The Public Sphere: Between Displacing the Individual Citizen and Mobilizing Supportive Crowds

Through the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty first, Egyptian citizens have begun peacefully injecting themselves into the public sphere, and its physical form, the “street” (this space also exists in an intangible form through public discussion, media outlets and some activities of civil society and political life). Sometimes this has been to protest, sometimes to demonstrate, and sometimes to raise the banner of civil disobedience. These protests were motivated by a rejection of poor living conditions, deteriorating economic and social status, resistance to accumulated injustices, opposition to policies of the ruling elite or a desire to change them, and by demands for comprehensive changes to state and society.

Yes, massive crowds rarely took to the streets, and when they did in flare-ups such as the student protests of 1973, the 1973 Bread Riots, or the 1980’s Central Security Forces rebellion, they did not last long. However these events made citizens’ entry into the public sphere concrete, challenging the repressive practices of the ruling elite, and the restrictive draft laws and constitutions they authorized and employed.

Between 1952 and 2011, the Egyptian political elite sought to remove citizens from the public sphere by violating human rights, eroding freedoms, using official forms of violence or threatening their use if independent and opposition figures took to the streets, in short, building a wall of fear. Alternatively, the elites sought to regulate citizens’ presence by calling on them to appear in supporting throngs – to pledge allegiance, mandate, or to provide legitimacy and popular approval, only to then immediately dissolve such crowds after their “task” had ended. These tactics monopolized the street for the benefit of the elite, its continued existence, enforcement of its policies, and bending citizens to its will. These practices were continued through the passage of tyrannical constitutional and legal drafts that criminalized the rights of the opposition and independent groups to peacefully protest in the street, gather to demonstrate, or raise the banner of civil disobedience in the public sphere. This has transformed legitimate protest into activities which threaten national cohesion and security, along with civil peace and the domestic front, acts only done by those hostile to the state, both domestically and abroad.

Despite all this, citizens challenged the restrictions imposed by the political elite, with their presence in the public sphere intensifying, particularly between 2003 and 2011, until the wall of fear was eventually brought down, and citizens were able to seize the right to emerge onto, and remain in “the street.” The January revolution overthrew the head of the political elite, dissolving the country’s repressive constitutional and legal drafts. Since 2011, various groups have come and gone from power, from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), to the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies in the religious right, to the current military-security entity which came about after the events of July 3. I refer to these as “groups” and not “elite” because the rule of the SCAF and Muslim Brotherhood did not last long enough for them to truly build a cohesive elite, and because the hegemonic military-security entity which today possesses seemingly contradictory interests and visions, (but that being said, it is too early to make assessments regarding its future development). The military-security entity is now trying to retake control of the public sphere and regulate citizen’s presence in it through a dual-track strategy of displacing the independent,  hostile, protesting, rejectionist citizen from the streets, while simultaneously mobilizing the large yet short-lived supportive crowds to establish their popular acceptance.

The activation of this dual strategy over the last three years is tied to the revival of repressive practices, subjugating measures and repressive draft laws. Since 2011, human rights violations and the organized disparaging of freedoms have continued, without anyone being held accountable. These violations included virginity tests, the first and second rounds of Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, the Cabinet and Port Said under the SCAF, and the Presidential Palace events under former President Morsi, and the forced dispersal of sit-ins and documented acts of torture and random arrests after June 30. The goal of these repressive practices is to rebuild the wall of fear destroyed by the legions of protestors during the January revolution. The ruling elite expects groups they see as vulnerable – Copts and women – to quickly succumb to these repressive practices. Meanwhile, opposition and independent groups are labeled “enemies of the state.” These include advocates for transitional justice, those who defend human rights without double standards or political calculations, the April 6 Movement, against whom the security establishment has held a grudge since 2011 for urging more Egyptians to enter the public sphere, and those affiliated with the Ultras football club.

Since 2011, actions of ruling groups have enabled the instant summoning of short-lived “supportive masses” into the public sphere. The aim of this is to snatch legitimacy and popular approval from opposition and independent citizens who peacefully take to the streets and are categorized as “enemies of the state” and to wrap this legitimacy around rulers, their actions and policies, even if they are undemocratic. Examples of this abound. Consider Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi calling on “honorable citizens” to take to the streets and remove those “unpatriotic elements” from power. Or the massing of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies when widespread popular protests were held against Morsi in November 2011, which the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office blamed on followers of the Mubarak regime and a small number of infiltrators.

This continued with the Egyptian Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call to the “Egyptian masses” to take to the streets on July 26 to give him a “mandate” to combat terrorism. The armed forces repeated this call to Egyptian men and women to be present and to support the alliance of “the people, the army and the police” during a period of repeated violations against human rights and liberties.  

These repressive measures stemmed from the post-2011 promotion of a dichotomy between the sound, supportive masses, and the evil opposition member. This split has been exploited to create a state of collective hysteria that dehumanizes the opposition and facilitates the continuation or ignoring the repressive practices being carried out in their name. They also stem from the reproduction of the stereotype that, “the state alone knows the essence of the public interest, engages in the total monopolization of the truth, requires that the masses obey, and prevents any opposition from emerging.”

This is the perception which totalitarian, authoritarian, falsifying regimes rely upon – along with repression – to divert the masses far from the public sphere until their support, delegations or allegiances are no longer wanted or needed.

Since 2011, there have been repeated attempts to revive restrictive draft laws on citizen’s rights to engage in peaceful protest. These include the state of emergency which existed until 2012 (and was revived after July 3 until just days ago), draft laws that lack democratic guarantees such as the country’s current protest law, which was initially prepared under Mohamed Morsi and was recycled in the current period, and the terrorism law. This law, if passed, will criminalize citizens’ rights to peaceful protests and transform such protests from peaceful, free expressions of opinion, and the triumph of principles and convictions, to acts which challenge the state, and threaten the national interest and security. It would tie the hands of civil organizations and democracy advocates, while giving state institutions a free hand to track and prosecute citizens without accountability. Also since 2011, there remains a lack of constitutional and legal texts which close the doors on dangerous restrictions being imposed upon citizens. This includes the adoption of military trials for civilians, a failure to guarantee rights and freedoms such as creating an organization for transitional justice, or a program to reform the structure of security forces.

All of this goes hand in hand with a false, official form of political discourse (from various powers, and political parties and personalities supporting the events after July 3, 2013) which justifies the revival of constitutional and legal drafts which restrict a citizen’s right to demonstrate in the streets, and pushes for their displacement from within the public sphere with references from the traditional wall of fear: “security,” the “war against terrorism” and “combating violence.” It is as if citizens who protest, demonstrate or peacefully engage in opposition are either, “in the process of becoming a terrorist” or a “terrorist sleeper cell” and as if the state cannot distinguish legally or in practice between a peaceful citizen and a violent one. It is also as if violations against human rights and unilateral dependence on restrictive drafts and security solutions are what will deliver us from our current crises.

Since 2011, Egyptians have been caught in a dual track strategy of trying to expel independent and opposition citizens from the public sphere, while rulers use repressive policies and legal/constitutional measures to mobilize pro-government crowds. This is accompanied by a discourse which seeks to justify reliance on stereotypes regarding those who are “enemies of the state,” and employ binaries of the sound masses versus the evil citizen, and collective hysteria, while ignoring violations of rights and freedoms, reconstructing the wall of fear, and removing the state from any form of accountability. The fateful question is will we wake up and realize the risk of being ejected from the public sphere and the reduction of our presence to a role as mere supporting masses to be conjured up, or will we continue in the quagmire of “we need to be ruled, we need to be obedient.” This is an attitude that will bring about nothing but injustice, oppression, lack of progress, backwardness, non-transparency and corruption. 

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 Arabic in Shorouk 

Image: Photo: Ahmed Abd El-fatah (Flickr)