Questioning parallels and testing institutional democracy
I recently came across some graffiti in my neighborhood in Washington, DC that read “F*** Trump.” As I pulled my phone out to snap a photo, I stopped and remembered all the “Sisi is a murderer” images I encountered when I lived in Cairo. The parallel troubled me… are we becoming Egypt? A lot of fellow Egyptian-Americans and Middle East analysts have been raising this, and similar, question(s) as of late.
Almost immediately after Donald Trump’s election, I descended into self-criticism, shaming myself for dedicating my career to a dream of an Egypt that embraced the primacy of rule of law, pluralism, human rights, and the role of civil society. I felt arrogant for leaving the country I was born and raised in, to travel to that of my parents to work on behalf of what I assumed was long-established in the United States.
And when I came to my senses, I realized that, no, the United States is not becoming Egypt. But are we on our way? Leading up to, and since Trump’s election, the American political landscape has become increasingly characterized by alarming trends reminiscent of what I have spent the past seven years observing and criticizing in Egypt. Since Trump began his tenure as president, he has handed down executive orders and taken actions that restrict freedom of speech, obscure facts and the citizenry’s access to them, shut down institutional channels for dissent, and diminish America’s reputation as a trustworthy member of the international community. Perhaps the most sobering parallels of all, are measures rooted within a framework that view freedom and security as mutually exclusive. The perils of such measures are something I have worked to elucidate within Egypt for several years now. I can not tell you the number of times I have drafted press releases and articles with the phrase “shutting down institutional channels for dissent,” I just never thought I would be doing so in response to actions of the US government. Last week on the sixth anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 revolution, a fellow Egyptian-American wrote, “ The America I grew up with is the same America that inspired me to dream for a better Egypt,” a feeling that not only resonated with me, but that I, like her, began to question.
Security, Stability, and the Muslim Ban
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi came to power on the back of the most significant uptick in terror attacks across Egypt since the 1990s. Part of his ability to secure the support of millions was the way the state framed this security problem. The former defense minister promised Egyptians safety, and that Egypt would be stable and “great again.” It is this fear of terror and desire for security that mobilized Egyptians to hit the streets on July 27, 2013, to provide the informal mandate El-Sisi needed to take action.
The result however, was the Rabaa massacre, and a series of draconian measures and slash and burn counter terror tactics. Over the past three years we have seen Egypt’s “war on terror” and broad definitions of national security used as pretext for mass arrests, inhumane buffer zones, enforced disappearances, authoritarian anti-terror laws, and extrajudicial killings. All of these measures have paralleled the highest uptick in terror attacks yet and come at the expense, not only of the lives of victims, but of human rights and civil society organizations, which labor under arguably the most severe crackdown in Egypt’s modern history.
Like Sisi, Trump played off of terror attacks in Orlando and San Bernardino and the threat of ISIS to suggest sweeping security measures at the expense of human rights. On January 27, Trump signed an executive order banning all immigrants from Syria,Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Not only is the decision an aberration from our tradition of accepting refugees, but it also blatantly ignores the US role in creating conditions within many of these countries, that gave way to the security threats refugees face. Much like Egypt however, this sacrifice is rationalized with the belief that this is “a time of war,” which speaks to the third issue with the ban (considering that the Trump Administration is likely not concerned by the first two), that the cooperation it bars us from and domestic and international sentiments it fuels, actually make our country more vulnerable to terror attacks
Whether in Egypt or the US, once a potential threat has been exacerbated into high frequency, a cycle of self-legitimation begins. The more attacks occur, the more the state can use fear to convince citizens of the need to consolidate its security authority at the expense of human rights. In Egypt, this cycle allowed the government to use broad definitions of security to crackdown on institutional dissent (see NGO law , NGO trial, and the terrorism law), as well as practice incompetent counter terror and security policies. Both of these side-effects were on display in the wake of the December attack near Egypt’s St. Marks cathedrals, where parliament discussed holding military trials for civilian suspects in terror cases rather than security reform and counter terror measures.
Trump’s immigration ban may be America’s first step into this cycle. The ban fuels anti-American sentiment abroad while also rousing discrimination towards Muslims within our borders. Additionally, it costs us valuable partners in our supposed war on terror, which is not to be conflated with a war on Islam; consider the Iraqi citizen held at JFK for 17 hours despite his valid visa and ten years of service to the US government in Iraq. As attacks begin to occur, more advanced measures for cracking down on Muslims at the expense of their human rights may be deemed necessary, with a next step possibly being the Muslim Registry Trump suggested, or the reinstatement of National Security Entry-Exit Registration (NSNEERS).
During a recent trip to Cairo, I discussed these similarities with my uncle, who was not concerned, reminding me that the difference between the United States and Egypt, is that America is, as Egyptians say, dawlet mo’asasat, or a country of institutions. Conspiracy theories, propaganda, and fear mongering in Egypt coexist with a rubber stamping parliament, a weak cabinet, an increasingly nonexistent civil society, and a controversial judiciary. In the United States however, our democracy is much more than elections and protests.
As populist currents continue to gain ground, our infrastructural democracy, complete with longstanding institutions and a healthy civil society will be put to the test. It is up to policy makers within these institutions, civil society organizations, and the citizenry to embrace their civic duty to ensure that the United States absorbs these shocks and continues to be a progressive nation.
The Senate must take confirmation hearings seriously and civil society organizations, like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the American Civil Liberties Union, must be prepared to act as a ‘fourth branch of government,’ through filing suits and mobilizing the masses to challenge decisions like the immigration ban. Saturday’s verdict following day one of the ban is a step that proves we are indeed, dawlet mo’asasat.
And then there’s us. The citizens. We also play a role within our institutional democracy, one that is not afforded to many Egyptians. We must continue protesting and pressuring our representatives as well as take advantage of our decentralized government. This translates to calling our representatives, organizing, and joining community and neighborhood-level boards of governance, like DC’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
If the only difference between the United States and any other authoritarian state, like Egypt, is that we are dawlet mo’asasat, then now is the time to prove it. If you’ve never been the type of person to call your representatives, then it’s time to change that. If you’ve never attended protests for causes you are passionate about, then you can no longer rely on others to take action. If you are a proud observer of the ACLU’s actions on behalf of detained immigrants, then it’s time to become to a proud donor.
As an American who has been focused on Egypt’s issues within governance all this time, I no longer view these parallels as a source of shame. Rather, they represent an opportunity, to exercise those privileges I have as an American citizen and a protected member of our institutional democracy.