On June 5, 2013, Amr Hamzawy, an academic and former liberal parliamentarian, tweeted a quick criticism of the verdict of an Egyptian court. Earlier this month, he discovered that he was being investigated for a criminal offense and was barred from leaving the country. The grave crime in question? Insulting the judiciary. If Hamzawy was guilty, then Egypt’s unemployment crisis might soon be solved: half the nation of Egypt can be gainfully employed imprisoning the other half, consisting of all those who have at one point in their life grumbled about a judge or a court verdict they read about.
A couple weeks earlier, Emad Shahin, a less politically prominent (and far less politically involved) academic, known among his colleagues and students for his self-effacing and gentle manner, found himself facing more serious charges of various forms of espionage and sedition. The State Security Prosecution was accusing him of helping to lead a conspiracy so vast and dangerous that it supposedly included the president at the time, Mohammed Morsi.
Both professors have been personal friends of mine for many years. But they have no secrets; they make their political judgments clear in their public statements and writing. I watched Hamzawy ascend politically in the wake of the 2011 revolution, refusing to lose his curly mop of hair, sideburns, or corduroy suits. His sole concession to political life seemed to be to make some (but not all) of his trademark complicated sentences a bit shorter. Shahin, truth be told, has twice run afoul of security forces. Once he discovered the hard way the hitherto unknown fact that Egypt actually has traffic laws by driving a bit too swiftly down a desert road. The police took away his license for a short period. I found out when he told me he could not bring himself to drop me off at the airport since it would involve breaking the law a second time, something he could not do. His second problem seemed to come whenever he entered the campus of the American University in Cairo where he has been teaching since returning to Egypt from Notre Dame and Harvard. Shahin confided that he has been regularly asked for identification since the security guards cannot believe someone so humble in gait and demeanor could possibly be on the faculty.
Both Hamzawy and Shahin are academics, but they have also been critical of the emerging political order in Egypt. Neither is a much of a firebrand. While different in their politics—Hamzawy closer to the liberal end of the spectrum; Shahin more respectful of political Islam—they also stand out for their ability to talk across Egypt’s great divide. Indeed, beneath all their erudition and complicated syntax, both seem ultimately simply nerdier versions of Rodney King: their message to their fellow citizens can be summed up as “People, I want to say--can we all get along?”
That message had kept both Hamzawy and Shahin on the right side of the law under Egypt’s previous rulers—Husni Mubarak, the military, and Muhammad Morsi--even though they were capable of criticizing all three. The conclusion from their recent troubles might seem to be clear: Egypt has entered an even harsher period in which centralized totalitarianism brooks no dissent from a terrorized society.
But actually, the problem may be a bit different—and perhaps more difficult to resolve. Egypt’s political affliction is not one dictatorial person but a host of dictatorial institutions, and much of Egyptian society is a happy participant rather than cowering victim in the wave of repression.
Let us turn first to the Egyptian state—a set of balkanized institutions, each with its own keen sense of mission and privilege. President Adli Mansour—a man almost as genial and modest as Shahin—is no thundering Mussolini. Even military leader General ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, while powerful, shows few signs of micromanaging the Egyptian state. Instead, various institutional actors who spent years under what they came to feel was a domineering and sometimes corrupt political leadership under Mubarak, are finally free to act on their own. And each one is doing so with a vengeance.
At the same time that one judicial body was moving against Hamzawy, another one was explaining that it was an affront to judicial independence to regard judges as subject to the financial disclosure procedures that govern other state officials. Egyptian judges can be very vigilant (and literal) in their application of the law, and they can also sometimes be quite bold in the face of official malfeasance. But they are very protective of the dignity of their own institutions. Having coped with Mubarak and escaped an anticipated assault by Morsi, they can now defend themselves in a manner in which they are accountable only to their own judicial consciences—and some of those consciences are now in a bit of a vindictive mood.
And for the security services—a vast empire of monitoring, policing, and intelligence agencies—it is clearly payback time. A target of the 2011 uprising, those services can finally act openly and with impunity against anybody who crossed or criticized them in the past. And that means shoveling implausible, even outlandish charges to gullible media and occasionally bringing some of the wild charges to court. Egypt, they will often suggest, is under severe threat from within and without, with a terrorist group having recently been flushed out of the central halls of power and the world’s most powerful state scheming to divide the country. (Any participant in Washington discussions would be baffled by the latter fear, since two themes dominate DC musings—the limited nature of US influence and a preoccupation with Egyptian stability).
What allows these state actors to push forward is not simply a constitutional weakness in which key institutions operate with virtually no oversight (though that weakness is quite real). There is also a general public atmosphere in which Hamzawy and Shahin—with their conciliatory messages—can seem severely threatening to national security. Long before he was in legal trouble, Hamzawy was politically ostracized for his suggestion that the new order is authoritarian and for questioning the harshness of the measures taken against the Muslim Brotherhood.
In recent months, many non-Islamists who participated in the 2011 uprising have run afoul of Egypt’s various state actors, and some leading figures who stood against both Mubarak and Morsi are imprisoned. But other participants in the 2011 and 2013 waves of protest are very content with the new order. The problem with Egypt’s revolution is not that it is eating its children; instead many of its children are devouring it.
Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace