Ahmed Kahwaji is a teaching assistant at Alexandria University and a doctoral student at the University of Poitiers in France. He also periodically contributes to the Egyptian website Mada Masr, whose op-eds tread the fine line between the permitted and the forbidden.
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His latest article, “The Egyptian ‘1984’: A war on words,” is about the newspeak that has taken over Egypt’s public discourse since President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi took power. Among other things, he mocks the phrase “Long live Egypt,” which has become the government’s slogan – as if only this government could ensure Egypt’s continued existence.
Another phrase is “human rights.” In the terms of the debate dictated by the government, it has become a synonym for treason, since human rights organizations “invite” international intervention and funding to Egypt to hurt their country – that is, the government.
“Patriotism” means preserving the nation’s assets, especially its territory. But when the government decided to transfer the islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia, loyalty to the regime trumped classic patriotism. Anyone who demonstrated against the transfer was arrested for preferring principle to policy – or as the Egyptian media put it, “preferring their personal interests to the nation’s interests.”
Liberalism has also been reinterpreted, so that “true liberalism” is women removing their headscarves. And the 2011 revolution recently obtained a new patron, judging by recent articles claiming that deposed President Hosni Mubarak originally supported the demonstrators.
Egypt’s war on words isn’t new, but it has worsened during Sissi’s four years in power. Freedom of expression has become a strategic target, as it is in Turkey and to a large extent, Israel.
The difference between supporters and opponents of the regime and its policies is acquiring official status in new laws and bills awaiting approval, like one barring the publication of military information, including opinions and analyses, without prior approval from the army’s General Staff.
Egyptian journalists are already accustomed to self-censorship. But even the Foreign Ministry recently encountered the limits of freedom of expression: Egypt’s ambassadors to Cyprus, Thailand and Kuwait had their terms cut short and five candidates for ambassadorships were denied promotions due to perceived disloyalty to the regime or suspected membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Egyptian media reports, some criticized the handover of Sanafir and Tiran on their private Facebook pages or said things that annoyed Egyptian intelligence.
The intelligence agencies appear to be gradually taking over the Foreign Ministry. Tarek Salem, deputy head of the General Intelligence Service, was recently appointed ambassador to Uganda – an important post in Egypt, since the country generally hosts talks on the division of the Nile River.
Nor is this the only ambassadorial post expected to be filled by people close to the intelligence agencies. The agencies, which think Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is doing a poor job, want to replace the ambassadors in both Berlin and Washington. Only the praise the former has won from senior German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, has prevented his ouster so far.
This year, Egyptian intelligence signed two contracts worth more than $2 million with American public relations firms to promote Egypt’s interests in Washington. This would be unremarkable, except that it was done behind the Foreign Ministry’s back.
Neither the ambassador nor the PR firms were able to persuade the Trump administration not to cut $95 million in aid to Egypt and delay another $195 million over Egypt’s failure to democratize and protect freedom of religion. Shoukry responded by canceling his planned meeting with Trump’s son-in-law and envoy, Jared Kushner, but Sissi undercut him by meeting with Kushner himself.
Egypt’s newspeak also affects Israel. Six years ago, when the protests against Mubarak erupted, one of the demonstrators’ major accusations was that a 2004 agreement to sell Egyptian gas to Israel constituted national treason and was a source of corruption. The revolutionaries demanded that the government cancel the agreement and indict those responsible for it – first and foremost Mubarak.
Only in 2015 did the Egyptian courts acquit Mubarak of blame in the gas agreement; this year, they also acquitted Hussein Salem, the principal shareholder of the Egyptian gas company that signed the deal, and only after he agreed to repay more than five billion Egyptian pounds to the state.
Yet even though selling gas to Israel became a symbol of Mubarak’s alleged treason and corruption, this month, the media reported that Egypt is close to signing a new deal with Israel. What’s interesting is that this agreement has produced no outcry in Egypt, and only opposition websites have even reported its details. If opposition to a deal that would once have been considered national treason still exists, it won’t be voiced publicly in today’s Egypt.
Israel might see this change in Egypt’s public discourse as reflecting improved relations, especially since both defense cooperation and diplomatic cooperation have expanded significantly over the last three years. Israel allowed Egypt to pour troops into areas that were supposed to be demilitarized under their peace treaty. According to Arab media reports, Israel is an active participant in the war on the Islamic State in Sinai. The blockade of the Gaza Strip is a joint Egyptian-Israeli project, and even Egypt’s decision to give Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia was made only after obtaining Israel’s consent. Egypt’s growing involvement in Gaza, and its support for Mohammed Dahlan as an eventual successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is also largely coordinated with Israel, which has yet to voice any public objections to the expected opening of the Gaza-Egypt border.
Yet the fact that these governmental ties exist doesn’t necessarily mean the Egyptian public approves of them. Mubarak’s government also had close ties to Israel, and that never prevented fierce criticism of Israeli policies in the Egyptian press and on social media. But today, Egypt’s public debate is far more controlled by the government. The moderate tone of the newspeak on Israel may be deceiving.