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A year of cracks in the love apparatus
 
 

In 2014, this was Andeel’s reflection on the state of the people in the wake of the military’s grip on power since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood:

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Cartoon: Things are bit…

When I asked him what he would draw differently today, he did the following:

الوضع دلوقتي II

الوضع دلوقتي II

The past year has seen more scattered mobilization against Egypt’s status quo than the year immediately following the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer of 2013.

We round up these efforts — both organized and spontaneous and covering different groups — not with the intention of claiming that revolution is coming, but to try to guage the extent to which the current regime is still working unchallenged.

Media outlets

Many would agree that the big picture when it comes to state and privately owned media is one of alignment with the regime — seen in identical headlines and approaches to stories, as well as pledges of loyalty to the president from chief editors and the public expression of enthusiastic support from media owners.

But there have been blips of more controversial reporting more reminiscent of the short period immediately following the January 25 revolution. Stories on police violations, such as torture and forced disappearances, officials’ problematic statements, state corruption and protests can be found more in daily coverage these days.

Columnists and talk show hosts known for their general alignment with the current regime have been offering pro-bono advice to the authorities, being more critical than usual of some of their practices. This criticism is at times carefully addressed to the Cabinet alone and at other times to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi himself. Examples including TV hosts Ibrahim Eissa, Amr Adeeb, Khaled Salah and even the more fervent supporters of the regime Soliman Gouda and Hamdy Rezk have all had their moments. Gouda, for instance, criticized the president for not sufficient use making use of advisors to improve his governance.

Sisi has used his speeches to comment on the cooling of the media love-fest several times, chastising journalists for “improper” behavior and warning that “I will complain to the people about you.”

We contacted one of our colleague in the trade, Ahmad Ragab, part of the investigations team at privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm, and who previously managed the newspaper’s website. Ragab thinks it’s a “butterfly effect” that has led to “a rising ceiling everyday.”

“Media outlets in Egypt don’t have much of a character. They see what others are doing and they do the same. So reporting about torturing say becomes a trend,” he adds.

What Sisi doesn’t quite get, Ragab says, is that opinion writers and broadcasters have a certain superpower. “When they sense that people are feeling bored and want to hear criticism, they start criticizing. At the end of the day, their main fortune is the people, with no authority having lasted long since 2011.”

Ragab also reckons that the current security apparatus does not have the kind of links that officers used to have with journalists and editors, through which it could have more direct control on coverage.

Factory spaces, syndicates, streets and more

Spanning across different fields and locations, labor action throughout this year have been pronounced in the form of sit-ins, strikes and protests. Highlights include the Suez Canal Authority subsidiary companies, the Egyptian Dredging Company in Abu Zaabal, Qalyubiya, the Shebin al-Kom Textiles Company in Monufiya, Mahalla textiles Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, the state-owned petroleum services company Petrotrade in Alexandria, the Egypt Gas Company, the Assiut Fertilizer Company, Misr Helwan Iron and Steel company, the Qena-based Egyptalum aluminum company and the Jawhara food processing company.

Protesting workers are in the thousands, and their demands concern against low or delayed wages, overdue bonuses and profit shares, working conditions, management, absence of contracts, unlawful relocations and overdue promotions.

Khaled Ali, a former presidential candidate, but more importantly a lawyer representing workers in a number of cases, laid out to Mada Masr some observations on the labor movement developments this year.

He compares 2013-2015 with the 2005-2007 period, both starting with major political mobilizations, then a retreat in action by political parties and groups, followed by the labor movement taking over with strikes and protests.

Ali also comments on how the movement is back to organizing outside the physical scope of the workplace. He points to the example the Shebin al-Kom Textiles Company — which was privatized and then had its privatization contract nullified by court order in 2011 — where protests left the factory and toured the city with their chants, demanding the reinstatement of sacked workers.

“We were surprised,” Ali says. “After June 30, the curfew and the talk about terrorism, protests were mostly on-site.”

Those employed in other fields have also objecting working conditions more vocally, though to a lesser extent. The Health Insurance Authority, Ministry of Endowment employees, Egyptair pilots, policemen, journalists, doctors and lawyers are examples.

Ali sees doctors’ protests, empowered by progressive syndicate representation, as a successful example of pressuring the government for better working conditions, particularly in terms of safety. Besides their own grievances, doctors have been actively exposing the flaws of the healthcare system, most notably with a popular a Facebook page where they post scandalous evidence of neglect and poor hospitals conditions.

“Other syndicates have been more vocal, while being careful not to cut all ties with the government,” Ali says. He cites as examples journalist mobilization against the terrorism law and lawyers’ protests against police mistreatment after a lawyer was beaten to death at Matareya police station. In the case of the lawyer, Sisi went as far as apologizing for security personnel’s mistreatment of lawyers.

Professions more loyal to the government have not been immune from protest actions either. Police protests for better working conditions saw a major sit-in in Sharqiya where clashes and violence preceded the agreement of some of the protesters’ demands.

Civil servant protests were also a bit of a surprise. Generally seen as the “silent majority” or the passive “couch party,” and perceived as the voting power of the government, with scenes of buses filled with state employees going to vote for Sisi, civil servants rose and shone this year against the civil service law. Observers deemed some of these protests the largest since 2013. Many of the seven-million strong body objected to the law for decreasing wages and increasing the powers of administrators.

“There is a lot of unattended anger against this law within the ranks of the bureaucracy, which is mistakenly deemed as pro-regime,” Ali says.

Those unemployed too have been active this year, particularly postgraduate students, who pursued more education with the hope of qualifying for better jobs and found nothing on their way out of their programs. This group would audaciously organize protests in today’s no-go-zone of Tahrir Square, which has cost it several arrests.

Protest actions are not the field of organized groups alone. More spontaneous community protests also erupted, surrounding community concerns and demands.

In Luxor, residents took to the street to protest the death of Talaat Shaheeb due to police torture. Around the same time, and at the other side of the country, residents of Ismailia, one of the Suez Canal cities, also rose against police torturing to death a doctor in a police station. Media reported on both actions, prompting defensive statements from Sisi who described these incidents as as “individual cases” of police violations and prompting the Ministry of Interior’s public relations machine to activate human rights departments within the ministry.

Water protests have made a comeback, with major protests in Giza, Alexandria, Assiut, Daqahlia and Port Said involving road blocks, among other things.

Observers we spoke to throughout the year spoke of the state fear of “the protest of the regular citizen,” those unpredictable and unforeseen acts of dissent and pockets of unrest.

“After an initial infatuation with the new regime discourse and symbols,” Youssef El Chazli, a political sociologist at the Swiss University of Lausanne explains, “the accumulation of local grievances, which are deemed ‘apolitical,’ is slowly making a lot of people not switch sides, but at least consider that the current administration is not holding up its side of the bargain and not delivering on most of its promises, notably in the realm of everyday life [prices, basic infrastructure, and so on and so forth],” he notes.

“These events are not going to stop so long as no remedies have been found. The hundreds of ‘individual cases’ of police torture are going to further divide security agencies and people,” he predicts.

Universities

2015 followed a tumultuous two years of on-campus protests and clashes with security that led to the death of 17 students. Albeit calmer on the protest front, with many students involved in protests behind bars, the elections of the national students union ended with a win for pro-January 25 students. The Voice of Egypt student coalition, favored by the state, did not fare well.

Mostafa Shawky, at the academic freedoms division at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, is among those surprised by the results. He followed the elections closely and saw how voter turnout was low in comparison with the 2013 elections, which saw major mobilizations.

“The elections were held in a repressive environment that stood against campus freedoms,” he says. “The results were unexpected. They point to some remains of the 2011 revolutionary engagement that is surviving the surrounding repression and its own weaknesses. They managed to struggle and reach out to a larger base of students.”

“It is a space governed by truly independent students with no partisan ties and only a broad commitment to the revolution and deep concern with the future of the university,” Shawky adds.

Shawky also interprets the elections’ outcome as a possible result of students distancing themselves from direct executive intervention in the process with its covert support of the Voice of Egypt coalition.

A more overt face of state intervention was seen with the controversial move by the Ministry of Higher Education to nullify the results of the elections, citing procedural error — and prompting a wave of discontent among students.

And while protests disappeared from the once active sites of public universities, they have emerged in other spaces. Using the language of political protests in Tahrir and elsewhere, students of private universities were active this year in protesting financial mismanagement, tuition fees and security breaches. These moves helped debunk perceptions that being able to afford higher tuition fees is synonymous with disengagement from politics and public action.

Parliament

Despite our assumption that the parliament would be a largely pro-regime formation, details of the bumpy process reveal that alignment with the regime has been anything but smooth.

Earlier in the year, Sisi had called on all pro-state parties to form one unified list for the elections, a desire that never fully materialized.

The closest manifestation of his desire came in the form of the For the Love of Egypt list, whose members spanned a number of broadly pro-regime center right parties, including the Free Egyptians, Wafd, Future of a Nation and Conference parties.

The list swept a solid 120 seats, but soon encountered a new challenge.

In its attempt to reconfigure itself in the form of a pro-regime parliamentary bloc, the list lost much needed support from significant players. The Free Egyptians Party and Wafd Party both expressed criticism of the controlling behavior of some of the list’s figures, and attempted to pursue their own agendas as political parties in parliament. Future of a Nation went back and forth in joining the bloc, now called the Alliance to Support Egypt, before agreeing to return, on the condition that its MPs maintain their partisan autonomy.

Political scientist Ahmad Seifallah Abul Naga, a candidate who didn’t make it to parliament, saw less politics and more personal and institutional interests in how the parliament was contested.

He explains that the intelligence apparatus and the networks of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party are the powerhouses of those who won seats. While they have preserved a certain courtesy toward each other (by avoiding negative campaigning for example), they have certain competing interests that will arguably play out in parliament.

“Winning a seat in parliament is only the beginning,” Abul Naga says. “There is no regime as such to be supported, but rather different apparatuses and a power vacuum, and the focus of the competing networks is to fill this power vacuum.”

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