Conversations in Cairo are punctuated by dates: 11 February (Mubarak’s fall), 24 June (Morsi’s election), 30 June (Sisi’s coup), which takes a bit of getting used to. On the street murals depicting the martyrs are defaced with black ink; barbed wire, state-constructed barricades and gates used to seal off roads remain in place. My publisher, Karem Youssef, talks me through the geography of the uprising, describing how she herself was radicalised as week followed week. It’s too soon to treat the events nostalgically since, according to some, they are not yet over. I’m not sure about that, but what is indisputable is that hope is dead.
During and after the uprising Mubarak’s name stood for amorality, cynicism, duplicity, corruption, greed and opportunism. A few months after Morsi’s triumph at the polls, the same adjectives were being used to describe his rule, and soon it was being said that he was worse than Mubarak – a grotesque overstatement. The reality is that the Muslim Brotherhood, its supreme guide and its elected president were visionless sectarians, incapable of fulfilling the central demand of the uprising: ‘an end to the regime’. Morsi had no desire to unite the country by full-blooded democratisation: his ambition was to be an Islamist Mubarak. His drawling indolence and utter indifference to the needs of the country saw his unpopularity rise by the day. It wasn’t just urban liberals who turned against him. In mosque after mosque, I was told, and not by Sisi fans, ordinary believers stood up and challenged Brotherhood preachers after Friday prayers and khutba, accusing them of hypocrisy (a very strong condemnation in Islam) and of lining their own pockets.
The US ambassador, Anne Patterson (fresh from a stint in Pakistan), had hoped that Morsi would be an Egyptian Erdoğan, but quite apart from the fact that the model was losing his shine, the history and political dynamics of the two countries are very different. Snubbed by Sisi, attacked by the press for being ‘one-sided’ and partial to the Brothers, Patterson returned to Foggy Bottom in a huff. For the first time in years there is no US ambassador in town. The ‘international community’ isn’t too bothered: the Israelis are relieved that the military is back in power. Ever since Sadat opened the door to private investment the army have been good people to do business with in bad times, and like Morsi, the new saviour accepts that the peace treaty is sacrosanct. But the absence of an ambassador rankles with the Egyptians. It’s nine months since Patterson’s departure and the Egyptian Foreign Office is insisting that ‘diplomatic norms’ are being violated. More important than an ambassador is the military aid – $1.3 billion a year – and it has been partially frozen since the killings of Brotherhood supporters. In a message to Obama last week, Sisi put Washington’s rhetoric to good use, assuring the president that Egypt is ‘fighting a war against terrorism … The Egyptian army is undertaking major operations in the Sinai so it is not transformed into a base for terrorism that will threaten its neighbours and make Egypt unstable. If Egypt is unstable then the entire region is unstable.’
Obviously it would have been far better had Morsi been removed in a referendum rather than a coup, but the military decided otherwise and used the methods of the Arab Spring to hoist a new dictator to the presidency. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former head of the Mukhabarat, was projected as the saviour of the nation. His image, the stern baby-face under the designer dark glasses, is everywhere. Sisi on his own, Sisi’s image next to Nasser’s, milking popular nostalgia for the leader who instituted agrarian reform, created state-subsidised industries, free education, imposed severe restrictions on foreign capital, implying that this is his model. It’s a badly crafted lie. It will be business as usual under Sisi, as attested by the number of upper-class women having their Nefertiti necklaces reset to include an image of the new pharaoh. The well-orchestrated Sisi-mania industry makes sure that there is a little something for everybody. I couldn’t believe that in the popular markets cheap women’s underwear was for sale with Sisi’s face imprinted on the v-spot, until I saw a picture. Attempts to purchase a few dozen proved futile. They had sold out. Just for the record, I didn’t try the Sisi Mix Sandwich, the Egyptian Hero/Saviour of Egypt chocolates, or Sisi Is My President Male Spray Cologne. The Sisi bra, I admit, is quite fetching, but not this time. Why no Sisi nappies? What better way for new-born citizens to meet their leader?
Two weeks before the general’s election, most of the activity in Cairo was on the TV screens. There were some encouraging signs. The day before I left, what had been billed as a huge pre-election rally for the main contender turned out to be a flop. Fewer than two thousand people to hear the ‘saviour of the nation’! A panicked bureaucracy hurriedly organised state employees, including out of uniform soldiers and cops, to make up the numbers, but a sulky Sisi decided that he wouldn’t show up either. It makes no difference. His victory is assured. And policies? Well, there are plenty of promises: 22 new industrial towns, 26 tourist hubs and eight new airports. Asked to be more specific, the saviour announced that he will curb youth unemployment – currently at 24.8 per cent or 6.5 million, though the real figures are much higher – by buying trucks to transport frozen meat to poor areas and hiring the drivers to get it there. Luckily Egyptians are known throughout the Arab world for their very special sense of humour.
What of the defeated opposition? They must be rooted out of society, Sisi declares. His presidential rival, Hamdeen Sabahi, a well-meaning but weak establishment figure, agrees with the general on many things. Within the space of three months, Egypt’s judges have brought their country’s good name into disrepute (a constitutional crime) by sentencing two lots of Brotherhood prisoners, 1100 in total, to death after collective trials that lasted barely ten minutes each. Liberals with short memories applaud. It’s the only way. A female journalist from al-Ahram lost it when I attacked the judiciary for the sentencing. ‘Too few, too few, we need more,’ she said as she switched off the recorder. More depressingly, an old friend and radical Copt intellectual, Hani Shukrallah, who chaired one of my talks, was taken aback by my hostility to Sisi. In private he said: ‘Please understand that there is a fight going on for Sisi’s soul.’ When I pointed out that it was military officers, not Morsi, who drove armoured vehicles through a largely Copt crowd outside state television headquarters, Hani nodded and muttered cynically: ‘I guess they had to start somewhere.’ A well-known example of coat-turning is Abdulrahman al-Abnudi, a radical icon since the 1960s: a poet who once insisted that intellect doesn’t attain its full force unless it attacks power, he now composes panegyrics to Sisi.
Apart from liberal folk inside the country, Sisi’s strongest supporters in the region are the Wahabi princes who run Saudi Arabia and loathe the Brotherhood, which has a presence throughout the Gulf and obtains state patronage from Qatar (hence the tense relations between Riyadh and Doha). Morsi’s forced removal was warmly welcomed in Riyadh and the Saudis reward their friends generously: they sent Egypt a $2 billion donation in the form of petrol products. In addition, from last April to August this year, free fuel to worth $3 billion will have flowed into the country. Fewer power cuts mean less public anger.
Even so, it will not be easy for the elected dictatorship to ease the discontent that is beginning to mount. The Egyptian Trade Union Federation is totally discredited and seen not so much as a bureaucracy but as a police force with powers to cajole, coerce, bribe or intimidate workers and their families. The new order will attempt to ban strikes and will, no doubt, imprison and torture unofficial trade unionists in order to enforce its will. The students at al-Azhar have been restive ever since the military takeover. The expulsions of some brought others out onto the streets. Repression followed in the form of tear gas and birdshot and severe beatings for the unfortunates in prison. Dozens of students were given four-year jail sentences. The media have been publicly warned to keep off the subject of corruption since it demoralises and provokes the people. Sisi himself insists that his sons got their jobs on their own merits. One is an officer in military intelligence; the other works for a state inspectorate that monitors corruption, contracts etc. Both are lucrative positions in great demand. The notion that the Sisi boys made it on their own is risible.
There will be growing revulsion against the cult. Of this I’m sure. And soon enough various factions within the establishment will be hard at work, fully absorbed in tactical games and jockeying for positions and contracts. And the Brothers? Ostracised, imprisoned, killed, those who remain will split: some will suggest a retreat from politics and others will insist on a militant, even an armed response. But, however much their opponents want to destroy them, it is not easy to kill several million people.