There is something altogether clarifying when a beautiful Egyptian woman, her almond eyes flashing and voice smooth, stands tall in her high-heeled Roman sandals and declares, “I don’t want to be Winston Smith.”
That Dr. Sally Toma would choose the protagonist in one of the most provocative imaginings of totalitarianism in literary history—George Orwell’s 1984—says everything about how the Egyptian democracy movement views its fragile circumstances in Egypt today.
“We have the ministry of truth and the ministry of love,” she said, referring to the ironical government bureaucracies in Orwell’s dystopian classic, “and propaganda, and torture, and Big Brother.”
“I keep on hoping we don’t have the [same] end of Winston Smith,” she said. By the end of 1984, Smith, who serves as the novel’s ill-fated conscience, is psychologically tortured into submission. His transformation is as good as a lobotomy.
“We cannot scream about violations anymore because we will be beaten up,” Toma, a Christian Egyptian, told an audience assembled by Washington’s Middle East Institute on September 30. She and others do not foresee another revolt on the scale of 2011’s January 25 Revolution anytime soon.
“Maybe the only hope for civil society is to actually try and survive. Perhaps we call ourselves the keeper of the flame, but all we can do is keep it alive and going and to prepare the younger ones.”
This is a far cry from Tahrir Square, where Toma and her fellow compatriots helped to topple the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak, who for three decades kept political enemies and social uprisings in check with patronage politics and dungeon-like prisons. When the Muslim Brotherhood rose to take Mubarak’s place after 2011—and began repressing non-Islamist voices with new laws that effectively killed and jailed dissidents all over again—Toma returned to the streets to help bring the new president Mohammed Morsi down.
But it was the military that lent its muscle to the 2013 coup and it came at a price: Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now President el-Sisi, is a strongman of the Mubarek mold. Not only did he throw the democratically elected Morsi in prison, but the former president of Egypt is now facing the death penalty and is rarely seen since his arrest in 2012.
The Brotherhood, now illegal and considered a terrorist organization by the state, was driven underground, if not out of Egypt entirely. More than 1,000 unarmed Brotherhood protesters were killed by security forces during a Cairo sit-in in August 2013. Meanwhile, Toma and her friends watched as independent political parties withered, opposition was silenced, and journalists and activists were jailed for as little as an offending Facebook post. Estimates are that some 20,000 dissidents remain in prison today.
Critics say the 2014 presidential vote, which el-Sisi reportedly won by 96 percent, was a sham. For one, citizens were “threatened to be penalized if they did not go out and vote,” Toma said. Those who refused stayed far away from the voting box and and kept their mouths shut, fearing the worst if they spoke out. “It tells you something, the only box we believe in now, in terms of the revolution, is a coffin. You can’t start having votes and elections until you have democratic institutions,” she said.
“We decided to go into another box,” she said, noting the movement’s quiet shift underground.
This October, el-Sisi will preside over parliamentary elections that experts say will make great PR, but will do little to advance civil society. Independent parties like Al Dostour are boycotting, citing in part an election law they say is unfair and serves only wealthy, well-connected candidates, much like in the Mubarak era.
“The parties had separate reasons to protest,” said Gameela Ismail, a leading member of Al Dostour, who shared the stage with Toma. She was referred to often as “mother” of the 2011 democracy movement, for her passionate speeches in Tahrir, and her commitment to the embattled protesters.
She said Al Dostour at its peak boasted some 20,000 members. It is now closer to a thousand strong. “We have been targeted by detention and imprisonment,” she said. But who could protest? A decree known as the “anti-protest law” put into effect by el-Sisi after the Morsi ouster requires a protest permit be obtained by police.
“Sisi doesn’t seem interested in party building or normal politics,” said Nathan Brown, author and professor of international affairs at George Washington University, noting that the “authoritarian legal framework” in place will make parliament little more than a noisome herd of cats. El-Sisi, on the other hand, holds all the power legislatively in what Brown calls a “security-oriented regime.”
“I think politics in Egypt is dead right now,” Brown said simply. “When I went to Egypt in 2012 there was a lot of activity by young people. A lot of that has been blunted.”
As these critics assembled in Washington, el-Sisi was trying to put his best face forward for the cameras at the UN in New York. He made sure he released 100 dissidents, including two al-Jazeera reporters and two popular female activists, ahead of his arrival. Publicly, he waxes expansively about his country’s role in countering ISIS and promoting “regional stability.”
Domestically, he passed an even harsher anti-terror law in August that critics say “paves the way to impunity,” shielding law enforcement from charges of excessive force, and punishing reporters who contradict the state’s official record of events. El-Sisi says it’s necessary in order to exert control over militants in his country, but would never acknowledge that his own policies not only create the conditions for sporadic terrorist attacks in Cairo, but has breathed new life into an ongoing insurgency in the Sinai. If anything, he blames revolution—the very wave of people-power that cemented his control—for holding Egypt back.
As he told Margaret Warner on PBS when she tried to press him ahead of his speech at the United Nations on September 28:
These have been very difficult times for Egyptians. And we have 90 million people. They need to live. Egyptians want to find their basic needs provided and a better chance for life. This cannot be achieved while there is a state of chaos. The standards that you live by do not necessarily have to apply to the standards that we live in, in our own countries. We need some time in order to reach the standards that you live by.
El-Sisi—if Toma’s literary comparisons can be taken to their metaphorical conclusion—is Egypt’s Big Brother. And this Big Brother has a big sugar daddy in the United States, which recently released its hold on $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.
The U.S. has also promised to help with escalating militant attacks in the Sinai, where the only line of defense appears to be the already stretched Egyptian security forces and a small multinational force at the northeast border (mostly Americans) put into place after the signing of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The Sinai insurgents, emboldened by the revolution and el-Sisi’s crushing of the Brotherhood in 2012, have now pledged allegiance to ISIS.
“To have an insurgency capable of using heavy artillery and anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles, this is all new in the country, said Omar Ashour, senior lecturer of Middle East politics and security at the University of Exeter, adding that the government in Cairo is “feeding it.”
Ashour described the policy as one of totalitarian paranoia: “if you are not with us you are against us and if you are not with us enthusiastically maybe you are against us too.” El-Sisi may like to talk about external foreign threats to distract the Egyptian people—and the international audience from the crackdowns inside his country—but “the threats are internal and it has to do with non-state actors that challenge the system.” The escalation and the failure to see why, was the “main mistake of Mubarak.”
“Yes there are security issues and we have to deal with it. Terrorism is present … no one can deny this. But to what extent,” asked Emad Awad Botross, an Al Dostour party member, in a brief interview with TAC. “We are fighting and we are at war. [El-Sisi] uses this for cover. We must choose between liberty and truth and security, and civil and social justice and security. Some of my friends went to prison just for having this book  in hand. We are living this.”
If the liberal reformers seem strident, there is a reserve of Egyptian experts tied to the Egyptian establishment and U.S. officials on the other side doing their best to temper their view. Abdel Monem Said Aly, head of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo and former chairman of Al Ahram newspapers, widely seen as a tool of the Egyptian government, told the MEI audience that “Egypt is economically better,” today than in recent years (el-Sisi talks a great game, of course, but this remains to be seen), and that the prison system in Egypt “is much better than the United States,” pinging on the nearly 2 million Americans in jail today, and “the distribution of wealth is better than the United States.”
Speaking for the U.S. State Department at the conference, Candace Putnam, director of Egyptian Affairs, insisted that “life is returning to normal” in Cairo, but “it is a new normal.” This is diplomat-speak that means Egypt is a place where everyone is on tenterhooks, but the trains and cabs are at least moving. It was hard to tell where Putnam was coming from, much like U.S. policy on Egypt in general. “We have had four years of political upheaval and revolution and that is not finished, there is a lot of churn,” she said, sounding uncannily like el-Sisi on PBS just 400 miles away.
“You have a generational divide across all Egyptian communities … and you have the outside actors that are having an impact that you have never seen before. It is understandable that the Egyptian government sees this as their primary concern.”
When asked about human rights, Putnam said simply, “we’ve been extremely vocal,” and described continued quiet engagement “combined with public criticism.”
She said the U.S. is responding to Egyptian requests for equipment for the borders, including additional armored vehicles, parts for their Apache helicopters, and more for the Sinai. That doesn’t include troops on the ground. “They don’t want our help,” she noted.
If anything, el-Sisi is no fool. He has already embarked on what Al Jazeera calls “a fine bromance” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his government cemented it with remarks by Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry, following the Russian air strikes in Syria that began in late September. He refuses to call for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster.
“Russia’s entrance, given its potential and capabilities, is something we see is going to have an effect on limiting terrorism in Syria and eradicating it,” Shoukry said in a televised interview.
Like Toma and 1984, Ismail likes to draw upon literary devices, but hers sound more like Jurassic Park, and if possible, are even more apocalyptic.
“The dinosaur,” she said, referring to the government, “would like to protect the state, it defends the state.” But “while it is doing this it steps on its own eggs, its own children … who want a better future.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.