May 31, 2016

A Case of State Insanity: Basma Abdel Aziz reports on the state of today’s Egypt


9781612195162When Egyptians took to the streets in mid-2013, gathering in their greatest numbers since the Arab Spring to demonstrate against the Muslim Brotherhood regime, they did so under the same revolutionary slogan they had declared in January 2011: Bread, liberty, and social justice.

But three years on from the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, a considerable percentage of Egyptian citizens seem dissatisfied with the results.

Amid the chaos of injunctions to fight terrorism, the absence of any clear political perspective, and the lack of a detailed plan for the future, one can find oneself desperately enmeshed in a farcically problematic scene, with no resolution in sight.

One can hardly miss the contradictions that exist between official statements and the tangible reality on the ground. These contradictions make popular confidence in the regime difficult to come by.

Although President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has declared 2016 the “Year of Youth,” hundreds — maybe thousands — of young men and women are being detained under inhuman conditions, deprived of basic necessities, sometimes denied family visits and even essential medical care. Some have died in custody. Access to media, recreation, and reading material is basically nonexistent.

The Ministry of Interior declares its respect for the dignity of Egypt’s citizens, expresses its deep commitment to human rights, releases statements asserting that there are no detentions without due process, no disappearances, no extralegal security procedures. But hundreds of people have, in fact, been disappeared; some may remain alive, others not. Many missing young men have later turned up detained in police stations and black sites, their bodies sometimes bearing marks of torture. Given cases like that of Giulio Regeni, the Italian student who was abducted, tortured, and murdered earlier this year, one must carefully consider the statements of government spokespeople, and navigate Egypt’s streets with extreme caution — especially when involved in political or human rights issues.

While President Sisi has called for a renewal of religious dialogue, one finds the religious institutions that would carry out this renewal tight-lipped for fear of reprisal. Bishoy Armia Boulous, a young journalist well-known for speaking out about religious issues, is now in prison, serving a year (reduced on retrial from an original sentence of five) for “humiliating” the Islamic religion. It is a situation that raises questions about what is really meant by “renewal,” and whether it is being invoked purely in service to the political establishment, enabling greater repression and authoritarianism.

A similar situation exists at al-Azhar University. One can easily trace the political role the University plays, but the Sheikh of al-Azhar continues to deny this completely. A recent Fatwa released by the al-Azhar Executive Council declares a religious prohibition against protests commemorating the January 25th beginnings of the Egyptian revolution — contrasting starkly with a previous Fatwa that declared the anti-Morsi protests religiously permissible. The Sheikh of al-Azhar, a public official who can be relied on to condemn attacks on police officers, has never released a statement condemning torture in police stations, even though the Muslim laws protecting the sanctity of the human body apply to both situations identically.

In the realm of economics, too, the ordinary middle-class Egyptian is today suffering under circumstances sharply inconsistent with official language announcing huge national initiatives laden with promise. The New Suez Canal is a good example: despite a wave of statistics proving it a failure, the project continues to be celebrated in song and praised on TV, its critics smeared as traitors, while no reason is offered for its shortcomings.

To know what steps need to be taken next, one must first be able to differentiate truth from lies, reality from distortion. For the time being, many things look vague, illogical, and even horrifying: repression without limits, illusions blending with reality to create a waking nightmare.



Basma Abdel Aziz is an Egyptian writer, psychiatrist, and visual artist. Her novel The Queue was published by Melville House in May 2016.