Seven years on from the Arab Spring, Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz wonders what has happened.
People used to call it the ‘Arab Spring’: the Egyptian revolutionary movement, which started in January 2011, following the Tunisian one, spread to other nearby countries, and constituted a huge unexpected mass uprising.
Seven years on from this movement, the flowers have gradually faded, the sunrise we once thought permanent has been replaced with a sunset, and hundreds of thousands of smiles have disappeared into the cloudy atmosphere.
The situation has changed dramatically. Egypt is unfortunately suffering signs of an aborted revolution, or at least a frozen one. Instead of making wide leaps – or even small steps – towards a better future, one jump back follows another. Having the military in power again is not exactly a good sign for a new democracy. Extremely repressive measures are being taken; new restrictive laws and decrees are introduced in order to restrict the public domain. In comparison, the former president Mubarak’s era now looks far more flexible and relaxed.
Intellectuals, writers, actors, singers, poets and novelists are crudely punished for their opinions, frequently put in prisons, and asked to declare their admiration for the authorities publicly. The political system refuses to hear any dissenting voices, whatever they would say. Criticism is not allowed anymore, dissidents are stigmatised whenever they speak up. They are called traitors.
A few weeks ago, a famous singer, Sherine Abdel Wahab, was sentenced to six months in prison, having been convicted of insulting the river Nile. Sarcasm is not enough to describe the situation. She was talking to one of her fans in a public venue and mentioned that they might get parasites from drinking Nile water. A silly joke, perhaps – but not a crime that deserves arrest.
Recently, the number of prisons has shown a notable increase. Over the last three years president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has ordered sixteen new prisons to be built, so as to compensate for the rising number of detainees. It seems important to mention that people can be arrested, kept ‘under investigation’, in custody, for weeks, months and years, without trial. The law is not in their favour. It allows endless detention, based on legislations produced during the era of Adly Mansour, the former head of the supreme court, who took office temporarily (mid-2013 to mid-2014) after ousting the first and only civilian president to run Egypt, Mohamed Morsy.
Speaking to older Egyptians, who used to be politically active in their youth, one can but listen to them, sadly, when they describe the current situation as being incomparable to any other era they have lived through. Many of them say that the current state aggression and violence exceeds even what they witnessed during the totalitarian regime of the fifties, when Gamal Abdel Nasser was in power. Actually, as Nasser had a large popular base, a strong social bond with the poor and the middle class, well designed public goals and a desire to achieve real progress on social and economic aspects, his dictatorship never looked as dark. National projects were designed for the sake of the majority of people, and not accompanied by dodgy luxury business deals.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Egypt had the third highest number of arms import in between 2013-2017. This continued weaponisation is particularly questionable at a time when poverty is widespread, and severely affecting people’s lives. Even though the government talks about economic recovery daily, there is hardly any evidence for it. Over the past four years, inflation rates have risen significantly, following a devaluation of the currency. There is a 75% rise in external debt, 74% in internal one. There was no significant change in the skeleton of production, no improvements in the medical or educational systems, no job creation. This helps explain why the country is ran with an iron fist. It is the only way to control the oppressed citizens: using violence instead of providing for their basic needs.
The 2018 presidential elections showed the usual decorative trends: a lot of banners, songs, interviews and talk shows, all calling for the current president to be elected for another four years. Scenes of people dancing in front of the polling stations, DJs carried on cars in the streets, flags of Egypt and photos of Al-Sisi emerging from the windows; all signs of happiness are there, if one decided to stay home and watch it all unfold on TV. But going out into streets, it is quite a different picture.
In an absurd twist, the only other candidate standing for elections, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, expressed his unconditional support to Al-Sisi, and declared he had voted for him. This was not the only stunning statement he made. On multiple occasions, the only counter-candidate stated that he considered Al-Sisi the best guy for the presidential position. The question to be asked now is: was the ruling system in need of all the propaganda it made? I guess the answer is ‘yes’. A dictatorship such as this one grows up with propaganda, nourishes itself on shaping people’s consciousness, and fades when they stop believing it.
And also: it lives on because of those who prefer to stay in safe and secured spaces, no matter the price, those who suffer from nostalgia for the patriarchal figure, ever ready to protect them – they all agreed on changing the previously chosen name, and now it is not a ‘spring’ anymore, but an autumn or winter. For those who associate themselves with the totalitarian authority, no matter the crimes it commits, the Arab Spring is a fake, a conspiracy, a big disaster from which God saved the country. The Arab Spring has been turned into an insult, which is how it will remain, as long as the current situation remains unchanged.
Maybe the Egyptian spring has left the squares early, but I still remind myself of a simple fact: spring comes every year; it never stops coming.
I keep telling those who became desperate that even if the mouths which chanted once for liberty are being quieted for now, even if the political authority has regained its holy mission of reproducing the ’state of fear’, we shall continue the struggle against dictatorship. We shall keep fighting for freedom, justice and dignity, as long as the echo of freedom resonates inside our hearts.
Basma Abdel Aziz is a psychiatrist, writer, and sculptor. A long-standing vocal critic of government oppression in Egypt, she is the author of several works of nonfiction. In 2016 she was named one of Foreign Policy‘s Global Thinkers for her debut novel, The Queue, translated by Elizabeth Jacquette, which was also named to the longlist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. She lives in Cairo.