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Egypt's dictatorship for the digital age

Egypt was ruled by the Mubarak dictatorship for 30 years before the people managed to overthrow him in 2011.

Mubarak was not overthrown by the internet. Some business and technological literature claimed that, because the internet made it more difficult to keep secrets (a valid claim), the “dictator business” was obsolete. An NBC news story from February 2011, hardly unique, described the Egyptian government’s attempt to shut down the internet to slow the spread of public outrage at government atrocities, but did not really offer an argument to substantiate its title: “How the internet brought down a dictator” (Wilson Rothman, NBC News, Feb 14, 2011.)

The business professor Henry Lucas reasoned as follows: “The governments of two dictators in Tunisia and Egypt did not survive citizen uprisings that were non-ideological in nature. The people were tired of the results of the dictatorships, and they found that technology helped them organize for change.” (Lucas, The Search for Survival, Praeger, 2012, pg. 151). If ideology is a set of beliefs that govern political behaviour, then there are no citizen uprisings that are “non-ideological in nature”, and Egypt’s 2011 was as ideological as any other. Both Lucas and NBC were writing before 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed the universality of internet surveillance by the US National Security Agency, revelations that also put a damper on hopes for emancipation through technology.

But let us allow for a minute the two claims, that 1) those who mobilized to overthrow Mubarak in 2011 used twitter, facebook, and youtube over the course of their mobilization and 2) these technologies made it more difficult for the Egyptian regime to keep their human rights violations secret. Does it follow that dictatorships are doomed?

It does not. The dictatorship of Egypt’s military was restored in a coup in July 2013. So, rather than asking if dictatorships are doomed, since they evidently are not, perhaps a better question might be, how do dictatorships adapt to a situation where their citizens have platforms to communicate more freely than they did before? Mubarak ruled through the standard dictatorial methods: terror, propaganda, and selective support (especially from elites and from foreign powers). Egypt’s post-2013 dictators use the same methods, though they have adapted the balance somewhat, having learned some important lessons in propaganda, and in information-management-through-terror, from 2011.

After the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011, politics in the country split into three tendencies. The army, with business interests, elite and international connections, and tremendous resources, retained much of its power. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had maintained an organization throughout the decades of dictatorship, was a significant force. The newest grouping, and also the least-organized, was inspired by the Arab Spring to oppose the dictatorship and struggle for political freedom and economic reform.

Mubarak was ousted, but the army’s power was preserved. It began taking steps to return to power immediately. The army was able to manipulate the legal process, to rush through a constitutional process, and to rush to an election that denied the ‘civil society’ group the chance to build an organization that could compete electorally with the establishment’s party or the Brotherhood. In the May-June 2012 elections, the relatively unorganized ‘civil society’ split the vote, and the Brotherhood defeated the establishment candidate.

In the months that followed, the army retained not only control of key aspects of the economy, but also many key government portfolios and executive functions. The army was able to manipulate the rationing system to exacerbate economic problems while the Brotherhood government took the blame. The Brotherhood alienated the majority secular vote with its policies of social control and its alliance with the army against secular political protests. The Brotherhood eventually generated massive resistance against it, which the army took advantage of to re-take control in the July 2013 coup.

The internet may not have made dictatorships obsolete, but Egypt’s rulers are working on developing a model of dictatorship for the internet age. In the seven months since the July coup, Egypt's new dictatorship, which is made up of the same establishment as Mubarak's dictatorship, has used extraordinary violence to try to thoroughly crush those forces that overthrew Mubarak in 2011.

The first order of business was to keep people off of the streets. When those who opposed the July coup used some of the same methods that had overthrown Mubarak, namely street demonstrations and sit-ins in public squares, they were surrounded and massacred, with huge massacres taking place in August.

Supplementing the massacres on the streets were mass, as well as targeted, arrests, and the return of long-term administrative detention. Legal processes, always under the oversight of the army, are a very important part of Egypt’s dictatorship. A constitutional referendum was held on January 14-15. Those who campaigned for a "No" vote were arrested. The referendum passed with the kind of massive majority that marked Mubarak’s electoral exercises.

The government is in the middle of a counterinsurgency war in the Sinai, on Egypt’s border with Gaza and Israel. The government's opponents, the Bedouin in the Sinai, are labeled terrorists, and anyone questioning the government’s counterinsurgency policy is similarly labeled.

Information management has been key. Journalists were arrested in advance of the constitutional referendum and are still being held. The dictators treat internationals – journalists or other members of civil society – to the same arbitrary legal processes as locals: long detentions, administrative renewals, frivolous charges. Meanwhile, local media, especially television, under concentrated establishment control, engage in virulent propaganda. The main theme in the media is that everyone who opposes Egypt’s dictators are terrorists, starting with the Brotherhood and going from there to everyone - including secular civil society - who opposed the coup. Or, indeed, who writes or says anything about the coup.

Sharif Abdel Kuddous writes of the Al Jazeera staff currently detained on terrorism charges (http://madamasr.com/content/war-journalists) that ‘prosecutors assigned a team of "media experts" from the Egyptian Union for Television and Radio to inspect equipment seized from the hotel where Al Jazeera English was operating. The technical reports show that "the footage was altered and video scenes were modified using software and high-caliber editing equipment.” So they used Final Cut Pro. They edited. They probably even selected the fiercest footage of clashes for their reports.’

Sharif also quotes from the new anti-terrorism bill: ‘Article 21 of the bill is astonishing in its vagueness and scope: "Anyone who directly or indirectly promotes acts of terror, either verbally or in writing, or through any other means of broadcasting or publishing, or through letters or online websites that others can access, shall be punished by imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years."’

So, seven months later, we have the new Egyptian dictatorship’s answer to the internet: monitor its users, jail its journalists in Egypt, and use it to broadcast messages of hate and misinformation about political opponents. So far, it is working, but it won’t work forever. Not because of the internet, but because of the people. Dictatorships are overthrown when people lose their fear, and the Egyptians have lost their fear more than a few times in recent years.

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Justin Podur blogs at podur.org

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