“Does Political Dissent Have a Place in Egypt’s Future?” by Pamela Jean Stumpo, PhD

Volume VI Issue 3, July 2014

Does Political Dissent Have a Place in Egypt’s Future?

By Pamela Jean Stumpo, PhD

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The past few weeks have confirmed what Egyptians and international observers have known for quite some time: that the freedom of expression Egyptians demanded when they occupied Tahrir Square and brought down the Mubarak regime never became a reality.  Recent events have driven home this sobering fact.  On May 28, 2014, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military strongman who has ruled with repression since he deposed former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, won a landslide victory in a presidential election of which the result was never in doubt.  Just a few days later, on June 2, Bassem Youssef, the popular Egyptian political satirist, often called the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” announced that his show would not be returning to the airways.

Youssef is a cardiac surgeon turned comedian who became famous during the Arab Spring for a political satire show broadcast on YouTube.  After moving to network television, he was investigated for poking fun at President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first Islamist-leaning democratically elected president.  Despite the investigation, Youssef’s Al Bernameg (“The Program”) did not shy away from controversy.  After al-Sisi became Egypt’s leader, the satirist ridiculed the propaganda surrounding the then-Deputy Prime Minister by eating cupcakes frosted with his picture and showing clips of the many television shows focused on him.  In response to these jabs at al-Sisi, the Egyptian Capital Broadcast Center (CBC) network dropped Youssef’s show.  Although the Saudi owned network, MBC Masr, picked up the show, Al Bernameg did not last long.  Youssef implied that threats were the reason behind his recent exit from television: “I’m tired of struggling and worrying about my safety and that of my family,” he said. [1]

As Youssef’s experience illustrates, al-Sisi is perhaps even more focused than his predecessors on repressing the Egyptian people.  In the period after Morsi’s one year reign, Egyptians have “suffered the most intense human rights abuses in recent history”: 982 deaths at Rabaa Square last August, the sentencing of 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death in March, and other acts of repression intended to strike fear among Egyptians and politically demobilize the population. [2]  Along the same lines, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Egypt as the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists in 2013.  Notably, four Al-Jazeera journalists (Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed, and Abdallah Elshamy), among others, were imprisoned for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.  Although Elshamy was recently released, Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed were sentenced to between seven and ten years in prison in a trial that was widely derided by many Western powers for its lack of evidence and caused a global outcry against Egypt’s limitations on freedom of the press. [3]

These events sadden me on a deeply personal level.  Like others who study Egypt, I was taken by surprise by the revolution and had hoped that it would eventually lead to increased freedom of expression.  Despite the disheartening recent blows to freedom of expression, I caution readers not to give up on Egyptians’ ability to exercise their political voices.  Long before the Arab Spring, Egyptians found ways to express their political views in public.  They did so under Hosni Mubarak’s regime, they did so under Morsi and they will do so under al-Sisi.

Even during Mubarak’s highly repressive, authoritarian regime, relatively weak and underprivileged groups found ways to raise controversial topics in public.  A discourse of citizenship became a proxy term used for controversial topics such as women’s rights and religious freedom that could not be explicitly referenced in public.  Egyptians across the political spectrum used the tools of the oppressor – in this case the discourse of citizenship – for their own purposes.

In September 2002, the then-ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) met for its annual congress under the slogan “New Thinking and the Citizen’s Rights.”  Addressing the conference, Mubarak himself paid lip service to “the citizenship principle”:  “Out of this principle, we have adopted the rights of citizens as a slogan of the first annual congress because of our deeply-entrenched belief that Egyptian citizens’ enjoyment of their rights would consequently guarantee fulfillment of obligations towards the good of the nation.” [4]  The younger generation within the NDP party might have been using this new slogan to legitimize their bid for power. [5]  The regime’s use of the term might also have grown out of Suzanne Mubarak’s involvement in a campaign to acquire citizenship for the children of Egyptian women and foreign men, which was intended to create an international buzz around her attention to women’s issues.

Whatever the Mubarak regime’s self-serving motives, public dialogue about citizenship became a space where women discussed broader issues of gender equality and religious minorities (Coptic Christians and Bahais) demanded rights.  Leftist feminists used the campaign around citizenship rights as a vehicle for discussing a taboo subject: the sale of poor Egyptian women in marriage to men from the Gulf.  Similarly, Coptic Christians employed language about citizenship to demand inclusion in the polity as equals.  Bahais used the same language in a campaign to acquire identity cards, which constituted their legal relationship with the state. After the government computerized the process of issuing these cards in 2004, Bahais could not obtain them because the new application contained only three options for religion: Muslim, Christian or Jewish. In the words of one human rights activist, religious minorities entered the public sphere strategically:

The government of course doesn’t like at all the term “minority,” so this [term] is not expected to be used.  So they use the term “citizenship” and this is the term which some Muslims, some Christians, intellectuals, and academics use to replace the term “minorities”: “citizenship rights” or […] the “right of the citizens.” [6]

One feminist activist I interviewed described how Egyptians had managed to widen public debates, despite restrictions on speech, by using this language: “The discourse about citizenship and rights has been moving a lot, not just because of women’s issues, also because of the issues of Copts or Bahais or whatever.  These issues are putting these [questions on the table]: what does it mean to be a citizen here, what does it entail, what rights does it give me?” [7]

These demands for rights and the language Egyptians used to make them became less veiled and more confrontational as the Arab Spring approached.  As words became increasingly confrontational on the Internet, Egyptians mobilized in practice.  In 2008, when workers decided to strike in El-Mahalla El-Kubra, thousands of young activists used Facebook to create the April 6 Movement in support of these workers and their grievances, which included low wages and high food prices.  The group began with 300 members and gained momentum quickly, growing to 70,000 members within a few weeks.  When April 6 arrived, thousands rioted.  The security services responded by killing four protestors and arresting an additional 400, including one of the movement’s founders, Esraa Abdel Fattah Ahmed Rashid.  Despite the arrest of the group’s other founding member, Ahmed Maher, during another protest, the April 6 movement continued to gain momentum over the next three years.  As the number of physical protests increased, the language used by dissenters grew bolder.  April 6 members chanted slogans like “Down with Hosni Mubarak” and “Release the people of Egypt.” [8]

As more Egyptians began using these increasingly confrontational forms of political expression for the first time, one member of the April 6 Movement, Asmaa Mahfouz, became famous for the strong language she employed.  In videos posted to Facebook, she directly attacked the Mubarak regime and called on Egyptians to go to Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011:

I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone.  And I’ll hold up a banner.  Perhaps people will show some honor.  Don’t think you can be safe anymore.  None of us are.  Come down with us and demand your rights, my rights, your family’s rights.  I am going down on January 25th and will say no to corruption, no to this regime. [9]

Emboldened by the revolution in Tunisia, large numbers of Egyptians joined Mahfouz in Tahrir, and during the eighteen days that the square was occupied it was evident that the language of dissent had changed dramatically.  Egyptians chanted slogans like “The People Want to Topple the Regime” and perhaps most famously, “Freedom, Dignity and Social Justice.” Egyptians had stopped masking their concerns in proxy language, marking a shift in how they confronted the regime both literally and figuratively.

Bassem Youssef’s satirical program, Al Bernameg, came out of this shiftYoussef shared Mahfouz’s lack of inhibition and his comments were as direct as the slogans of Tahrir.  Following the examples set by Mahfouz and Youssef, Egyptians are no longer veiling their grievances in proxy language.  For example, after al-Sisi’s candidacy was announced, a sarcastic “Vote For the Pimp” campaign slogan spread across Twitter and Facebook, mocking the soon-to-be president with a term particularly offensive in Egyptian culture.  The hashtag was tweeted hundreds of thousands of times, and the slogan was chanted in rallies and written on walls, currency and buses. Al-Sisi supporters came back with their own slogans, and several prominent pro-government TV presenters called for a Twitter ban in response.  Since the age of proxy language under Mubarak, the anti-government discourse in Egypt has fundamentally changed.

Adjusting to this shift, the regime continues to look for new ways to stifle dissent.  The regime’s crackdown on journalists and ban on public gatherings has coincided with its efforts to monitor social media.  A document was recently leaked indicating that Egypt’s Interior Ministry has plans to systemically monitor social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Viber, Whatsapp and Instagram. [10]

Scholars have been writing about the power and limitations of social media and new technology because of their widespread use during the Arab Spring. Many argue that while the uses of technology tend to open up debate in authoritarian regimes – and were contributing factors in toppling the Mubarak regime – they do not eliminate the risk of arrest for users. [11]  The authoritarian regime will find ways to push back against whatever medium Egyptians use to make their voices heard, and at the same time, Egyptians will continue to invent new ways to resist.  I have heard from Egyptian friends, for example, that many have created new accounts on Facebook using aliases in order to circumvent government monitoring.  I also spoke with a feminist activist who informed me that other activists have recently started shutting down their Facebook profiles while they are in police custody to prevent the security forces from using them as evidence.  She added that Egyptians under the al-Sisi regime are “more daring” in their language than before the Arab Spring, but are also feeling “more vulnerable” and therefore more likely to “hide their identities.” [12]  This example of activists inventing new strategies as the government becomes more technologically savvy demonstrates the continued cycle of government crackdowns followed by new forms of resistance.

It is both understandable and extremely disheartening that Egyptians are feeling more vulnerable than ever.  Egyptians have not seen the increased political freedom that many others and I were hoping to see.  The crackdown on Bassem Youssef silenced an important avenue of political expression.  The eighteen days that Egyptians spent in Tahrir in 2011, however, will always represent an enormous act of resistance, even if they seem to have been unsuccessful (so far) in bringing about a more representative government.  Such expression is important, even if it will most likely not lead to democratic political change in the near term.  If there is to be a more democratic Egypt, it will not happen overnight.  Although it may have seemed like these public demands for change were new, they were not.  Egyptians had been demanding political change through public campaigns around the citizenship discourse for years.  If successful political transitions are in Egypt’s future, albeit a distant one, these persistent acts of resistance will need to build over time.

[1] Sayah, Reza. 2014.  “Egyptian comedian calling it quits with his popular satirical TV show.” CNN World.  4 June. Web
[2] Dunne, Michele and Scott Williamson. 2014. “Egypt’s Unprecedented Instability by the Numbers.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 24 March. Web.
[3] Omar, Ali.  2014. “International Press Institute urges future president to protect journalists.”  Daily News Egypt.  May 26. Print.
[4] Mubarak addresses 1st Annual NDP Congress.” 2003. Arabic News.Com 26 Sept. Web.
[5] Collombier, Virginie. 2007. “The Internal Stakes of the 2005 Elections: The Struggle for Influence in Egypt’s National Democratic Party.” Middle East Journal. 61.1: 95-111. Print.
[6] Personal interview.  June 9, 2008.
[7] Personal interview. June 10, 2007.
[8] Frontline: April 6 Youth Movement. Web.
[9]Asmaa Mahfouz & the YouTube Video that Helped Spark the Egyptian Uprising. Democracy Now! Web
[10] Kingsley, Patrick.  2014. “Egypt’s police seek ability to monitor social media for signs of dissent.” The Guardian. 2 June. Print.
[11] Howard, Philip N and Muzammil Hussain. 2013.  Democracy’s Fourth Wave?: Digital Media and the Arab Spring. New York: Oxford University Press. Print.
Tufekci, Zeynep and Christopher Wilson. 2012. “Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square.” Journal of Communication, Vol.62. No. 2: 363-379. Print.
[12] Personal interview.  June 26, 2014.


Stumpo photoDr. Pamela Stumpo has more than fifteen years of experience working in the field of Middle East studies, including four years living in the region and time spent working with Middle East related non-profit organizations.  Her doctoral dissertation was focused on discourse in the public sphere among women, Coptic Christians and Bahais in Egypt right before the Arab Spring.

She has been the recipient of a Fulbright-Hays and a Presidential Management Fellowship and holds an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and a PhD from the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington.  She currently lives in Seattle with her husband and fifteen month-old daughter.  Dr. Stumpo can be reached at pamstumpo@yahoo.com.

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