When Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi is just a blip on history’s radar, discerning eyes will look back on this week as revelatory of the current polemic. Both the soul crushing murder of Regeni and the explosive gathering of the Doctors’ Syndicate in protest of Ministry of Interior abuses come at a crucial juncture in Egypt’s rule.
These two events divulge details of a regime, a ruler and a deep state who are a combustible mixture of naïveté, arrogance, and a lack of strategic depth perception. Interestingly, Sisi and the Cant Shoot Straight Gang are in a catch 22. These two highly revealing face-offs are virtually guaranteed to be lose-lose propositions for a man in such desperate need of a win. By crossing red lines with astonishing consistency, Sisi’s regime is writing its political obituary.
Arrogance habitually overrides logic. This is how impunity is born, and it is precisely why Egypt’s security forces are consistently teetering on the edge of red lines. Whether via judicial decisions doling out life in prison, death sentences by the hundreds or eviscerating hundreds of lives, the Sisi regime has been consistent in tightening the noose around its own neck. Yet the regime has survived for nearly 30 months. Falsely, this gives the impression that Sisi is untouchable. Yet popular support is only a mirage when you control public discourse through various media. There is no escaping political reality as each misstep weakens the hold on power. This week there were two gruesome faux pas.
The first ill judgement cost a precious life. A young, brilliant man with a Cambridge education came to complete his journey in a nation that piqued his intellectual interest at a dangerous time and paid with his life. Under no circumstance should an interest in the labour movement of a nation cost one’s life. But, in a nation where conspiracy theories resonate across every social strata and most prominently at the security level, that irrationality likely cost Regeni his life. Security services who arrested Regeni, asserted the New York Times and other reputable sources, did not believe Regeni was a mere graduate student. In their minds ‘’they figured he was a spy,’’ an Egyptian security official explained to the Times, ‘’after all who comes to Egypt to study trade unions?’’ But the Ministry of Interior, which has made a most vicious comeback since it was taught a lesson by the people during the 25 January Revolution, does not care. There are no breaks because its officers realise Sisi desperately needs the muscle, now more than ever.
There was nothing haphazard about the police’s decision to stop Giulio. He had been followed since, at least, December when he was photographed while attending ‘’an independent union gathering’’ by an unknown man. On 25 January, Regeni disappeared after being stopped by two plain-clothes men who searched his bag, phone and passport. What cinches his arrest are phone contacts that include ‘’people associated with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the leftist 6 April Youth Movement’’. To the security mind, these groups are terrorists and to associate with them is equally to partake in terror. The Times, as well as sources who spoke to this writer, both indicate that the confidence with which Regeni answered, in the minds of an arrogant security officer used to being in control, sealed his fate. Wonder what they were expecting? For Regeni to welcome them with a hug as they kidnap and murder him?
When Giulio resurfaced days later, after pressure from the Italian embassy, there were signs of ‘’seven broken ribs,[…]electrocution on his penis,[…]cuts from a sharp instrument (likely a razor multiple sources confirmed), […] injuries all over his body, abrasions and bruises[…] from being kicked and punched’’. No Egyptian, pro-Sisi or not, needs to be told that these are the hallmarks of torture by police and the National State Security Apparatus. What happened to Giulio has happened, no less tragically, to countless Egyptians. But Regeni was a foreigner, a red line state security virtually never crosses. Italian pressure is shining an embarrassing and unceasing light on Egyptian security brutality as well as Italian hypocrisy.
When Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi attended a major economic conference meant to energise the Sisi presidency, it is doubtless he was well aware of his counterpart’s draconian calling card. However, where the needs of the state arise, the rights of individuals fall by the wallside, particularly those of Egyptians. When the victim is Italian, Renzi’s tone naturally changed and Italy’s friendship with Egypt became contingent on the emergence of truth regarding the brutal murder, said the PM on Friday.
Indeed, the addition of independent Italian investigators on Egyptian soil is sure to uncover truths the Egyptian state would much rather see evaporate without the attendant scrutiny that their unveiling will provoke.
Damage to the Sisi regime is also being done by security forces domestically. Weeks ago, when several police officers marched into a hospital in Matariya, a Cairo suburb, demanding stitches for a policeman who didn’t require them, the situation quickly spiralled out of control, according to the doctors. Two doctors were alleged to have been assaulted. And the medical profession responded with thousands of doctors pouring into central Cairo streets for a general meeting of the Doctors’ Syndicate. That such a gathering could be uncovers the tip of an iceberg that may, ultimately, puncture the Sisi bubble. Police have, by most accounts, outpaced the abuses of the Mubarak era. Police have developed a case of intentional amnesia: police abuses were one of the chief causes of the Egyptian revolution. So when the same precinct responsible for killing 14 Egyptians over 2 years is responsible for the fiasco at the hospital, there is no accident. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights (EIPR) called the support the doctors received “a reflection of the level of police abuse of authority.’’
Rather than bend to the winds of anger of a powerful union, the government continues to shoot itself in the foot. Days before the syndicate meeting, several officers from Matariya police station were arrested. However, 36 hours later, they were released based on job recognisance. In a nation that has seen thousands arrested and held in remand for over 36 months for far less, this risked and did engender anger. The result? Thousands in the street, destabilising a regime continuing to haemorrhage popular support, and a hashtag of Support the Doctors’ Union that dominated social media channels internationally for hours. Lessons learned from 25 January? Apparently not. Still operating with the mentality of the 1960’s, when computers weighed as much as a car, the regime continuously underestimates the power of social media to galvanise popular opinion. This writer, an avid observer of the political power of Twitter in Egyptian circles, witnessed many pro Sisi Egyptians yesterday issuing their support for the Doctors’ Syndicate.
A group of organised, intelligent professionals politically embarrassed a government far less aware of the dynamics of political theatre in 2016. Ultimately, the upcoming week will require what Sisi has yet to show: a firm but just hand. Sisi could bow to law and the doctors’ demands for punishment of the guilty. Punish the guilty and he may appear to be backing down; remain stubborn and he risks a partial national strike by doctors. Lose-lose. Sisi is betting, and against the casino at that, that the seeds of fear planted will carry the day. He will learn: gambling and politics don’t mix well.
Nearly three years before the uprising of 2011, labour unions faced off with Egyptian security in Mahla, Egypt’s textile centre. It was perceived, correctly, as a warning shot and later understood to be a long-term cause of revolution. Friday may prove to be as significant. For thousands to chant ‘’the Ministry of Interior are thugs’’ in central Cairo is not a moment lost on many.
It was a warning shot.
With history as a guide, the state will likely remain violent, blind, and deaf when it comes to these grievances. Lessons have not been learned.
They will learn the hard way.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr