Smeared in Honey: Egypt’s Modern Day Dictatorship

Cartoon by Dr Alaa Allagta
Cartoon by Dr Alaa Allagta

Smeared in honey to drive flies away from their dictator’s food, was Ancient Egyptians’ subservience to their masters bequeathed upon their descendants producing an increasingly formidable modern day dictatorship?

In a spirit similar to history, habits of obedience among Egyptians linger on and hopes for freedom and democracy shrivel up…

Some four thousand year ago, the peculiar king Pepi II reigned over Ancient Egypt. Pepi loved to stuff his face at all times, and especially after his sun baths with Ra. Because Pepi wanted to keep flies out of his food, he made a honey-covered slave stand in every room of his palace to attract the insects that would otherwise distract him from indulging in his meals. This story, as insane as it may seem, proves that a man will always find his sacrificial victims, provided he is powerful enough.

Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi too has his own honey-dipped army of sacrificers. At a time when many Egyptians struggle to cover their basic needs amid harsh austerity measures, president Sisi made a bold statement saying he has spent millions of dollars on presidential palaces and other lavish projects under the justification that he is building a “new Egypt.” The statement followed allegations of the misuse of public funds by an Egyptian contractor who worked with military-owned companies for over 15 years. Instead of refuting these claims, Sisi was very open about the state corruption. According to Sisi’s definitions, however, building lavish projects is solely for the future benefit of the Egyptians. Some Egyptians were not so convinced. In September, hundreds of disgruntled citizens went out in the streets to protest Sisi’s brazenness. But in a country of 100 million citizens, this was a relatively insignificant number. Most Egyptians seemed to accept being made victims as Sisi looted Egypt of its treasures. Sisi is as successful as his predecessors in having his own victims that are ready to sacrifice and support him even at the expense of their very own existence. Perhaps Sisi is Egypt’s new Pepi.

Egypt arrested hundreds of people following anti-Sisi protests last year – Image by Reuters: A. A. Dalsh

Seven decades of military men

Egypt has been ruled by military men since the 1950s. Its only civilian president was the democratically-elected Mohammed Morsi. But instead of becoming a symbol of the country’s 2011 popular revolution, Morsi quickly became the very reason why Egyptians must think once, twice and thrice before attempting to take any step against the authoritarian systems that they seem to be long mired down in the muck with. The once-leader of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi only ruled for one year between 2012 and 2013. He was then overthrown in a military coup, charged with espionage, and detained in solitary confinement. The military’s actions raised questions of legitimacy and controversial reactions continued until the unexpected death of Morsi in June of 2019. Morsi’s record in Egypt’s history seems to be so miserable that even his death had been argued to be due to denial of proper medical treatment in prison. Morsi died after collapsing in a courtroom during trial. His family described it as a “slow death” claiming he did not get his medicine fast enough.

Egypt’s presidents since 1953. From left to right: Mohamed Naguib, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi and Sisi

A “yes sir” legacy

Morsi apparently never ruled that deep state of Egypt, which has been sinking in authoritarianism ever since Nasser deposed the monarchy and assumed power in 1952. The legacies that leaders, from Nasser and Saddat to Mubarak and now Sisi, left behind have accumulated and given way to a system relying on people’s apathy and fear for its survival. The influence that the military institution has on politics, economy and even the judiciary has created a “yes sir” kind of atmosphere where military men can never be questioned or criticized because the hierarchical nature of the institution states that the top is always right. Sisi seems to understand that Egyptians have adapted to this system and clearly knows how to use it to his own benefit. The self-proclaimed “physician of philosophy” once described himself as a doctor sent by God to diagnose and cure Egypt. The president’s smugness has gone beyond expectations. He knows for sure that Egyptians are struggling amid a faltering economy, but demands them to tighten their belts. He also tells them his mom’s bedtime story that holds a moral of not envying other people’s belongings. One can assume that his philosophy is that of not looking at other people’s plates, even if you have nothing on yours.

The world’s best liar

Sisi also qualifies for the title of “world’s best liar.” In 2016, he swore to God that he had lived for 10 years with just water in his fridge and no one ever heard him complain. In fact, jaws drop every time Sisi makes a nationwide speech. In January 2019, his government tried to stop the airing of an interview that he gave to 60 Minutes. Delivering his lies that time, however, was not as easily done compared to giving out speeches that mainly addresses the locals. Droplets of sweat on his chin were so visible while struggling to dodge questions related to his flagrant government’s human rights violations and its repressive tactics. Some plainly say he is nuts, but the fact that many Egyptians still allocate some of their time to listen to his speeches worryingly indicates that his loopiness has become the norm.

Sisi, stressed and sweaty, during his 60 Minutes interview

One of the biggest lies he ever told was that he would never intervene in the constitution. That was just two years before a set of constitutional amendments were put to a referendum, extending presidential terms from four years to six years and allowing the president to stand for one more term. Ninety percent of the voters were in favor of the amendments, and, instead of standing down in 2023, Sisi will remain in power until 2030. If that happens, someone who was born in 2014, when Sisi assumed power, will be 16 by the time he stands down. That is, of course, if he actually decides to stand down. He could include further amendments to add an additional term, by the end of which the hypothetical student of sixteen would be a university graduate. The changes themselves are a flagrant breach of the constitution, which clearly shows that provisions for re-elections can only be amended under sufficient guarantees. There was no indication or any mention of how these guarantees have been met. Indeed, if there is one thing that Egyptians have succeeded in achieving it would be the creation of one pharaoh after the other.

That is not to say that Egyptians are satisfied with this reality. They may just be too exhausted to rise up. Pockets are empty, heads are full of concerns about the future and repeated disappointments in a truly democratic Egypt following a failed revolution and a tighter grip by the political leadership does not offer much hope. News reports showed employees were bused in groups from their workplace to polling spots, and tempted by boxes of food staples. People were more than welcome to campaign for the amendments, but the one poor fellow holding up a sign against it was, of course, arrested.

Voters bribed with food at referendum polling stations

The military’s increasingly expansive role

Sisi does not have a political party to support him like his predecessor but completely relies on the support of the military. It seems that, in return for this support, Sisi welcomes the army’s tighter grip on Egypt’s political and economic sphere. Earnings by military-owned companies are estimated to make up a large percentage of the Egyptian GDP, but figures are never given out to the public. The army was already involved in business during Mubarak’s era, but Sisi is giving those companies priorities over their competitors in the private sector and allowing them to take over major developmental projects.

Corruption in Egypt has been institutionalized and any attempts to combat it have failed. Hisham Geneina, a former anti-corruption chief at Egypt’s Central Auditing Authority has been designated an enemy of the state ever since he unveiled vast governmental corruption in a report in 2015. The report included a shocking EGP 600 million figure (USD $37.5 million) which he claimed Egypt had lost through governmental corruption between 2012 and 2015. Needless to say, Geniena was fired and the report was labeled untruthful by a specially-formed fact-finding committee.

At the peak of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, people celebrated the fall of what they considered Egypt’s “last pharaoh” but things have now gone so out of control that, with an absence of popular suppression force, Sisi may grow to become a pharaoh more powerful than any of his predecessors. At the moment, it appears that for every Egyptian willing to stand against the current, there are many accepting to be turned into a honey-dipped slave.

Shahlaa Badawy
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About Shahlaa Badawy 5 Articles
Shahlaa is a Masters student at the Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies. Her home country is Bahrain which she believes is a piece of heaven and backs every historical evidence supporting it was once the home of Utnapishtim. She believes she met the extraordinary, the interesting and the insane during her three years of journalism work at the Bahrain-based Gulf Daily News. She studied mass communication and has interest in the Middle East’s conflicts.