Interview. We interviewed the well-known Egyptian activist. ‘A new uprising is certain, but I fear it will be dangerous. If you destroy the opposition forces, the starving people will find themselves without political leadership.'
written by Chiara Cruciati
Topic Middle East and North Africa
January 30, 2023
Twelve years later, Tahrir Square has changed its face. The renovation commissioned by the government that arose out of the July 2013 coup has disfigured it. To prevent it from remaining what it has always been, the square of freedom, the government has turned it into a motorist-friendly traffic circle and its center has been filled with obelisks, to celebrate the oldest empire and forget modern achievements.
Around Tahrir, daily life has also changed. Egyptians are hungry, hungrier than they’ve ever been, they say. “Forced to go vegan” was a Tuesday headline in the online news outlet The New Arab, because meat costs too much. Butchers are closing, one by one. They have no customers. And there is also a shortage of producers as well: raising a cow is no longer worthwhile. Twelve years after the revolution that showed the face of another Egypt, Tahrir is further and further away. Or at least it appears so. Anger is growing.
Ramy Shaath, one of Egypt’s best-known activists, is sure of this. Of Palestinian origin, co-founder of BDS Egypt and the face of Tahrir Square, he is celebrating a year of freedom: he was released in January 2022, after two and a half years in pre-trial detention, without ever facing trial. It ended up being a half-freedom: Cairo stripped him of his citizenship and he was deported to Paris soon after putting his “feet on the asphalt,” as Egyptians say when a prisoner gets out of jail.
To understand Egypt today, one has to start with the socio-economic situation. Two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, while the government is buying a $500 million presidential jet, spending 50 billion on a brand new capital and 9 billion on Italian warships. The list goes on.
The economic situation is not just deteriorating, it is at the point of blowing up. In the last two months, the Egyptian lira has lost 50 percent of its value. Basic necessities are no longer available: rice, cooking oil, medicines. They are not there because 70 percent of what Egyptians consume comes from abroad, but there is a shortage of dollars in the country and imports are blocked. And what is available costs too much: some necessities have seen a price hike of up to 300 percent. With one-third of the domestic budget going into the giant infrastructure projects wanted by the regime, there is nothing left for health, education, food subsidies for the poor. But cutting subsidies has not improved the country’s economic situation.
Egypt produces almost nothing at this point, living mostly on remittances from Egyptians abroad. Egypt’s only real export is people, cheap labor that goes to work in the Gulf, Europe and the U.S., and sends back $30 billion a year. But even that is not enough anymore: Egypt has an official foreign debt of $170 billion, although the unofficial figure is $220 billion. Every day I get calls from friends, politicians, family members who are still in Egypt, telling me about not being able to find food and medicine, about stray cats and dogs dying of hunger in the streets because people are emptying the bins looking for leftovers.
Does the regime have a strategy?
The government has no vision. The regime has increased the external debt several times over, from $30 billion in 2013 to the current $170 billion, to which one must add the domestic debt, increasing from $40 billion to the current $251 billion. This money has not been used for the benefit of the production economy, but has been spent on unnecessary projects, such as the enlargement of the Suez Canal or the new capital, New Cairo, the symbol of the regime’s need to fortify itself, to distance itself from the people so that in case of an uprising, the desert and military posts will be there to protect the government. Projects aimed at enriching businesses controlled by the military, which now holds 50-60% of the economy without paying taxes or bills. The generals have become super rich, stashing money abroad in secret accounts while the country sinks. And for the first time, the wealthy classes are also sinking: private entrepreneurs are suffering as well. And let’s not even talk about the middle class: it has disappeared, it no longer exists. There is only poverty.
However, many Western countries are telling a different story: Egypt that is a source of stability in a conflict-ridden region. Can a regime that imprisons 60,000 people for political reasons and starves an entire population generate stability?
There is no stability with poverty and the persecution of tens of thousands of people for their political views. There is no stability with media censorship and with the army controlling the economy. There is no stability with the army’s increased power and with money spent on weapons instead of health and education. Western governments arming Cairo should press for democratization, free elections, an end to political oppression, and equitable management of the economy. That would ensure stability. Instead, we have a regime buying U.S. war jets in the midst of the biggest crisis in Egyptian history and with $9 billion in food imports not coming into the country because we don’t have dollars to pay for them. When the situation blows up, the West will call us a third-world dictatorship. We are not only that: we are a third-world colony, because it is the West that is maintaining this reality of corruption and oppression. Three weeks ago, in the U.S., I met with the State Department: they told me that I shouldn’t pin my hopes on democratization, that at best we can work on improving respect for human rights. No thanks, we don’t want “improvement,” we want freedom and democracy.
Ten years after the coup, is the al-Sisi regime stable or are there internal rifts?
The rifts will come. Today the intelligence services and the military are supporting the regime because it grants them economic power and impunity. When this economic power is damaged by the economic crisis, which will inevitably affect their businesses as well, we will see internal rifts. By relying on the military, al-Sisi has tried to build a solid base. And he has put the armed forces at the forefront, after decades of power behind the scenes. There is no longer a buffer zone between the people and the army. The next uprising can only have the army as its interlocutor, and nothing good will come of it.
In such a repressive climate, do opposition forces still exist?
The opposition forces are very weak. The Islamic movement is completely destroyed, and what is left is divided: there are differences between the Muslim Brotherhood members who are in prison and those outside, between the old and the new generation. I think this is a good thing: within the Brotherhood, voices are now being raised against new attempts to rise to power. For the first time, this could give Egypt a chance for a change to a secular government, neither military nor religious. But civil society is not doing well either: tens of thousands of activists are in prison, hundreds have had to leave the country. It is difficult to form an organized opposition. There is one in the diaspora that is trying to get in contact with the domestic one, but this is dangerous: a lot of activists in Egypt are afraid to talk to us who are abroad. That is enough to get arrested.
Is a new uprising still possible?
A new uprising is certain, but I fear it will be dangerous. If you destroy the opposition forces, the starving people will find themselves without political leadership. The 2011 revolution was a revolution for freedom, started by the middle class and supported by all sectors of society. It had a clear political vision and particular demands: democratization, freedom, constitutional changes. Without a political framework, the people’s movement will be depoliticized and less organized, driven by anger and hunger instead of hope and political vision. The situation will blow up. And it will blow up soon. It can happen at any time. With a strong opposition, the explosion would happen with a safety net that avoids the abyss. A revolution driven by anger and not by hope is dangerous. Tahrir was beautiful because it was driven by hope.
Nonetheless, Tahrir has changed Egyptian society, showing it that it is capable of making a revolution.
The people will always be creative and find the means to rise up. What the regime did was to strike against everyone who participated in the revolution. Did activists make it happen? The regime imprisoned them or deported them. Did the Islamic movement make it happen? The regime killed its members and imprisoned them. Did the NGOs make it happen? The regime closed them by decree and confiscated their money. Did the internet make it happen? The secret services intensified mass monitoring of social media. Did it happen in the meeting places of leftist movements and intellectuals? The regime closed cafes, bookstores, cultural venues. It targeted any space that could represent a place for political debate. It remade Tahrir Square to make it difficult to demonstrate there. This is a dumb way of thinking; it is the way of the army and the secret services. They haven’t understood that when people want to rebel, they will find a way to communicate and come together.
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