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A not so good omen

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Basil El-Dabh

Basil El-Dabh

Music is a powerful means to stimulate the memory. Certain songs take me back to specific moments in my childhood, university years, and adulthood.

The song Bushrat Kheir (“Good Omen”), recently released by Emirati singer Hussain Al-Jasmi for Egyptians in celebration of these presidential elections, will always remind me of Monday and Tuesday of this week.

In every Cairo and Giza neighbourhood I visited, the song was blasted from street corners, polling stations, and shops, often accompanied by the sight of Egyptians dancing and celebrating. The name of the song gets its name from the end of its refrain that says:

“You’re writing tomorrow on your terms,

This is a good omen.”

For some Egyptians, the second presidential election in three years is a good omen. Ever since he ousted former president Mohamed Morsi, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has won the support of many and these elections are essentially a formality before he becomes the country’s next president.

 

Voters I spoke to in front of polling stations seemed sincerely excited. “Sisi saved Egypt,” a woman in Shubra repeated to me on Monday. I was told by others about how Al-Sisi would solve all of Egypt’s deeply rooted problems, how he was going to revive education, and how he was going to rid the country of terrorism once and for all.

But, as everyone following developments in Egypt knows, these presidential elections and the impending result aren’t a “good omen” for everyone. As Minister of Defence, Al-Sisi oversaw one of the most far-reaching political crackdowns in Egypt’s modern history. And although the government has vowed to wage its “war on terrorism”, the target and scope of those affected has expanded dramatically.

Al-Sisi’s election isn’t a good omen for a free press. Al-Jazeera correspondent Abdullah Al-Shamy, who was arrested at Rabaa Al-Adaweya more than nine months ago and has been hunger striking for more than 100 days of them, remains in detention without charge. Three others, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed, and Peter Greste are currently standing trial on a slough of terror-related charges. During his campaign Al-Sisi did not have much to say other than the press’ role should be rallying the public behind a “strategic goal of preserving the Egyptian state”. Other journalists also remain in detention, as two members of the Rassd News Network stand military trial on charges connected to a series of audio and video footage leaked by the network of Al-Sisi making statements about various subjects. They are being charged with illegally “obtaining military secrets”.

Al-Sisi’s election is not a good omen for a civil state. The former defence minister has clearly denied that the military’s budget should have complete civilian oversight and much of his rhetoric has embraced the culture of an untouchable military institution with the privileges and prerogatives it has enjoyed for generations.

Al-Sisi’s election is not a good omen for political dissidents, many who are in jail now. An independent count put the tally of arrests since Morsi’s ouster at 41,162 with an overwhelming majority for political activity under the guise of the banner of ”fighting terrorism” that Al-Sisi erected last July and continues to be an important aspect of the security apparatus’ narrative for suppressing dissent. Al-Sisi was given the opportunity to address the Protest Law, which has been used to detain peaceful demonstrators. However, instead he elected to warn Egyptians of the dangers of “irresponsible protests”.

Al-Sisi’s election is not a good omen for marginalised members of society, who will continue to face problems under a leader who deny that such problems exist. An integral part of Al-Sisi’s campaigning before elections dealt with women’s issues, often using the patriarchal tone that has become the norm, saying in an interview that all Egyptian women would be “his daughters”. When asked about possible discrimination in the army against Egypt’s Christians, Al-Sisi denied that such a problem exists, despite the fact that none of the 23 members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are Christian, and very few exist among the entire institution’s leadership.

And finally, Al-Sisi’s election is not a good omen for stability. The cornerstone of Al-Sisi’s campaign promises capitalises on Egyptians’ desire and need for stability.  Most of the people I talked to outside polling stations made reference to the field marshal’s military background when discussing hopes of stabilising the country. However, the last year has made it clear that for Al-Sisi and others in the security establishment, stability is achieved through eliminating opponents, rather than seeking reconciliation or uniting with those at odds with post-30 June Egypt.  The way in which the law has persecuted certain protesters and political opposition does not bode well for a future Egypt in which stability comes to fruition through plurality and diversity. As more are pushed to the margins of political sphere and society, the more likely they are to find ways of expressing opposition in a way that undermines stability.

Looking for good omens is a must in Egypt. It’s a critical coping mechanism we’ve employed through three years of disappointment and heartbreak. I recognised that when I spoke to unemployed dancing voters in Cairo’s working class neighbourhoods or even middle and upper class voters who want to live in a safe and stable country. But until all members of Egyptian society truly have an opportunity to determine tomorrow on their own terms, there are no good omens.

Basil El-Dabh is The Daily News Egypt’s politics editor. [email protected]


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