As Elections in Egypt Loom, Tahrir Square Stands Empty

As preparations for March’s presidential elections in Egypt intensify, so is the pressure and threats on President Sissi’s critics

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Celebratory fireworks after President Hosni Mubarak resigned, next to Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 12, 2011.
Glory days: Celebratory fireworks after President Hosni Mubarak resigned, next to Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 12, 2011.Credit: AP

In 2011, Egyptian musician Ramy Essam penned the song “Irhal” (“Leave”), which soon became the anthem of Egypt’s Arab Spring. Three years later, though, he was forced to flee to Sweden, fearing that the security forces would arrest him. He currently resides in Malmo and awaits his 30th birthday, when he can return to Egypt without being required to serve in the army.

Essam is not the only symbol of the revolution who crashed along with the revolution itself. So too did singer Dina El Wedidi, 30, whose protest songs had made her a mainstay on Egyptian stages for a short while. In 2016, the local musicians’ union banned her from appearing in Egypt, and she now makes a living performing in other Arab countries.

The rock band Cairokee, meanwhile, has been trying to perform in Egypt since last September, but its concerts have been canceled five times – most recently on January 18. No official explanation was given, but it’s clear the cultural censors of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s government do not like songs that criticize the situation in Egypt.

The persecution of artists of any type who are not willing to toe the party line leaves no cultural stone unturned. Graffiti artists who filled Cairo’s walls during the revolution have scattered or turned to new forms of expression. Instead of the inspiring slogans and images that became a kind of visual protest movement six years ago, some are now painting portraits of famous soccer players – and even then, not everything’s acceptable.

Three years ago, municipal inspectors began to remove murals from the walls of the American University in Cairo. And a city bylaw now prohibits painting on public property, claiming it defaces the city. Caricaturists have learned very quickly what the ever-narrowing red lines are, and satirical television shows have given way to underground videos like those of Andeel, who posts his animations on the oppositionist MadaMasr website.

The closer the presidential elections get – they are currently scheduled for March 26-28 – the more the pressure and threats increase against the president’s critics. If you want to find critical articles analyzing Sissi’s time in office or the failures of the revolution, you’ll be hard-pressed to find them in the Egyptian press or on television panel shows.

“The Egyptian government is developing anti-narratives to explain to the world and the public the need to work against the ‘enemy within,’” says Amr Hamzawy, who is among the most prominent political activists of the revolution but now lives in the United States. A senior researcher at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, Hamzawy tells a website that publishes articles by Arab intellectuals that he’s afraid to return to his homeland. The Egyptian government is mainly selling the idea that the war on terror requires a continuation of the emergency situation, he says. Furthermore, in contrast to the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak – who Hamzawy says worked “carefully on his image in both Egypt and the world” – he says Sissi’s government doesn’t care about such things.

Some 700 laws or amendments have been passed in the past four years, the purpose of some of which has been to deepen the regime’s authoritarianism and strengthen it in relation to its citizens, Hamzawy says. Egypt tells the West: “We are fighting against terror for you, and you in the West can’t allow yourselves for Egypt, with its [100 million] citizens, to destabilize. That won’t be like Syria, it will be an unbelievable disaster,” he says. These narratives make it possible, according to Hamzawy, for the government to impair civil rights, restrict freedom of expression, prevent competition by other candidates for the presidency, neutralize the powers of parliament and allow the government to operate without public oversight.

Harm to the freedom of expression of artists and singers is a symptom. More threatening than that is the prosecution of people who dared present their candidacy for president or merely made do with unofficially declaring their intention to run. One such individual is the former chief of staff of the Egyptian army, Sami Anan, who is now on trial for incitement, harming the army and suspicion of forging documents. His story has already been told in this column.

Anan’s candidate for vice president was Hisham Geneina, the former accountant general. At the time, Geneina exposed government corruption in the amount of more than $67 billion, as well as the hiding of some of that money in government slush funds. When his inspectors asked to see the documentation of these secret funds, the Interior Ministry raided his office, confiscated documents and computers, and Geneina himself was put on trial.

The public storm sparked by his arrest has long since died down. But Geneina is considered one of the country’s most honest public figures, and presenting him as a candidate for vice president was meant to show determination to fight corruption. Last week Geneina was attacked and severely beaten by unidentified masked men. He says that if family members had not come to his assistance, his assailants would have killed him. The police announced that Geneina’s injuries were the result of a car accident between his car another vehicle, and that an argument ensued between the drivers. The investigation will probably not show differently.

Now it remains only to follow the Twitter account opened by Sissi’s supporters, #supportthepresidentwithasong, which invites citizens to write verses promoting him. The venomous ridicule tweeted by his opponents filling this account can only attest to the accumulating rage.

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