BEIRUT — For most of the past two centuries, Egypt has been the epicenter, litmus test, proving ground, and mother of cultural and political trends across the Arab region — so we should all be worried by the events of the past month that systematically throttled, indicted, intimated, detained, and otherwise politically eliminated potential serious candidates to oppose Field Marshal-President Abdelfattah Sisi in this year’s presidential election.
We should worry because the brand of top-heavy, security- and military-anchored manipulation and monopolization of power across society in Egypt continues to slowly spread to most other Arab countries. The pre-fixed outcomes of presidential elections or parliamentary division-of-seats in favor of the ruling power elite is not only troubling because it robs society of the potential to address the many challenges it faces in virtually all fields of life; and I mean all fields of life, including education, employment, water, health care, air quality, food security, corruption, human rights denials, poverty, weak social safety nets, labor informality, disparities, lack of political participation or accountability, haphazard mega-urban sprawl, and other critical dimensions of life that are in bad shape, and continue to deteriorate for the most part, across most of the Arab region.
Egypt’s heavy-handed elimination of all serious presidential contenders is also troubling because it takes to a new height of vindictive brutality the rot and the core weakness that degrade and dehumanize hundreds of millions of ordinary Arab men and women who often find themselves naked, blindfolded, handcuffed, and invisible in front of their political authorities. Hundreds of millions among the 400 million Arabs today have seen their political, social, economic, and cultural rights systematically crushed by selfish elites who have followed a predictable script that was initiated in Egypt by the armed forces coup in the 1950s, and now spreads throughout our troubled region: They seize power by force; create and manipulate the levers of influence and control in society; buy off small numbers of people who are brought into the circle of power through crony capitalism patronage; develop mass mind-control indoctrination and propaganda mechanisms that tell every citizen what he or she is allowed to read, hear, say, and think; and, offer hero-worship and sycophantic promises that play on the yearnings for salvation, a savior, and a few loafs of bread for their children every night among the disheveled, desperate skeletons of their once proud citizens.
Egypt is important to watch because it remains the heart and wellspring of this autocratic and destructive trend across our region — though it is important to note the many other fine qualities of the Egyptian people that refuse to die, because they permeate those dimensions of the indestructible humanity, wisdom, and joy of Egypt that do persist below the surface of the power bludgeons.
The presidential “election” is the latest example of how the power control process operates. If anyone is interested in understanding how the Egyptian state has managed its autocratic system for the past 65 years, I recommend strongly a powerful book that has just been published by a respected scholar who has studied Egypt for many decades. It is the book entitled simply Egypt, by Robert Springborg (2018, 245 pp., Polity Press, Cambridge, UK and Medford, MA, USA). It traces in great detail and much clarity the traditions and mechanics of the “deep state” that has defined modern Egypt, including chapters on the presidency, the armed forces and security agencies, the parliament, civil society, and the “rocky road ahead.” I recommend it strongly to any reader who wants to understand the autocratic trends that continue to proliferate across our region.
The Egyptian government’s elimination of the presidential candidacies of Ahmed Shafiq, Sami Anan, Khaled Ali, and Mohammad Anwar Sadat was no surprise, given the total power-control track record of the Sisi regime since it eliminated Egypt’s first ever legitimately elected president in 2013. The surprise is that in the wake of the crushing of the 2010-11 Arab uprisings by Arab security states and their foreign supporters in the east and west alike, so many other Arab countries have followed the Egyptian model that openly wields brute force to crush any opposition along with any mere expressions of differing views and any serious exercise of freedom of expression and a pluralistic media.
So half a dozen other Arab governments increasingly apply harsh new restrictions on citizens’ ability to express themselves in the public realm, even on social media. This criminalization of political expression and free speech is the latest wave of public policy barbarism that radiates across Arab frontiers. Many Arab governments find themselves, like Egypt, frantically seeking to contain the anger and humiliation of their own citizens. Those citizens in most cases simply want to express their views, share peacefully in discussing or shaping policies that impact their lives, and in most cases find a way to be able to feed their children and allow them to gain meaningful employment in economies that are massively controlled by small power elites.
Arab citizens in their hundreds of millions are being politically, socially, and economically castrated at birth, and they grow up learning that they have no voice, no power, no rights, perhaps even no value as human beings. The bottom line of this ugly dynamic remains, to my mind, freedom of expression. It is becoming increasingly difficult or dangerous merely to express one’s thoughts in public in many Arab countries. Yet small groups of human rights activists and courageous, patriotic individuals continue to speak out, because they understand that only if all Arabs have the opportunity to participate in their public life and policies can their societies have any chance of addressing the many severe challenges they already face today in all fields of life.
In our lingering post-colonial world, it is noteworthy therefore to see the Washington Post in an editorial this week comment rightly on the severe jail sentences handed down to two Saudi men who tried to establish a small human rights organization on-line and even heeded the government’s demand to close it. The Post Editorial Board said, commenting on the contrast with the liberal, futuristic picture of the country its officials presented at the Davos global gathering: “But the old Saudi Arabia was still evident back at home. On Thursday, two human rights activists, Mohammed al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi, were sentenced to 14 and seven years in prison, respectively, for briefly founding a human rights organization about five years ago. No matter that they heeded the government’s demands to close it; the prosecution painted such things as publishing human rights reports, disseminating information to the news media and retweeting posts on Twitter as criminal acts…The twinkling promises for overseas investors at Davos cannot mask the fact that Saudi Arabia is still what it was five years ago — a dungeon for those who dare speak out.”
This is harsh stuff, yes. But it pales in comparison to what I have witnessed all around me in recent decades as I move around the Arab world: several hundred million Arab men and women whose minds and self-respect shrivel before our eyes with every new move to knock them down, shut their mouths, close their minds, and have them only obsequiously obey or else, moves ordered and implemented by small groups of ruling men with guns who are addicted to power but cannot use it equitably for their people’s benefit.
The slow, painful hollowing and effective dehumanization of Arab societies deprives them of the dynamism of their greatest resource — the ability of their men, women, and youth to participate in the mechanisms, decisions, assessments, and development of their own societies. Lands where humans and citizens are transformed into docile beasts of burden are troubled lands. When the Washington Posteditorial board recognizes and says this, it probably means there is something there to explore.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and adjunct professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative. He can be followed @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2018 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 30 January 2018
Word Count: 1,300
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for Le Monde diplomatique, and The Washington Spectator, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Rami G. Khouri and Immanuel Wallerstein.