This logic has animated the repressive regime of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who overthrew Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. At first, Sisi promised political stability and economic prosperity. But those promises remain unmet, and there are signs that his grip on power is slipping: A poll last year showed a 14 percent drop in his public approval after he slashed subsidies and inflation spiked dramatically.
With an election approaching in 2018, Sisi has resorted to stifling dissent and galvanizing his security agencies and the military-industrial complex to help ensure that he will run unopposed. He has used his vast security apparatus to crack down on opposition politicians, including the Brotherhood, more vehemently the longer he has been in power. Meanwhile, analysts warn that if he remains focused on suppression rather than the economy, Egypt will implode.
Even by the repressive standards of the current regime, November was an absurd month. Sherine Abdel Wahab, a popular Egyptian diva and judge on the Arab version of the talent show The Voice, will go to court in December for cracking a joke about the Nile River’s severe contamination. Authorities also banned The Nile Hilton Incident from screening at a local film festival. The Sundance-award-winning fictional film tells the story of an investigation into the killing of a night-club singer at the Nile Hilton Hotel, and delves into the underbelly of Cairo’s corrupt political elite. The festival organizers cited “circumstances beyond our control” as their sole justification for cancelling the screening. Just last week, the police raided another art house theater that was screening the film.
But nothing seems to disturb Egypt’s ruling cadres more than the written word. The recent litany of bans and shutdowns, including blocking hundreds of web pages online, illustrates what Cambridge University’s Khaled Fahmy, a prolific historian of the Middle East, called “an alarmist moment of crisis,” one in which Egypt’s authoritarian state of emergency laws have turned something as simple as reading into a dangerous act. “Free press and freedom of information … are essential ingredients of any democratic system. The regime and many segments of society do not see it this way—they see the exact opposite. They see at times of crises we have to have absolute unity,” Fahmy told me.
On November 23, Gamal Abdel Hakim, a leftist political activist on his university campus, was sentenced to five years in jail under a counter-terrorism law for possessing a copy of Karl Marx’s Value, Price and Profit when he was arrested from his home earlier this year. A few days earlier on November 19, Interior Ministry officers raided downtown Cairo’s Dar Merit Publishing House, which champions young authors and serves as a refuge for revolutionaries, and detained a volunteer, accusing him of possessing and selling unregistered books. It is the latest in a series of bookshops and libraries that have been shut down in recent months. El Balad (or “The Country”), another trendy left-leaning bookstore frequented by Cairo’s literati, was also forced to close in November. Alef, a commercial bookstore chain, had its assets confiscated earlier this month on suspicion of the owner’s alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood.