Alaa Abdel Fattah and the ‘democracy virus’ in Egypt

By attempting to silence an entire generation, Egypt’s leaders are paving the way for a much more violent future.

Prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah has once again been arrested [AP]

Iraq is on fire, heading for a conflagration of such magnitude that it threatens to undo the machinations of a generation of US, Iranian and Saudi mandarins.

Colin Powell’s “You break it, you own it” warning to then President George W Bush suddenly seems Solomonic in its wisdom. Even more apropos is Marx’s derision of revolutionaries celebrating “miraculous” victories against enemies “only conjured away in imagination”.

With chaos spreading across the Middle East and North Africa, it’s certainly not the time to antagonise Egypt, one of the United States’ most reliable allies, just because it has regressed to the point of holding farcical trials. Or is it?

On June 11, one of Egypt’s most well-known pro-democracy advocates, blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, was once again arrested along with 23 other activists from the “No to Military Trials” movement after being barred from entering a makeshift courtroom in the Tora Institute for Police Officers.

By holding the trial at Tora rather than in a public court, the Egyptian government maintains total control over who attends the court hearings. In so doing, it can limit the number of lawyers and prevent access by the media or even defense witnesses. The logical conclusion: “And yesterday, they refused entrance to the accused themselves,” explained Abdel Fattah’s wife, Manal Hassan, in an email. Is there a better metaphor for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt than this?

History’s tragicomical return

This latest farce is astonishing in its disregard for even the pretense of due process. In the wake of a 96.5 percent victory in last month’s presidential lesson, why bother even having the defendants present or pretend to hear evidence before rendering a pre-ordained verdict? Just convict and sentence them to long prison terms. It’s not a mass death sentence, but 15 years for a supposedly unauthorised protest sends an unmistakable message to Egyptians and the world.

Revolutionaries have long operated like viruses, attacking existing political, economic and social structures until the larger system was weak enough to take down. The Egyptian deep state clearly understood the potential for renewed ‘infection’, which was why almost from the moment Mubarak was forced from power it worked assiduously to block all attempts by revolutionary – and hyper-computer savvy – youth to participate in rewriting the country’s governing political and economic code.

The government’s actions clearly don’t accord with constitutional principles, but that hardly matters. The entire legal system is now an “undefined grey area”, says Manal Hassan.

The sudden conviction in absentia and incarceration without warning of activists is merely the latest example of the systematic violation of internationally recognised rights of assembly, of freedom of expression, and of due process characterising the political environment in Egypt today. Such practices cannot be compensated for by formal democratic processes; they vitiate whatever positive impact elections might otherwise bring.

Indeed, this latest crackdown has been accompanied by the ongoing use of violence by security forces on protesters, the application of mass death sentences after severely flawed judicial processes, and the use of torture, long-term detention without trial and other forms of mistreatment of detainees. Human Rights Watch summed up the present situation by arguing that it reflects a human rights situation “as dire as in any period in the country’s modern history”.

Old operating system, new viruses

Egypt’s military-dominated deep state had remained the power behind erstwhile President Mohamed Morsi’s ostensibly democratic facade. If it felt strongly enough about the need to reboot the post-Tahrir political scene to massacre hundreds and jail thousands of citizens in brazen fashion, there was seemingly little point in the US demanding it continue running now deleted software, even if it had functioned fairly well from a US perspective since its installation.

The problem, it’s now clear, is that the reinstalled old system came with some new viruses. Abdel Fattah, along with Manal Hassan, were not merely first generation Arab bloggers, they are two of Egypt’s first and best code-writers (their website “Manal and Alaa’s bit bucket” was a pioneering Arab social media platform). In conversations with both in the years since Mubarak was toppled, it often seemed like they saw the long-term struggle against the deep state as a battle over who would write the code for Egypt’s post-Tahrir political system.

As the crackdown against revolutionary forces picked up speed under Morsi, they turned their attention to training a new generation of activists in the computer, social media – and through them, political – skills that helped enable the uprising in the first place.

Revolutionaries have long operated like viruses, attacking existing political, economic and social structures until the larger system was weak enough to take down. The Egyptian deep state clearly understood the potential for renewed “infection”, which was why almost from the moment Mubarak was forced from power, it worked assiduously to block all attempts by revolutionary – and hyper-computer savvy – youth to participate in rewriting the country’s governing political and economic code.

The problem is that old syntax of power, based largely on the language of violence, corruption and patriarchy, is no longer robust enough to protect the system from the many threats against it. Even wiping the political hard drive, as occurred with the July 3, 2013 overthrow of Morsi, could not delete all the macros and snippets of code that had destabilised the system in the first place. The hacktivist generation epitomised (but by no means simply led or directed) by Abdel Fattah and his increasingly jailed comrades might be forced offline temporarily; the “Error 404” message once again defining Egypt’s political life.

System failure

But if the struggle against the revolutionary youth has been a battle against a specifically anti-systemic force – the most important slogan of the Tahrir uprising was “the people want the downfall of the system” (the Brotherhood, in contrast, had been integrated into the system before it was given a share of power) – a far graver threat, not just to Egypt’s ruling system, but to the entire regional and global system, has emerged and spread, virus-like, from within.

ISIL and other al-Qaeda-inspired radical Islamist groups are running rampant across ever larger swaths of the Muslim majority world not because they come from outside the system, like some fantastical bedouin hordes (as Juan Cole so deftly reminds us in a recent blog post, the Hashemites who led the charge against the Ottomans were soon enough routed from Arabia, and unceremoniously placed on the thrones of newly stitched together countries like “Trans-Jordan” and, of course, “Iraq”). Rather, they’ve succeeded precisely because, like most cancers, they were created, nurtured, fed and spread within it.

They are a product of the same neoliberal system that has so profoundly reshaped Egypt’s political economy since the country’s “reopening” by Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, and which became increasingly if problematically entrenched within the military-dominated elite in the 1990s. The trillions of dollars that have circulated between the United States and the Gulf petromonarchies in the last 40 years is equally the life’s blood of the global neoliberal economic system and of the insurgencies presently arrayed against it.

It’s also no surprise that the Arab uprisings of the last three years were very much rooted in opposition to neoliberal restructurings of the region’s economies, in which ramped up poverty and inequality, have been a major causal factor in the rise of contemporary jihadi extremism. Ultimately, the same causes behind the seemingly sudden and rapid descent of Iraq into civil war, and the even greater carnage next door in Syria, are behind the renewed authoritarianism in Egypt: the long-term denial of basic rights to citizens, systematic corruption and violence by governments against their peoples associated with a rapacious global system whose elites thrive off of the exploitation and repression of the majority of their fellow citizens.

It is here that the real conundrum facing Egypt’s leadership as they hold revolutionary leaders like Alaa Abdel Fattah, Mahienour el-Massry, or Ahmed Maher on ice comes into view. They clearly have the power violently to repress the broadly anti-neoliberal, revolutionary forces represented by the #Jan25 uprising. But the present regime of political violence will demand a constant expansion of the cast of “enemies”, “terrorists” and “traitors” against which the “army and the people” must fight. This process will inevitably lead to the disintegration of the bonds of common citizenship, the widening of social, political and economic conflict and potentially widespread and violent conflict.

This future is already present in the Sinai peninsula; its likely conclusion is unfolding before the world in Iraq, as it did in Syria before it – and closer to Egypt, in neighbouring Libya. The costs to regional and global security of such destabilisation are almost impossible to calculate. What is clear, however, is that by continuing to imprison, torture, kill and otherwise attempt to silence an entire generation, Egypt’s leaders, like their counterparts in Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan, are paving the way for a much more violent future for their peoples.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.