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Egypt is witnessing less freedom of expression than under Mubarak or Morsi : John R. Bradley

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Daily News Egypt interviewed Bradley to discuss Egypt’s internal political situation and its foreign affairs, ranging from human rights abuses to the recent geopolitical developments in the region.

John R. Bradley

John R. Bradley

By Huda Badri and Adham Youssef

 Since the 25 January Revolution in 2011, political unrest has held Egypt in its grip amid rapid regime changes. The ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak was followed by military rule, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ascent and ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and finally the crackdown on the Brotherhood and rise to power of current President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

As parliamentary elections are approaching, Egypt is still witnessing a volatile, unstable political and social scene, including threats of militants in the Sinai and western borders with Libya. Also, the regime has been widely criticised by different entities for using excessive force against protesters and civilians as well as launching a mass scale crackdown on political opposition.

John R. Bradley, author and internationally published journalist was one of the few Middle East experts who predicted the massive popular uprising against the Mubarak regime in his book Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution, published in 2008. The book discussed political opposition, human rights and security issues in Egypt.

Daily News Egypt interviewed Bradley to discuss Egypt’s internal political situation and its foreign affairs, ranging from human rights abuses to the recent geopolitical developments in the region.

What is your opinion about what is happening now in Egypt after three years from the 25 January Revolution?

One baby step forward, twenty giant tyrannical leaps backwards. Hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent, unarmed Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been murdered in cold blood by the military and security forces – the worst atrocity by the Egyptian state in the country’s modern history.

Even the British occupiers during colonial rule, for all their considerable and unpardonable colonial violence and oppression, were never quite that barbaric in their treatment of the Egyptian masses.

Tens of thousands of men, women and even children – Islamists and secularists alike – have been arrested on the flimsiest of charges, or on no legal basis whatsoever. They languish in Egypt’s prison cells that have once again become notorious torture chambers, and which are run by state-hired thugs who carry out their ghastly deeds with almost complete impunity.

The economy is in tatters as the oligarchy that surrounded former president Hosni Mubarak and the military establishment (that controls about 40% of the economy) reasserted their dominance. But in the real Egypt there is rampant poverty, there are almost unbelievably high crime rates, the education system is on the brink of collapse, and as a result the masses are filled with nothing but a sense of hopelessness and helplessness – to the extent that polls show a growing number wish that the so-called revolution had never happened. They have therefore taken comfort in the tried and tested: military rule.

All this is happening at a time when official censorship has never been so shamelessly and ruthlessly enforced, with the state-run print and broadcast media now so subservient to the new president that it would make one laugh if it were not such a criminal betrayal of their profession – and such an insult to their readers’ and viewers’ intelligence. One gets the feeling that even Al-Sisi, since he’s obviously an intelligent and well-educated individual, might think that such sycophancy is a bit too much.

 

Human Rights Watch stated that the Rabaa dispersal was a “crime against humanity”. What do you think of this assessment?

Of course it was a crime against humanity. But I have mixed feelings when it comes to NGOs operating in, and reporting on, the internal affairs of other countries. For a start, it all seems to be coming from one direction – as in American (often government-funded) organisations reporting on abuses in so-called third-world countries, often doing fieldwork without any official accreditation or permission from the local government. Now, if I wanted to conduct a study on human rights abuses in America – which are legion – as a British citizen I would have to apply for a special visa in order to do so. Can you imagine how Washington would react if Egypt or Russia or China suddenly established, without any official notification, dozens of NGOs across the United States in order to promote their own values and constantly highlight what they saw as abuses committed by the US government and its legendary out-of-control SWAT teams? They would do what Egypt did: shut them down and kick them out of the country.

Of course, any Egyptian author could travel to the US or Britain and write about his experience of living in the country, however critical, which is all I did when living in and writing about Egypt and what Al-Aswany did in his novel Chicago. But I don’t believe foreigners should directly engage in Egypt’s internal political affairs – which is why I turned down every one of the numerous invitations I received in the months following the revolution to speak at events in Cairo organised by local NGOs and human rights organisations.

So, yes, the massacre was a disgrace. But that would better be highlighted by Egyptian-based and Egyptian-staffed NGOs, rather than by foreign groups that have a broader agenda in doing so.

 

What is your opinion about the situation in Egypt after Al-Sisi became president?

President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is a curious figure. Unlike Mubarak and his family, Al-Sisi clearly is not personally corrupt. I mean, he is not in it for the money. He demonstrated this by voluntarily cutting his own salary and donating half of his personal wealth to the state. And he’s obviously not a tyrant in the form of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi – I really do feel that Al-Sisi is probably personally pained by all the bloodshed that has occurred under his rule. I mean, he seems to be acting in the genuine – if misguided belief that everyone his security forces are killing is a bonafide terrorist. I mean, he’s not the kind of Arab tyrant who would massacre whole sections of his population just for the perverted feeling of power it would momentarily give him.

Nor does he appear aloof and an egomaniac like Mubarak. By all accounts he listens to the advice of those who surround him, although whether it is of any use is another question; and he is fully aware – as he makes clear in his public speeches – of the desperate circumstances faced on a daily basis by the overwhelming majority of Egyptian people. He also has a big advantage in that he is from the military.

The Islamists and secularist opposition may both hate the fact that Egypt has effectively returned to military dictatorship under the veneer of democracy – almost as much as they hate each other. But there is no denying that the military establishment has massive support among ordinary Egyptians, who – in their legendary apathy when it comes to the nitty gritty of party politics – appear to support neither the secularists nor the Islamists.

That makes the probability of another revolutionary uprising in the near future – this time against Al-Sisi – very slim. It would mean the Egyptian masses directly confronting the military, and, while that cannot be ruled out, as things stand I cannot for a second imagine that happening.

Al-Sisi also understands very clearly that it takes years, perhaps decades, to establish a flourishing Western-style democracy, even if we accept (as I do not) that this a viable and worthy goal for a country like Egypt that has its own unique and complex traditions and customs. Believing the opposite was the folly of those who called for the January 25 Revolution, the Westernised elite who naively thought they could change Egypt for the better overnight by having Western-style free-and-fair elections. Well, they lost every single election, and now most of those youth leaders and intellectuals are languishing in prison or have been silenced.

Essentially, what the president is asking for is a period of stability and an end to public demonstrations and endless political infighting so he can get the country back on its feet again. He understands that most Egyptian care most not about human rights and democracy, but rather about being able to work and feed their families. What use are free-and-fair elections every six years if in the meantime your kids are starving to death?

However, there are no quick fixes in this regard, and Al-Sisi’s personal donations in the end amount only to gestures and even, however well-meaning, in many Egyptian opposition activists’ eyes, to a patronising sense of paternalism.

In the meantime, by allowing his security forces to act with such mindless brutality and by silencing all criticism of his rule – and with the strong possibility that he will fail in any significant way to alleviate in the short term the fundamental problems of unemployment and poverty – he risks undermining in the long term the good-will of those who voted for him.

After all, Egyptians have a famous saying: ila el karama! [anything but dignity] Those sycophantic advisers who surround the president, instead of telling him how much the people adore him, should whisper that saying in the president’s ear at every opportunity. It was, in my opinion, a deep sense of a lack of personal dignity that led to the initial revolution.

Don’t you think that there is a contradiction between saying that a violent crackdown took place on peaceful Muslim Brotherhood protesters, and saying that Al-Sisi stepped in to take over for the good of the country?

Of course there is a contradiction, and that’s the root of the problem for those who argue that Egypt is now a democracy.

But there is no contradiction if you subscribe to the false narrative put forward by both the military establishment and the secular/leftist elite – the latter clearly out of touch with the sentiment of the Egyptian masses from the outset.

Remember, the military was initially seen as the saviour of the January 25 Revolution, and were warmly welcomed by the Tahrir demonstrators. They saw a clear distinction between the military establishment and the Mubarak dynasty – with the latter’s vast network of incredibly brutal internal police forces. Anyway, Mubarak hadn’t been active in the military for decades. Nor did his son Gamal, who was poised to succeed Mubarak, have any links to the military.

When the secularists/leftists realised that a military counter-revolution had taken place – the generals basically sacrificed Mubarak in order to retain their own privileges and stop the country from descending into civil war – the locals joined the security forces and military on the streets in pelting the anti-military demonstrators with stones and firebombs.

Al-Sisi believes that the military is destined to have a prominent and permanent role as a force for Egyptian unity and stability, even if he claims it has no direct role in the political running of the country; and since most Egyptians see the military establishment as a force for good, and have fond memories of their time as conscripts (when they lived in an almost parallel world that was not brutal and demeaning as was Egyptian society under Mubarak), that works to Al-Sisi’s advantage.

The regime has presented the peaceful demonstrates as armed terrorists who threaten to drag Egypt into the abyss of armed civil war. In that context, from Al-Sisi’s point of view, they had to eliminate for the good of the country as a whole, and if that means suspended all civil liberties then so be it.

In your opinion, what went wrong for the Muslim Brotherhood to reach to this end?

 

The Muslim Brotherhood dug its own grave. They committed three main, inter-related mistakes, and by doing so they have no one to blame but themselves for their spectacular fall into political oblivion – and I say that despite condemning in the strongest possible terms the way its peaceful supporters have been massacred and incarcerated.

The first mistake the Muslim Brotherhood made was that they interpreted their electoral victories to mean that they had the overwhelming support of the Egyptian masses. This led them to become arrogant in the belief that they could move swiftly to impose Sharia law, in cahoots with their then Salafi allies.

But elections are complicated events, and to be legitimate they depend on a high turnout of registered voters

Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood won 70 or so percent in most of the elections. But the voter turnout was usually appallingly low – sometimes as little as 25%. Winning 70% of the 25% who turned out actually demonstrated, to anyone who looked at the figures objectively, their lack of popular support. It simply meant that they could only get about 10 to 15% of the total population to vote for them. To put it in a nut shell: the Muslim Brotherhood never managed to galvanise more than their core base, which are and always have been a very small minority of the total Egyptian population.

That is why they quickly alienated the great majority of Egyptians, who are by and large a tolerant people – an alienation that led to the June 30 uprising against them.

Egyptians cannot countenance the idea, for example, that their president would call – as Morsi did – for all able-bodied Muslims in the country to join the jihad in Syria, while creating nothing but economic catastrophe in their own country. For ordinary Egyptian Muslims, the idea of travelling to a brotherly Arab country to slaughter its religious minorities is an insane idea, pure and simple. It goes completely against their mindset and historic principle of religious coexistence. Despite what the Islamaphobes in the West say, the overwhelming majority of Egyptian Muslims do not see Christian Egyptians as inferiors, but rather as brothers and sisters in a united nation.

Incidentally, while I haven’t seen any polling data in this regard, I suspect that for this reason most Egyptians, like me, hope that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the end crushes the jihadist maniacs who now call themselves the Islamic State and want to impose what they call Islamic law – that is so strict and barbaric that even Saudi Arabia, of all countries, has now washed its hands of them.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s third mistake was to underestimate the power of what is called the “deep state” – meaning the military establishment, media moguls and the billionaire business elite. I think this so-called “deep state” would have tolerated the Muslim Brotherhood if they had not directly threatened their interests. But when it became clear that Morsi was absolutely determined to radically undermine those interests, for example by threatening to send the traditionally secular Egyptian Army into conflict alongside the jihadists against the secular Syrian regime, the “deep state” mobilised its massive resources in tandem with the masses – and that combination (of self-serving outrage amongst the elite and the acute alienation among the masses) proved fatal literally so, for thousands of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters.

insideegyptcoverSince 2008, when you published your book, what has differed when it comes to human rights?

Things are as bad as ever, if not worse. And the problem is that now the dream of Western-style democracy has gone up in smoke, the whole issue has been couched in terms of Western interference in internal Egyptian affairs – in the midst of a mindless whipping up of rank anti-foreigner hatred. The new regime has been very clever in, on the one hand, crushing internal dissent, while on the other blaming all criticism on hostile outside powers – using every last ridiculous conspiracy theory it has up its sleeve. With the local press joining in the chorus of anti-foreigner abuse, coupled with its failure (compared to under Mubarak’s rule) to try to hold the regime to account when it comes to human rights abuses or anything else, the security forces seem to have a green light to do what the hell they like.

What do you think of the vicious war taking place now in Sinai? Does the lack of media coverage concerns you?

The war in Sinai is obviously different to the so-called war on the Muslim Brotherhood. In Sinai, those fighting the regime are undeniably jihadist terrorists who murder indiscriminately and want to overthrow the current regime through violence to create a strict Islamic state.

The Egyptian government has no option but to try to eliminate every last one of them, because violence is all they understand – and, believing that God is on their side, they will not end their so-called jihad until they are either murdered, captured or achieve their goal. I think there are a number of reasons why this is not getting the international attention it deserves.

For a start, the Egyptian government will not allow journalists to work freely in the region, so how are they supposed to report on what’s going on there? It’s also a very complex situation, having its roots in a sense of alienation felt by the local Bedouin tribes. The Western media doesn’t like complicated narratives; it prefers articles that pitch goodies against baddies.

Also, there’s so much mayhem in this world at the moment and there’s only so much the Western press can focus on. So you tend to see the region reported on only when the jihadist nutcases launch attacks against foreign tourists, which obviously makes for eye-catching, sensationalist headlines in the Western press because it’s something that Westerners who holiday in Egypt can directly relate to.

With putting the status of journalists in mind, how do you see freedom of speech now in Egypt?

As I pointed out earlier, there is no freedom of expression in Egypt now in any meaningful sense of the term. Let me give a brief account of my own personal experience – not as a crude form of self promotion, but in order to justify that bold statement.

When my book Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution was published in 2008, it was initially banned by the Mubarak regime. But at the time there was a very vibrant and feisty opposition press, and they came out very strongly in my defence and against the decision to ban the book. For almost a month, my photograph and the cover of the book was featured in articles and accompanying lengthy interviews with me – in Al-Masry Al-Youm, Al-Dostour and countless other newspapers and magazines, often on the front pages.

Eventually, the Mubarak regime rescinded its ban. But it did so under pressure from the – at the time – courageous Egyptian opposition media, not from the West. And I am certain of this that because no articles appeared in Britain or America about the initial book ban – apart from a few little dispatches from AP and AFP.

Moreover, when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, a prestigious Cairo-based publishing house published an Arabic translation of Inside Egypt and, shortly afterwards, an Arabic-translation of my latest book After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts (2012) with an new introduction aimed at Arabic-language readers. After the Arab Spring is basically a ferocious polemic against the Muslim Brotherhood and everything they stand for, just as Inside Egypt has a chapter very critical of them. I call them, very frankly, fascists and hypocrites, an opinion I continue to hold.

However, the Morsi regime, for all its considerable faults, did not ban either book – indeed, After the Arab Spring received as many reviews in Egypt as had Inside Egypt, including a full-page positive feature in the state-controlled Al-Ahram (which at the time was broadly supportive of Morsi). At the time, both books were in their window displays of all the bookshops I walked past in Cairo. And I felt at ease living in Egypt at the time –as much as anyone could during the continuing mayhem – just as I had during Mubarak’s rule even during all the fuss over Inside Egypt.

Now, imagine for a moment that I was about to publish a new book about Egypt under Al-Sisi’s rule, detailing in a similarly anecdotal manner all the outrageous human rights abuses his regime has committed. As it happens, I have no plan to do so – I can’t see the point in writing more than one book on a single country. But if I was planning on doing so, do you think the Al-Sisi regime goons would hesitate for a moment before banning it, then arresting me, torturing me and sending me to one its ridiculous kangaroo courts, with accusations that I was an Israeli spy or in collusion with Islamist terrorists or some other such nonsense? And if that were to happen, the so-called opposition and independent Arabic-language newspapers – the ones that gave me their full support during the Inside Egypt hoo-haa – would, of course, do their utmost to justify the resulting nightmarish show-trial.

The point here is not about me, but to illustrate that there is less freedom of expression in Egypt these days than under either the Mubarak or the Morsi regimes – both for foreigners and locals. The fact that a writer as courageous and principled as Alaa Al-Aswany, who is an Egyptian national treasure, has taken a vow of silence tells us all we need to know about how intellectual figures are facing what could justifiably described as a fanatical assault by the idiots now in control of the Ministry of Information and their lackeys who edit the state and most of the now not-so-independent media. The latter are nothing more than what some wit has termed “presstitutes” for their equivalents in the Western media.

Some experts may argue that the “security solution” may give a rise to a new wave of extremism. Do you have any comment on that?

Al-Sisi is apparently the most popular Egyptian leader since Gamal Abdel Nasser, who with his fellow Free Officers seized power in 1952 and established the military dictatorship from which Al-Sisi hails. Like Nasser, Al-Sisi has shut down the free media, outlawed the political opposition, encouraged mindless xenophobia and banned all criticism of himself and his policies. Especially targeted, as they were during Nasser’s rule, are the Islamist critics, against whom – as we have said – he has launched a ferocious crackdown.

But Nasser’s own legacy shows that any Egyptian president puts his country’s long-term stability in grave danger by resorting to such brutal repression, especially against the Islamist minority. Nasser, you will recall, similarly suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, and the result was a jihadist blowback that began in the early 1970s and lasted three decades. Alas, most Egyptians, like Al-Sisi, appear more concerned with evoking the imagined glories of a more dignified, Nasser-dominated past, in order to forget the dismal present, than learning from this dark earlier period of Egypt’s history.

Sooner or later the Muslim Brotherhood will, once again, have to be incorporated in some form or other into the political process if stability is to be restored. Some Egyptian officials have already hinted that this could take place. Like them or loathe them, the Muslim Brotherhood have been around for a century and represent a strong if minority voice in Egyptian society.

The only alternative would be to kill or imprison them all, which is sheer madness as a political strategy. It will only encourage their supporters to join the more extremist groups.

How do you see the scene after the Arab revolutions of the Arab Spring? And what about the role the Western powers played during the last period?

The decision by the Western powers, along with its allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to train, fund and arm the jihadists fighting to topple President Al-Assad was the most insane and inexcusable imperial foreign policy blunder since the decision by Britain, France and Israel to try to take over the Suez Canal in 1956.

The idea was that the “moderate” and Western-friendly Islamists would take over Syria, thus weakening Iran and Hezbollah. This was done with the aim, firstly, of furthering the ambitions of right-wing in Israel, which obviously wants Hezbollah eradicated and at the same time sees a potentially nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to its existence; but it was also done to empower key Western ally Saudi Arabia, which – for no reason other than anti-Shi’a bigotry – wants to see Iran contained and weakened.

Well, it all backfired, the Saudis lost control of their jihadist foot soldiers, and now the Islamic State is calling not only for the destruction of Israel but the overthrow of the Saudi regime too. And, contrary to popular myth and the hopes of Washington, London and Tel Aviv, ordinary Syrians did not rise up against President Al-Assad.

So now we have a clearly defined battle line. On the one side are Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other oil monarchies, Israel, the moderate Palestinian factions and the West – all of whom have a shared interest in ensuring that the Islamic State is crushed. On the other side are Qatar, Hamas, Turkey and the Islamic State itself – all of whom are determined to back, albeit in different ways and at their own singular pace, the new so-called Caliphate.

The country everyone should be watching very closely is Saudi Arabia. I lived there for a number of years, and published a book on the country called Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis (2005). If it was in a state of crisis then, it is now ripe for a popular revolution.

If the House of Saud falls, it would mean not only unimaginable inter-tribal and sectarian bloodshed inside the Wahhabi kingdom itself, but also the Islamic State moving to take control of Mecca and Medina. So, although it almost makes one vomit to say it, one must admit that the Saudi royal family is the best option for that country, at least in the short term. Its fall would also mean the almost immediate subsequent overthrow of the ruling regimes in the Saudi client states of Bahrain (which is majority Shi’a but ruled over by a Sunni ruling family) and Jordan (whose population is mostly of Palestinian origin and where the only opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood). That would mean Iran moving into Bahrain and the Islamic State into Jordan. No one in their right mind wants either scenario to become a reality.

The fall of the House of Saud would also have terrible consequences for Egypt specifically, since it is aid from the Saudi royal family, and remittances from Egyptian expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, that is essential in the short term to keeping the Egyptian economy from total implosion.

As for the more general role of the West in all this, as you can imagine, despite all its empty talk about promoting human rights and democracy, Washington will do absolutely everything in its power to keep the Saudi king on the throne, while Western-allied Arab states will continue their pressure on Qatar to stop funding the Islamist terrorists.

And so long as Al-Sisi maintains the peace treaty with Israel, keeps the Suez Canal open, maintains close ties with Saudi Arabia and continues his “war on terror”, his regime thugs will be free to commit however many human rights abuses they want to – without fear of any serious repercussions from the West.

Some might argue that the Islamic State (IS) is a creation of the West. How reasonable is this assessment?

There’s no doubt that the Islamic State is a creation of the West. That much we can take for granted. But the real question is: was this done by design or by sheer stupidity?

Those who argue that there is a method to the West’s madness claim that it’s all part of a project to “Balkanise” the region – to use Bernard Lewis’ famous term. Their aim is to weaken strong states that are hostile to the West in order to steal their oil reserves and weaken Israel’s enemies. This has clearly been the intention of the Neocons [Neoconservatives] and Likudiks [Likud affiliated member] since the invasion of Iraq. But I really don’t think there was a well-thought out plan to create the Islamic State. Even the neocons are not that insane.

Rather, it’s yet another case of the West fooling itself into thinking that it can hire jihadists to do its dirty work for them – meaning in this case overthrowing the Syrian regime, and thus establish a “moderate” pro-Western regime in Damascus while by default weakening Iran and Hezbollah – all with the hope of keeping them onside in the long term. Obviously, they have learned nothing from the experience of Afghanistan, whose mujahadeen were armed, funded and trained by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and then moved into the West’s Enemy Number 1: the Taliban. Or, more recently, from the experience of Libya, where NATO aided the radical jihadists who turned on their Western backers within months of Gaddafi’s assassination.

So, no, I think it’s more a case of ignorance, inhumanity and wishful thinking on the part of the dimwits who run the West’s strategy in the Middle East from Washington and London than some great conspiracy to impose a mediaeval-style Caliphate that will serve their imperial interests. After all, the Islamic State serves nobody’s interest but its own.


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