Carnegie Senior Fellow Amr Hamzawy has written extensively about the post-2011 uprising period in Egypt. Most recently he published three papers, one titled “Egypt’s Resilient and Evolving Social Activism,” a second titled “Legislating Authoritarianism: Egypt’s New Era of Repression,” and a third, authored with Michele Dunne, titled “Egypt’s Secular Political Parties: A Struggle for Identity and Independence.” In 2001 Hamzawy was elected to the People’s Assembly, in Egypt’s first post-uprising elections, before being compelled to leave the country in 2015. He was educated in Cairo and Berlin, and first joined Carnegie in 2005. Diwan conducted this interview in late April so that Hamzawy could talk about his papers and the situation in Egypt today.
Michael Young: In March you published three papers on Egypt. Can you describe in what political context in the country you wrote them?
Amr Hamzawy: I sat to write the papers in fall 2016, more that three years after the July 2013 coup. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was in the second half of his term and the authoritarian trajectory of his government was beyond doubt. The first wave of post-coup repression, characterized by the mass killings in the Raba‘a al-Adawiyyeh and Nahda Square protest camps in summer 2013, was being followed by a second wave of structural repression. This was carried out through undemocratic laws tailored to close off public space, instill a culture of fear among Egyptians, extinguish independent civil society organizations, and prosecute dissidents. This second wave, which continues until today, has resulted in the detention of more than 50,000 individuals for political reasons. Thousands more have been referred to military tribunals, while the unchecked security apparatus has been systematically implicated in extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and torture in detention centers.
MY: What is the dilemma of Egyptian secular political parties today, the theme of your latest paper, with Michele Dunne?
AH: Prior to the 2013 coup, most liberal and leftist parties compromised their declared democratic principles by refusing to reach out to the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood and his government. Secular obstructionist tactics, which evolved in response to the Muslim Brotherhood’s non-consensual policies and fear of an Islamist takeover of Egypt’s political system, pushed liberal and leftist parties into a Machiavellian alliance with the military establishment and the security apparatus, whose objectives were to end Egypt’s democratic transition.
After the 2013 coup most secular politicians backed the generals, ignored the wide-scale repression and mass killings, and wrongly expected the military establishment and the security apparatus to be interested in a long-term governing alliance with secular parties. As the authoritarian trajectory of Sisi, whose candidacy for presidential office in 2014 was either directly or indirectly endorsed by most secular parties, became clear, some secular parties adapted to the new reality by acquiescing to the political crumbs that the generals left them—primarily in the form of seats in the rubber stamp parliament. Other parties, while supportive of the government, attempted to preserve a degree of organizational autonomy and independent political action. The government responded to this by undermining such parties from within by instigating leadership conflicts. This included the liberal Neo-Wafd Party and the Free Egyptians Party.
A small third group of secular parties has been moving in the direction of opposing the government. However, with public space closed off, civil society organizations facing massive pressures, and new authoritarian laws in place, the scope of action of oppositional secular parties and their effectiveness have diminished greatly.
MY: In what way have secular parties changed since the days of President Anwar al-Sadat, who restored limited pluralist politics, after a period when parties had been banned by his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser?
AH: Prior to Egypt’s brief opening in 2011–2013, the tragedy of secular parties, liberal and leftist alike, was that they had to fashion their discourse, outreach strategies, and political actions in restrictive environments in which open competition over a political mandate and influence never existed. As Michele Dunne and I outline in our paper, secular parties mostly accepted cooptation by successive governments in return for minimal stakes in formal politics—for example limited representation in parliament. This resulted in major weaknesses in secular parties, from lacking stable constituencies to sustaining ambiguous positions regarding key economic, social, and political issues. Instead of capitalizing on the pluralist dynamics between 2011 and 2013, secular parties, were divided and scattered, beset by fear of Islamist successes at the ballot box. Fear quickly led to obstruction tactics, and from there the distance between undermining democratic principles and calling on the army to interfere became terrifyingly short.
MY: In another of your papers, Legislating Authoritarianism, you describe how the Sisi regime has used laws to assert its absolute power in Egypt. How has it done so?
AH: Sisi has been in control since the coup, using legislation to re-entrench authoritarianism in state-society relations. Passing repressive laws and legal amendments, the Sisi government has pursued three objectives: to undermine freedom of expression and association, which were enshrined in the 2014 constitution; to close off public space to citizens, civil society actors, and political parties and movements after the brief opening of 2011–2013; and to ensure that the powers of the military establishment and security services would remain unchecked. This meant extending the jurisdiction of the military courts, deepening the imbalance between the military and the security services on the one hand and the civilian component of the Egyptian state on the other.
It’s in this context that a protest law, a terrorism law, an NGO law, as well as amendments to the penal code and to the laws pertaining to the military courts system have been issued—and along with them more than 350 other laws and amendments. As if all these measures were not enough, the Sisi government declared a state of emergency a few weeks ago following the horrific bombing of two Coptic churches on Palm Sunday.
While I realize that Egypt has been facing a growing terrorist threat in recent years, in Sinai and elsewhere in the country, declaring a state of emergency is not the required policy response. The army and the security services have unchecked powers in their operations in Sinai and other parts of Egypt. Their implication in human rights atrocities and abuses has been documented by local and international nongovernmental organizations. Unrestricted powers and the excessive use of force have not contained the terrorism threat, nor have they improved the security situation in Egypt. Rather, they have created a social environment permeated by grievances and conducive to violence in Sinai and beyond. Declaring a state of emergency, with the tools this adds to the regime’s authoritarian policies, such as the formation of emergency tribunals, will only further compound the twin crises of human rights abuses and rising terrorism threats.
MY: How have you personally felt this growing authoritarianism in Egypt?
AH: My experience since July 2013 has been characterized by growing restrictions. I opposed secular calls on the generals to interfere in politics prior to the coup, and documented my position in a series of published opinion pieces I wrote as a liberal voice in the turbulent spring of 2013. I opposed the coup and took a position against the secular sellout of democratic principles. As a result, I saw myself being defamed in state-controlled media as a traitor, prevented from teaching political science at Cairo University, upon the recommendation of security services, and facing trumped-up charges and legal cases.
In January 2014, I was banned from travel for almost a year. Unfortunately, my wife, Basma Hassan, who is a star actress in Egypt, was prevented from pursuing her career, also upon the recommendation of the security services. My travel ban was lifted following a court decision in 2015 and I ended up leaving Egypt in the summer of that year. At any rate, my case is hardly unusual. It has happened to other people who have voiced dissent. Some have been facing harsher retribution from the government. Imprisonment, punishment, and extended travel bans appear to be the Sisi government’s preferred tools in harassing voices of dissent and civil society activists.
MY: Given Egypt’s severe economic problems, but also the outbreak of a serious, if underreported, insurgency in the Sinai, might President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi be forced to insert more flexibility into the system?
AH: Sisi’s predecessors agreed to partially open up the political system in moments of legitimacy crises as well as in periods of severe social and economic problems. Following the crushing military defeat in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and facing rising student activism in universities questioning his authoritarian rule, President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1952–1970) tolerated some talk of limiting the political role of the army, accountability for Egypt’s rulers, and freedom of expression. He even issued the March 30, 1968 declaration, in which he paid tribute to notions of democracy and citizens’ participation in public affairs.
In the 1970s, President Anwar al-Sadat (1970–1981) introduced limited party pluralism in the context of his sweeping reorientation of Egypt away from the socialist model of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and allowed for partial contestation in parliament. President Hosni Mubarak in his long rule (1981–2011) nurtured limited pluralism as a way of diffusing some of the tensions resulting from the enduring social and economic crises. A few liberal and leftist parties had a stable presence in parliament as minority parties, while the president’s party, the National Democratic Party, remained forever the ruling party.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which was the most viable opposition movement during Mubarak’s 30 years in office, faced a mixture of repression and partial inclusion in formal politics. Mubarak also allowed a margin of maneuver for nongovernmental organizations, professional associations, and labor activists to operate, while imposing severe restrictions on their activities. Sisi, however, seems to believe that the Mubarak regime was toppled because it allowed partial pluralism. He, therefore, has been using outright repression, legislative tools, and the “war on terror” narrative to close off public space to such groups and in that way he hopes to make activism extinct in Egypt.
MY: How serious is the threat posed by the Islamic State to the Egyptian regime?
AH: The security threats in Sinai and in other parts of Egypt are real. Despite ongoing counterterrorism activities, the Islamic State has increased its operations in Sinai since 2013. Bombings have also occurred in Cairo, Alexandria, and other urban centers. Military and security personnel, judges, and the Coptic community have been the prime targets of the Islamic State’s terrorists. These are serious threats and they undermine the Sisi government’s narrative that it is delivering security and stability to Egypt.
However, it is the policy Sisi has implemented in the past four years that has led us in this direction. The excessive use of force, human rights violations in Sinai, including extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, and the compulsory evacuation of local populations have created—especially in the northern part of Sinai—an environment conducive to violence and radicalism. In 2013, the Sisi government announced that the Islamic State has around 1,000 fighters in Sinai. Meanwhile, the military and the security forces have killed around 6,000 alleged terrorists. The difference between the two figures gives you a sense of both the excessive use of force and the growing militancy in Sinai. Elsewhere in Egypt, the repressive measures of the Sisi government have also led to a process of radicalization. This has been most noticeable in prisons and detention facilities, which are filled with thousands of detainees.
MY: Finally, is another January 2011 possible to your mind?
AH: An uprising is certainly a possibility. First of all the dire economic and social situation in Egypt is already bringing citizens into the streets in spontaneous bread protests. A wave of such protests happened a few weeks ago in different governorates.
Second, police brutality and the implication of the government in human rights abuses have also pushed citizens to protest openly—especially after citizens in places of detention were the victims of extrajudicial killings and torture. We have seen these protests directed against the Ministry of Interior in Cairo, Luxor, and in other places.
Third, despite the systematic use by Sisi’s government of repression and legislative tools to close off public space, new forms of activism have been emerging since 2013. Student and labor movements, as well as professional associations, are active again and they are increasingly contesting the government’s authority. The memory of January 2011, with its democratic demands and its outcry for freedom and dignity, remains embedded in so many minds, particularly those of Egypt’s youths, who represent a majority of the population.