Sisi manipulates the truth at the UN

Sisi manipulates the truth at the UN
Comment: The Egypt that the president spoke of in the New York chamber was not the country his critics recognise, writes Amr Khalifa.
7 min read
30 Sep, 2015
Sisi's UN speech falsely positioned Egypt as source of stability in the region [Getty]

A New York police officer stood at the edge of a crowd of Egyptians outside the United Nations building.

"Are you for Egypt or are you against Egypt?" he asked. 

The question was, at once, horrifying and edifying. To understand the confusion, one must leave reduction behind and allow the scene to unfold.

On this day, three main camps - Sisi supporters, Islamists and January 25 revolutionaries - embody the Egyptian muddle.

Beyond the obvious divisions, a dangerous dynamic has set in: battle fatigue. Combined with a visible hatred and a president whose speech virtually ignored the domestic scene with its numerous potholes, it is a fatigued divided kingdom with hazy vision.

In another world, a more idealistic one perhaps, the occasion could have been a harbinger of potential positives.

With much courage and utilitarian use of political capital, Sisi could have, for example, used the world stage as a chance to extend an olive branch to the Muslim Brotherhood - as Arafat once did to the Israelis.

The gathering outside the building, replete with mutually acidic shouts and staccato diatribes, may have been a rare occasion for discourse that sought a practical solution for a nation divided. On this day, there would be none of that.

Egyptians, you see, are stuck in the socio-political mud with only a foggy, and potentially deadly haze, as a framework. Accusations, lies, and circular reasoning leave all sides deaf to all voices but their own.

One could argue this has been the order of the day for some time. Yet, the scene in New York, confirmed what has been apparent in Egyptian media for some time: an increase in mutual venom between virtually warring sides coupled with a battle fatigue that seems to contradict the increasing political bile.

On a slightly warmer and sunnier-than-average September New York day, there was little sunshine reflected between the three camps. I snapped several photos that showed the Islamists and the Sisi faction shouting words that bore no resemblance to compliments - but the mental image that sticks with me was that of an Egyptian grandmother who came to have her voice heard.

Neamat Ali, a family woman whose face bore the fatigue of the past four and a half turbulent years, appears to be an exception to the vast majority of Egyptians seeking the wam embrace of stability.

     We need an adult, we need someone mature… who is willing to reach out
- Neamat Ali, protester

It is not that she seeks instability, she explained, but rather she viewed herself as a "a fighter for democracy", a goal she deemed important enough to leave her grandchildren at home to stand protesting for hours.

Crucially, when asked what the solution was, she explained, in simple but politically mature rhetoric: "We need an adult, we need someone mature… who is willing to reach out" and offer forgiveness to the other side, "so that we can unite".

Ali did not refer to a united Egypt but rather to a united opposition, specifically the Islamist and January 25 branches - so they may stand together and address injustices committed by the current regime.

Perhaps accurately, she pointed at the two warring opposition sides before us at the UN said that whatever may come from an alliance between them and a resulting concentration of confrontation with the regime - "it is better than this" state of civil war.

"Civil war" is a term analysts use with caution, but standing mere feet from entrenched foes locked in civil confrontation, the term captured the mood efficiently. This state of affairs, many would agree, is an accurate depiction of the Egyptian state affairs - lacking an inclination towards forgiveness.

Call it what you wish, naiveté, idealism or romanticism - or a combination of all three - that philosophy of unity may indeed be the solution, but it was nowhere near the reality experienced by those in New York, and even more distant from the situation in Cairo.

In the Sisi world, all is rosy. A president who writes in the Wall Street Journal of "re-engineering" the Egyptian economy, mentioning the resolution of 300 disputes with foreign investors while neglecting the obvious: that number itself is a frightening one for potential investors. 

The killing of eight Mexican tourists, which spoke of a security force lacking training and besmirched by arrogance, will further stain Egypt's reputation as both unstable and unaccountable to foreign interests - be they governmental, institutional or private.

In his WSJ commentary, Sisi also wrote of "political and structural challenges" that could not be discounted - but he ignored corruption. For many years, international organisations that measure corruption and its impact on the investment climate have long had Egypt near the bottom rung of such indexes - yet Sisi made zero mention of a recent corruption scandal that levelled his cabinet.

This scandal saw Sisi's former agriculture minister arrested in Tahrir square, and clearly shook investor confidence both near and far - but in reading Sisi's WSJ piece, one would be hard-pressed to find such facts.

Supporters of the Sisi kingdom could argue that many other governments have been wracked by corruption in the past - and they would be right. But Sisi is his own worst enemy.  

His vision, while lacking clarity, has a penchant for self-delusion. No example screams loudest than his recent CNN interview, in which he declared, with unusual temerity, that Egypt enjoyed "unprecedented freedom of expression".

But the pardons issued to two al-Jazeera journalists, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed - timed to coincide with Sisi's New York sojourn - does not a free press make.

The contingent of jailed journalists is led by Shawkan, arrested during the violent Rabaa dispersal, whose only crime was taking pictures. More than 600 days in the shadow of Sisi's press freedom was his reward.

As an independent journalist, the numbers of jailed journalists are a symphony of doom and certainly not the music of hope the president plays for an acquiescent international audience.

If the regime sought to convey an image of an Egypt turning the corner, reality reflects a nation on a cliff's edge.

On the very day the Egyptian strongman addressed the world, the hashtag driving Egyptian Twitter told a story of another Egypt.

Unquestionably, it was not the Egypt which Sisi sought to portray as leading the way on IS, Lybia, Syria, Iraq and Yemen - that Egypt only existed in his United Nations speech

     The Egypt on many activists' minds was the one forcibly kidnapping Egyptians, even those reportedly apolitical

But the Egypt on many activists' minds was the one forcibly kidnapping Egyptians, even those reportedly apolitical - not that being political should be considered a crime under any circumstance.

Mostafa Massony, with a huge Twitter following, is the name behind the hashtag Where is Massony [#ماصوني_فين].

A 26-year-old who went to pick up food and never returned because Egypt's National Security Agency arrested him, Massony is but one of hundreds illegally kidnapped by security forces who find the law to be cumbersome and have systematically acted extra-judicially.

The juxtaposition of an increasingly democratic Egypt forwarded by Sisi in his discourse with the West with a reality that has well over 40,000 in Sisi's jail cells is nothing short of laughable.

For those with voices contrary to the regime, this is the only Egypt they know: one that may arrest them at any moment, with minimal, if any, legal oversight.

With rumblings of confrontations, whose details are not clear in the least, becoming more commonplace in public and private discussions, Sisi would do well to equip himself with a more realistic assessment of what plagues his kingdom - a term used with intent where there is nary a check nor a balance upon executive power.

With IS knocking on the door on three fronts, Sinai, the Western Desert, and most recently the south, Sisi can ill-afford his self-congratulatory veneer.

If he continues to congratulate himself on largely imaginary successes, he may find himself, one day, celebrating where the two most recent Egyptian presidents ended up.

Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian analyst and commentator. He has written for Daily News Egypt, Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah and Arab Media and Society Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @cairo67unedited.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.