Letter from Cairo — From the August 2014 issue

Return of the Strongman

How did Egypt revert to dictatorship?

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When I arrived in Cairo in the fall of last year, my thoughts kept turning to the bloody events of the summer that had just passed. By then, most of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood — the eighty-six-year-old Islamist organization long persecuted by successive Egyptian regimes — were either in jail or in hiding. Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood-backed president dramatically ousted after only a year in office, was in detention, facing sundry charges ranging from espionage to incitement to murder to misappropriation of state funds ($460,000 allegedly spent on “ducks, chicken, and grilled meat”). At the airport, a long-faced taxi driver offered me a limp thumbs-up when I inquired about the state of things. “Very good,” he said in a monotone. “Very calm.” And yet this calm struck me as an eerie one. Boxy military tanks and trucks were everywhere, poised as sentinels at major intersections, at the mouth of every bridge, and along the manicured road to and from the airport. The generals in charge had declared a countrywide state of emergency and imposed a nightly curfew — a hallucinatory measure for Egyptians, who are night owls. There were terrible stories about what happened to people who stayed out too late, like that of an unlucky Frenchman arrested and beaten to death in his jail cell.

Supporters of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after an announcement by Egypt’s electoral commission naming Sisi the country’s new president, June 3, 2014 © Ahmed Ismail/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Supporters of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after an announcement by Egypt’s electoral commission naming Sisi the country’s new president, June 3, 2014 © Ahmed Ismail/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

During those strange, abbreviated days, the margins and marginalia of the local papers revealed a great deal about the state of the national psyche. There were, for example, an unusual number of ads for online courses in anger management. Notices for jobs in prosperous Gulf cities like Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi. On the website of Al-Ahram, Egypt’s state-run newspaper, a message would pop up: “Learn the four signs of heart attack.” In October, an article in the same paper announced that a huge shipment of counterfeit Xanax had been successfully intercepted. There were runs on Xanax throughout the country. Antidepressants and painkillers also.

Egyptian antiquities were in a sorry state. King Tut’s sister had gone missing, a limestone figure of the princess from the fourteenth century b.c. swiped from a small museum in Upper Egypt by godless looters. In rural China, the entrepreneurs behind a new theme park had erected an exact replica of the Sphinx — same girth, same phantom nose — prompting Egypt’s minister of antiquities to angrily file a complaint with UNESCO. The tourists who had for decades flocked to Egypt for a sight of the actual Sphinx were no longer coming. In 2010, 361,000 Americans visited Egypt. In 2013 that number was, according to the minister of tourism, “closer to zero.” Egypt has lost 3,000 of its millionaires to emigration since the reign of Hosni Mubarak, the dictator ousted in February 2011 after thirty years in office. It has also been declared the worst place to live on earth for expatriates. Another poll — no relation to the former — concluded it was the worst Arab country for women. According to the country’s interior ministry, homicide rates have tripled since 2011. Abductions have risen fourfold, armed robberies by a factor of fourteen.

With Morsi locked up, an interim government was in place, and yet no one, including my taxi driver, could tell me the name of the new prime minister. Influxes of cash from the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and the Emiratis — regimes with a history of animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood — led the state press to spin tales about how life had magically improved in post-Morsi Egypt: gas-station lines were shorter, electricity was more reliable, the perennially crusty Nile was newly sparkly. Almost no one wanted to talk about what had happened over the summer. Conversations I had in the following weeks often ended in uncomfortable silence or a gentleman’s agreement not to talk about politics.

Looking at this grim picture, one might begin to understand the spectacular rise of a man named Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a career military officer and former minister of defense who, as Egypt’s new president, is perhaps best known for his ability to excite large numbers of women. And yet, Sisi has presided over a political change of surreal proportions: in three years, Egypt has swung from a poster-child revolutionary state to a polarized military dictatorship whose oppression surpasses even that of the Mubarak era. How did a happy story about an emerging democracy become a familiar one about grinding dictatorship — and dictatorship with the mandate of the people, no less?

If Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began, Egypt seems poised to become its burial ground.

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is a senior editor of Bidoun.

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