The Deceptions that Plague the Public Sphere in Egypt

Within the public sphere in Egypt today, some leftists and liberals among the intellectual, cultural, media, and party elites have begun to raise their voices in condemnation of state violence leveled against Egyptian citizens. These voices have begun to reject abuses of rights and freedoms, including violations of the sacrosanct right to life.  They have also begun to criticize the orientations and actions of the undemocratic system of rule in Egypt, which – regrettably – continues to expand its sphere of control. Repressive measures are employed by this system of rule not only to target opposition members and groups but also to clamp down on entire segments of the population, such as youth, students, and independent workers’ movements. Through such measures, those who hold power in Egypt seek to entirely exclude these groups from the public sphere as long as they refuse to conform to the “official will” expressed by the state. 

The established system of rule in Egypt further seeks to impede rule of law, preferring instead to impose collective punishment on civil society organizations, such as human rights groups, and other non-governmental organizations, as well as associations of soccer fans, and other groups.  Those in power then justify the harassment and punishment of these organizations through continual propaganda that relies on conspiracy theories and a public discourse of hysteria in order to defame, demonize, and label as traitors those who are not acceptable to the government, and who thus fall outside of its protection.  This is facilitated by the elimination of the crucial distinction between those who peacefully oppose the established system of rule and those who employ violence and resort to terrorism, killing citizens, and undermining Egyptian society and the nationalist state as a result.

Several layers of deception, however, underlie these leftist and liberal voices that have begun to denounce, reject, and criticize what is happening in Egypt today, and this deception undermines the moral credibility and societal efficacy of their message.  Indeed, these leftist and liberal voices are the same voices that have long failed to speak out against the exercise of state violence against Egyptians and the perpetration of catastrophic abuses of rights and freedoms, including the sacrosanct right to life. Since the summer of 2013, these voices have remained silent about the repression and harassment carried out by the Egyptian security sector against certain segments of the religious right. At times, this repression and harassment has arbitrarily been wielded against other segments of Egyptian society as well.  Egyptians have fallen victim to violence and abuse not only during the dispersal of sit-ins and marches, but also in the context of other crimes committed by state officials, such as in the case of the killing of thirty-seven detainees who were gassed inside a police van outside of the Abu Zaabal prison in August 2013.

Since the summer of 2013, these voices have failed to swiftly and publicly demand that state institutions and bodies completely adhere to the principles of justice and rule of law when employing military and security tactics to confront groups that espouse violence and terrorism. Nor have they insisted that such military and security tactics be used in combination with developmental, societal, and legal mechanisms, so as not to drive Egypt into cycles of violence and counter-violence that would threaten Egypt’s civil peace and the cohesion of the nationalist state. Indeed, strategies to prevent local conditions from becoming ripe for violence and terrorism must address grievances and abuses, marginalization, and underdevelopment. Moreover, since the summer of 2013 these voices failed to warn Egyptians clearly and immediately of the danger of renewed authoritarianism, despite the fact that this authoritarianism was clearly manifested in the tyrannical security tactics employed against all who opposed the orientations and actions of the established system of rule. It was also behind the choice that was forced upon Egyptian citizens and civil society organizations between complying with the “official will” of the state or being exposed to harassment, subjected to collective punishment, and ultimately excluded from the public sphere altogether. The exclusion of those who refused to adopt the “official will” was accomplished through repressive legislation (such as the 2013 Protest Law), restrictive legal amendments (such as the amendments to the Penal Code), and unjust detention and other punishments (such as through pretrial detention for unlimited periods of time, or the arbitrary expulsion of some university students). Security control of the media further strengthened the authorities’ total control over the public sphere by ensuring the absence of facts and information in the public discourse and imposing the exclusive narrative of the state.

In recent days, some leftist and liberal parties and currents have announced their boycott of the upcoming parliamentary elections.  They have given the following as reasons for their boycott:

1. The authoritarian propensity and the many shortcomings of the electoral system. The establishment of this electoral system was dominated by the current system of rule, without any societal dialogue. As such, this system will produce nothing but a fragmented parliament without a clear legislative or oversight agenda. This parliament is sure to be subjugated to the “official will” of the state and the influence and interests of the wealthy, partisan actors, and others who enjoy the “acceptance and protection” of the state institutions and bodies.

2. The societal context surrounding the upcoming parliamentary elections. This context has been defined by the ascendance of a single discourse that exclusively reflects the narrative of the state, which propagates a state of hysteria, defames any opposition, and labels opposition members as traitors. This context has also been characterized by accumulating violations of rights and freedoms, a total lack of accountability for those involved in such violations, and the tyrannical use of security tactics against all who challenge the orientations of those in power.

3. The repressive practices and punitive measures to which opposition parties and political currents have been subjected. Such repression prevents these parties from communicating with the various sectors of the population and from carrying out public work in a serious manner.

An objective analysis of the issue of the upcoming parliamentary elections must emphasize that the political parties and currents that have called for a boycott of the electoral process are certainly not the only groups which have expressed criticism of the authoritarian propensities of the electoral system, the expected fragmentation of the new parliament, and the parliament’s probable subjugation to the “official will” of the state. Other parties, currents, and initiatives to form electoral lists that are intent on participating in the elections – and that have refused to become fully compliant with the “official will” of the state and are not supported by the established system of rule – have also aired these same criticisms and fears. By participating in the elections and seeking to obtain some amount of representation in the parliament, perhaps these groups are looking to have a positive, democratic influence on the many issues that will be addressed by the new parliament (including the review of numerous laws that have recently been issued unilaterally by the executive branch, as well as legal provisions related to the constitution, issues of sustainable development and social justice, and other matters). This approach has granted these groups moral and societal credibility, and those calling for a boycott must refrain from treating this approach with cynical dismissiveness or condescension. Of course, those calling for a boycott have a fundamental right to assert that the electoral system and current societal context will preclude free, pluralistic, and effective participation in the upcoming elections. They similarly have the right to oppose participation in the elections due to the danger that parliamentary representatives who are not supported by the established system of rule could be reduced to mere “décor,” rather than holding any real influence and efficacy. However, those calling for a boycott must not apply double standards by failing to recognize the potential legitimacy of the “other,” particularly as the parties and currents that are currently calling for a boycott always demand that their positions not be reduced to merely “heroic” displays of rejection and opposition.

Similarly, an objective analysis of the upcoming elections requires that we recognize an additional element of this deception in which those who are calling for a boycott are implicated. This is required not only if the parties and political currents that are calling for a boycott are to honestly address the various segments of the population, but also if these parties and currents are to benefit from self-reflection and criticism as they seek to expand the margins of the public sphere that they occupy.  What is certain is that – irrespective of all other factors – it is the weakness of the human, organizational, and funding capacities of these parties and political currents that has made their participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections impossible. In other words, these limited capacities would prevent them from participating in the elections in a serious manner, even if we were to assume a fundamentally democratic electoral system and an adequate societal context. I am not challenging the fact that the weakness of the human, organizational, and funding capacities of the parties and political currents that are not supported by the system of rule in Egypt stems in part from their current situation and the restrictions that they face as a result. However, the claim that these weaknesses have resulted exclusively from the situation in which the opposition finds itself, while ignoring the failures that have also been committed by opposition parties and currents, is another clear element of the deception from which the public sphere in Egypt suffers today.

Amr Hamzawy joined the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to serve today. He is a former member of parliament, former member of the National Salvation Front, and founder of the Freedom Egypt Party. 

This article originally appeared in Shorouk