A confession on the 4th of July

Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem reflects on political repression in Egypt.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

As of 2010, there was a strong feeling among the public that Egypt was approaching a major political, social and cultural overhaul. It was a sentiment that had begun to take root earlier, in 2004. But by 2010, after 30 years in power, the time had come for the presidency to be passed from Mubarak the father to Mubarak the son.

As such a move required an absolute majority in parliament, I was growing increasingly convinced that a popular volcano was on the verge of erupting – one that was both supported and inspired by the army, which had never accepted the idea of a civilian leading the country – whether after free and fair elections, or through a fraudulent vote, as was expected with Jamal Mubarak.

My feeling that major change was coming was, strangely enough, triggered on US soil in the heart of Cairo. 

It was a warm July 4 evening in 2010. I was standing in the vast courtyard inside the United States Embassy in Cairo, watching hundreds of Egyptian and foreign guests celebrate the national day as a marine band played in the background.

I was talking to a longtime friend and colleague, Mohamed Abdel Hady, who was then the deputy chief editor and is now the editor-in-chief of Al Ahram news. We were arguing about the upcoming parliamentary elections, due to take place that November.

I insisted that if parliament was sincere about a gradual transformation to democracy, then – in light of the fact that 88 opposition MPs had won seats in the 444-seat parliament in 2005 – the regime should yield even more seats to the opposition in the upcoming elections.

My colleague, however, argued that the 2005 parliament was an exception, and that the regime was unlikely to repeat the same mistake again. In 2005 they had allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to gain a majority in the first round of the elections.

“I don’t think they’d take that risk again,” he said. “They may lose control of the game once and for all.”

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At that point, we were joined by a very distinguished if controversial MP who had been a long-standing adviser to President Mubarak and who was publicly portrayed as an important Arab thinker. He listened to our argument and then said: “Are you two fools? The regime will never risk losing elections.

“We rig the elections, and we will keep rigging them,” he told us.

Aside from this unexpected confession, it was the words he spoke before disappearing back into the crowd that remained with me. “We could be very nasty with whoever points a finger,” he said.

There was something in his tone, an arrogance in the way he bragged about the regime’s ability to commit a crime and get away with it, that made me feel particularly uneasy. I turned to my colleague and said: “That day is coming very soon … I can see a revolution on the horizon.”

I felt as if our country was standing on the edge of a deep abyss.

When the election results came out, Mubarak’s regime had taken all 444 seats. But when a government gets to the point where it can brag about its crimes, you can be sure its end is approaching. Still, unanswered questions haunted me: What would precipitate the ending, and at what price? And, most importantly, who would pay it?

I was left sleepless by a growing sense of dread, wondering what would happen to my country. 

When it came in 2011, Egypt’s Spring was indeed volcanic.

The course of events that had precipitated the January 25 revolution continued on their path, spewing lava as the revolution unfolded.

Upon reflecting on my 30-year career as a journalist and war correspondent, I have seen people locked in cages – some of them physical, others metaphorical; some built by others, some by themselves.

These cages, over the years, have become increasingly evident. From the cage of dictatorship to the many cages of sociopolitical injustice across the Middle East and beyond. There is a sobering reality we must face: Seeds planted by oppressive dictators and those who condone their actions will nurture terrorism.

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We are now seeing some of the horrifying consequences of the unjust, corrupt systems that have deprived their people of democracy and freedom. Those who have their dignity stripped away will seek other outlets; just as did the mujahideen who fled Egypt and Arab countries to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, later in Bosnia in the 1990s, and in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa from the late 1990s to early 2000s.

Most of these Egyptians and Arabs had been, and continue to be, repressed in Arab dictators’ prisons, subject to physical and psychological torture. The few who made it out of prison alive chose similar extremes in the form of violence.

It was at this time that the world started to hear about “Islamic terrorism”. But it isn’t Islam that is guilty of this; the real perpetrators have always been Arab dictators supported by the West. 

Chronicle of a Caged Journalist is a series of excerpts from an upcoming book. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies. 

Source: Al Jazeera