After Mada Masr published a story about the removal of Sissi’s son from the intelligence services, security forces arrested editor Shady Zalat. Then they raided the offices of the news site and detained whoever they found inside, including the editor in chief, Lina Attalah. To make matters worse, the authorities also detained a France 24 crew that was interviewing Attalah about the arrest of Zalat. The initial story, which Mada Masr ran on its website (which is blocked in Egypt), became a global scandal, with international condemnation building up. Then the security forces reversed course and released everyone. It is hard to see what exactly this raid has achieved other than highlighting the regime’s intolerance and brutality.
But beyond the obvious attack on freedom of information and expression, for me this incident illustrates the regime’s squandering of the potential of Egypt’s youth. What distinguishes Mada Masr is not just its resistance to the authoritarian onslaught on freedoms. The site is also run by young creative professionals who have built a credible and reliable news institution with limited resources in a very hostile environment. Compare their success to the sterility of state-owned TV and radio stations, newspapers and information agencies, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The difference between the dynamism of Mada Masr and the atrophy of state-owned media is freedom and creativity. But a regime mired in a Soviet-style worldview is incapable of seeing that.
The regime’s obsession with obedience, hierarchy and discipline prevents it from seeing — let alone seizing — the potential of Egyptian society, especially the youth. It stifles innovation and growth not only in media but also in politics, business, arts and culture.
The arrests earlier this year of the former lawmaker Ziad el-Elaimy and the politician Hossam Monis are another telling example. Brought up in radical leftist traditions, both of them learned quickly the need for pragmatic compromise to build meaningful partnerships among opposition groups and ultimately bargain with the authoritarian rulers. This pragmatism is what enabled them to yield influence in street politics and with trade unions and — in the case of Elaimy — to get elected to Egypt’s parliament in 2011.
After the military takeover, both Elaimy and Monis adapted again, unlike many other activists. Monis ran the presidential campaign of Hamdeen Sabahi against Sissi in 2014 and later joined Elaimy in building a network of young political activists willing to run for parliament in 2020 despite the prevailing repression. Instead of seeing this initiative as an opportunity to solidify legitimacy and reinvigorate the dead political process — to provide a channel for widespread anger and resentment — Egypt’s generals saw it as a threat and arrested the entire network, dubbing it the “Hope” conspiracy.
Nobody seemed to mind the irony.
A businessman was also caught in that net to squash “hope.” Omar el-Shenety, after studying economics and business in Cairo, London and then Columbia University, built an impressive investment portfolio that included a network of bookstores with more than 35 branches in Egypt and abroad. A success story by all standards — and a miracle by the standards of Egypt’s ailing economic institutions. His Islamic leanings, however, didn’t win him the necessary favor with the generals. His assets were frozen in 2017 and he was arrested earlier this year.
Egypt also saw it fit to fire 40 of the country’s best-serving diplomats, because of their “political views.” Though some had in fact expressed their dissent publicly — including myself — the great majority had expressed these views only in official channels or, in some cases, in social settings. Instead of capitalizing on their independent and critical thinking — vital to sound foreign policymaking — the regime saw it as a threat and acted accordingly, decapitating the foreign service in the process.
Incidents such as these are reminders that the worldview of Egypt’s ruling military might turn out to be its worst enemy; squashing professionalism, dynamism and critical thinking is no way to keep a state together, let alone rebuild it.