any future revolutionary wave will play out very differently to the optimistic, largely peaceful protest movement that enthralled the world at Tahrir Square.
Thus, the tragic backdrop to this week’s festival. While New York’s artist community celebrates Egyptian artists, the U.S. government continues to fund and arm the Sisi regime, whose aggressive trampling of human rights makes it impossible for those same Egyptian artists to express themselves at home. And here’s the sad irony: Even with this extreme suppression, Sisi’s regime can’t offer the security and stability his Western backers expect.
Shakespeare might have noted that there’s something rotten in the state of Egypt. Kudos, then, to Bill T. Jones for recognizing that it is the duty of artists and intellectuals in the United States and in Egypt to help one another, and their countries, imagine that a different future is possible, and ensure that the flickering flame of freedom burns brighter.
Photo credit: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images