Tough time for the opposition in Egypt
Cairo - Ahmed Tantawi learned the hard way how dangerous it is to oppose the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
In December, Tantawi, a journalist and a lawmaker, criticised a government-proposed media bill, calling for the measure not to be enacted without listening to the Journalists’ Syndicate, the independent guild of the country’s journalists.
His suggestion was met harshly. Parliament Speaker Aly Abdel A’al insisted that Tantawi leave.
“This was embarrassing to me,” Tantawi said. “Opponents are always silenced inside parliament.”
Other lawmakers have been humiliated and insulted for striking discordant notes. One lawmaker was chastised, smeared and asked to keep quiet for inquiring about the salaries of army generals. Another was reprimanded for criticising Sisi.
Egypt’s parliamentary opposition says it is bullied, abandoned and feels unwanted. This, however, is less about the mostly pro-Sisi parliament and more about shrinking political freedoms, declining tolerance for opposition and the extreme lack of space for those who disagree with people in power in Egypt.
With the Muslim Brotherhood formally out of politics and Egypt’s ultra-orthodox Salafists neutralised and leftist parties alienated, the country’s political situation is all about support for the president and his retinue.
Political analysts refer to fear from being in the opposition in a country where everybody is either a backer of the president or made a political outcast.
“The regime does not want unlike-minded politicians to be present,” Cairo University political science Professor Hassan Nafaa said. “It hates to be opposed. It hates to see those who disagree with it.”
Egyptian politics has been marked by political parties for decades and a parliament for a century and a half. There are more than 120 political parties but none is in the opposition.
Before the 2011 uprising that ended the rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, there were leftist and liberal parties that propagated different political and economic ideologies. After Mubarak was deposed, Islamist parties — banned under Mubarak — were formed, enriching Egyptian politics.
The first post-Mubarak elected president, Muhammad Morsi, was Islamist. His failure to address economic and political problems led to his military-orchestrated, public-backed ouster a year later.
Sisi, the army chief under Morsi who won the presidential election after the latter’s ouster, quickly moved to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi was affiliated and the most vibrant Islamist group in the country.
He forced the Brotherhood out of political life. Sisi also succeeded in rallying most of the country’s political forces behind him while he attempted to obliterate political Islam.
However, his heavy-handed policies annihilated political diversity, political analysts like Nafaa said. The culture in Egypt, he added, is one of complete submission to the president’s will.
“The regime is in a real crisis,” Nafaa said. “It is badly in need of listening to a different point of view.”
Nevertheless, different opinions are not allowed to be voiced and, when they are, they are met with harshness.
Most journalists criticising the president are out of business. Lilian Dawoud, a Syrian TV host, was deported a few months ago, and Mahmoud Saad, who hosted a talk show on the private channel al- Nahar TV, did not have his contract renewed. Abdel A’al has called for suspending a programme on a private television network by Ibrahim Issa, an outspoken critic of Sisi. Issa’s programme was suspended on January 2nd.
Abdel A’al also tried to prevent MPs from talking to the media, yells at journalists and bans meetings between lawmakers and foreign diplomats.
When Tantawi was bullied by the parliament speaker and his colleagues, he said he felt broken and helpless and had no option but to leave the parliament chamber.
“This was unprecedented in the history of parliament,” he said. “Only those who back the government are allowed to speak.”
Many argue that it was not the right time to criticise Sisi’s approach because Egypt is in a peculiar situation since the January 2011 revolution and the short Islamist rule. Egyptians face multiple security and economic challenges that put the country’s future at stake.
Leftist politician Hussein Abdel Razik said Egyptians must stand united behind the president, who holds the country together, brings security to the man on the street and works to gain the confidence of the international community.
“Egypt is in an existential battle and this makes it necessary for everybody to stand in the camp of the president,” he said.
A veteran of Egyptian politics, Abdel Razik, referred to the economic hardships faced by Egypt and the country’s war against terrorism.
Sisi’s opponents, however, argue that the Egyptian leader, who has initiated real economic reforms, started an all-out campaign against religious extremism and advocates a return to Egypt’s regional leadership, was using the same hardships to expand his powers, tighten overall control and silence opposition.
Some of Tantawi’s colleagues in parliament are afraid to talk, lest they anger and run afoul of Abdel A’al, he said.
“They prefer silence to being humiliated,” Tantawi said, “but how long should we be silent and why?”