Why don't Egypt's democrats 'play politics'?

Why don't Egypt's democrats 'play politics'?
Comment: The potential repercussions of opposing the regime are just too dangerous, writes Sara Khorshid.
6 min read
12 Jul, 2017
Khaled Ali is being persecuted for his opposition to Sisi's regime [Getty]

Picture yourself as a wannabe politician running for election, whether independently or endorsed by a small, non-mainstream political party. You do not have the resources that the big parties' politicians enjoy, but you still run.

What is your worst case scenario? Losing the election? Or even worse: Your rivals attempting to tarnish your reputation?

You still have to thank God you are not in Egypt, where thinking about entering the political arena could mean repercussions that range from enforced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial imprisonment to assaults on family members by a security apparatus with a history of taking loved ones as hostages to pressure activists.

Well-documented cases are so many that they make up Egyptian activists' everyday life. On July 1, Khaled Dawoud, the head of the opposition party Al-Dostour, described in a Facebook post how a mother broke down in tears in front of him upon seeing her son, a leading member of the same party, handcuffed at a police station.

The man was held in a tiny cell with three other detainees in sweltering summer heat.

Weeks earlier, former presidential candidate Khaled Ali, also a human rights lawyer and opposition party leader, was arrested and prosecuted in a "clearly politically motivated" case, as described by Amnesty International's campaigns director for North Africa.

Ali is now facing trial. If convicted, he "would be barred from running for the presidency", Amnesty pointed out in a statement.

You don't just take your chances at an electoral race - you brace yourself for whatever the vicious security authorities decide to do with you

This is only part of a full-fledged campaign by the security apparatus to arrest leading members of opposition parties after raiding their homes and terrorising their families. The crackdown comes at a time when word is circulating on whether any of the prominent activists or opposition party leaders will run in the approaching 2018 presidential election against the incumbent president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. 

Under Sisi, the army general and former defence minister who ousted President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the price that one pays for taking the perfectly legitimate path called "democratic elections" could be too high to pay. You don't just take your chances at an electoral race - you brace yourself for whatever the vicious security authorities decide to do with you.

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No law or constitution will protect you if authorities lock you up in a prison cell then forget about you for years, forcefully disappear you or even eliminate you in cold blood.

This is just part of the reason why Egyptian democrats don't run for elections and/or endorse candidates. Why they don't "play politics" through mainstream parties and similar channels to build a better alternative to the status quo that they oppose?

What Egypt has been witnessing since the July 2013 coup is not politics, but a scary scene ruled by "Mafia-type institutions",in the words of by political scientist Ahsraf El Sherif. Sisi, whose regime "is too week to allow for a public sphere to re-emerge", has been "closing down all channels of participation".

Several democrats have straightforwardly told this writer they are "too scared" to take part in any political activity, organise in a political party or group, or reclaim any of the space they occupied in the pre-2013 public sphere.

He [the regime's candidate] - and in this case it is always a 'he' - would have the state-run media campaigning for him both explicitly and implicitly

Yes, throughout history and in different parts of the world, democrats fought for their cause notwithstanding the sacrifices they had to make and the crackdowns they were subjected to. But this does not necessarily mean taking part in an election that fails to meet the minimal standards of fair play.

One candidate, whether Sisi himself or whomever the military and the regime's forces will decide to endorse, would have everything, while the other(s) would have nothing.

He - and in this case it is always a "he" - would have the state-run media campaigning for him both explicitly and implicitly. He will also have the electoral law, rules and arrangements tailored, at every possible point of time before or during the race, to make his victory a 100 percent certainty. His rival(s), on the other hand, would be declared enemy number one by the regime's power-centres.

The outcome: 1. A sweeping win for the military's candidate; 2. More activists in prison or forcefully disappeared; and 3. The cosmetic appearance of a real election that was never real, along with the legitimacy, or the look of it, that the international community typically attaches to election results.

Even in the hypothetical, unlikely scenario of Sisi disappearing from the scene, perhaps if the military and the other power centres decide he is a burden on the regime, he will be only replaced by another representative of the same authoritarian and inefficient regime.

That said, not all Egyptian supporters of democracy share the same stance. A segment of prominent activists have recently argued for an active participation in the 2018 election, with an eye on 2022, in hopes that their insistence to stick to the electoral path could pressure the regime to take the election seriously - so it will serve as a fresh dynamic in the currently stagnant political arena and public space.

Acting as if there are proper or even semi-proper institutions, then participating in their elections, is living in a state of denial

While their stance is respected, it is important to take into consideration the limitations of such choice and the subsequently limited following it is expected to garner among the country's disillusioned youth. The sacrifices that have been and will continue to be made are too costly - Khaled Ali's trumped-up trial and the ongoing crackdown on political party members are cases in point – all the more so with no significant progress being made.

A key feature of the Egyptian state now is that it is not only authoritarian but also clearly fragile. Not a completely failed state resembling 2010 Somalia, for example, but one with major failures in providing basic public services such as security, infrastructure or public elementary education. 

Acting as if there are proper or even semi-proper institutions, then participating in their elections, is living in a state of denial.

When extremely inefficient institutions are taking their last gasp and fighting for survival by viciously cracking down on dissident voices, there is no point in attempting to assume positions in these institutions through elections that will be too risky to penetrate.

Sara Khorshid, an Egyptian columnist and journalist, has covered Egypt, the region and Arab-Western relations for the past 15 years. Her articles have appeared in numerous media outlets, such as the New York Times, The Guardian, Jadaliyya, and Al-Shorouk.

Follow her on Twitter: @SaraKhorshid

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab