Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The power of words

The president’s message was loud and clear — depending on how you interpret it, reports Nevine Khalil

Al-Ahram Weekly

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s forceful speech last week to Egyptians made a big splash in political, social and media circles, leaving some wondering what it all meant while others felt it was right on target.

“It was a powerful speech, giving everyone facts and figures to silence the chatter criticising the state,” said Sawsan Al-Sayed, a retired civil servant who is an avid Al-Sisi supporter.

The address, given on 24 February at Galaa Theatre, was originally intended to focus on the government’s development programme, entitled “Egypt Vision 2030”. But it turned into an unprecedented 90-minute improvised speech that saw the president show a wide range of emotions: impatience, defiance, sentimentality and resolve. He promised to be honest, and even said he was revealing “classified national security” statistics in order to give Egyptians the real facts.

He warned saboteurs that they will be “wiped off the face of the earth”, advised Egyptians to only listen to him “because I know what I’m talking about”, painted a grim picture of the economy, but also rallied Egyptians to work hard, foil conspiracies and forge through this difficult time with determination. He also acknowledged, for the first time, that the Russian airplane downed over Sinai in October 2015 was an act of terrorism aimed at sabotaging Egypt’s tourism, as well as its relations with Russia and the world in order to isolate Egypt.

A few days after the speech, possibly to counter the uproar on social media and negative analyses of his speech, a publicity campaign was launched using sound bites from Al-Sisi’s address. “I will wipe them off the face of the earth ... Don’t abuse my kindness ... I will answer to God and tell him I protected Egyptians” was set to dramatic music and video footage promoting the president’s message.

Apparently, the intent was to drown out negative reactions to some of his comments in the speech: “Who are you?” and “Do you know the cabinet better than me?” He suggested that naysayers “should be quiet if they don’t know what they’re talking about”, and if they wanted more information, “Come to me and I will tell you the facts. I know Egypt very well and its remedies very clearly.”

But commentators were indignant. “What does this mean?” asked TV talk show host Ibrahim Eissa on his programme that evening. “Those who differ with him and air their views should be ignored? Or that they have hidden agendas? We should not listen to experts? The cabinet? Parliament?”

Al-Sisi said the government is working on Egypt’s infrastructure, including improving roads, expanding electricity capacity, building new homes at a rate of 600,000 units per year, building water treatment plants, and planning to upgrade several ports and airports, but that much more needed to be done with limited resources.

“I swear, if I could sell myself, I would,” he said after a moment of contemplation, followed by silence as he appeared to struggle to control his emotions. Some understood his words to mean that he is doing all he can to improve the economy, while others, like Al-Sayed, believe it implied that he has refused to “sell” Egypt to the highest bidder.

But the comments posted on social media were brutal. Within hours, a page on eBay had put Al-Sisi on sale, with bids passing $100,000 before it was removed.

Egypt’s economic woes include a sharp drop in foreign investment, tourism revenues and foreign currency, as well as a serious budget deficit, high inflation and unemployment.

“We are under threat of terrorism, so we shouldn’t worry about trivial things like the price of food,” Al-Sayed said. “The economy was worse after the 1967 defeat, but we were focussed on a bigger goal.”

Al-Sisi thanked Gulf countries for supporting Egypt through grants, loans and fuel shipments with delayed payments. He suggested that if 10 million Egyptians texted a donation of LE1 to the Long Live Egypt Fund every morning, the government would collect LE300 million a month to cure hepatitis C and build new housing.

The government’s Egypt Vision 2030 aims for sustainable development based on the country’s youth, to be implemented regardless of any changes of government or leadership. It essentially focusses on creating an efficient and self-sustaining economy; a knowledge-based society that enjoys a high quality of life and social justice; a healthy environment that protects natural resources; a democratic state with good governance; and a secure state that plays a pivotal role regionally and internationally.

The challenges facing this vision include population growth, climate change, uneven geographical distribution of the populace, regional geopolitics and values, and cultural shackles.

Al-Sisi said that some have doubted the ability of the Egyptian state to achieve its goals and hopes, and are trying to sabotage the psychology of Egyptians on issues they are poorly informed on. “I wish I could bring all those who are chattering to come and take over the cabinet and show me what they can do,” he said. “Really.”

He warned that if the cabinet is not approved by parliament, it could open a Pandora’s box of more woes and instability. “I’m not giving directives, I’m just warning,” he said, adding, “No one knows the cabinet better than me” because he meets with them every day.

Although he said he did not intend to talk about the media in his speech, the majority of his address seemed focussed on countering theories and criticism carried on the airwaves, online and in some newspapers about the government, parliament, state institutions, police brutality and other issues.

Al-Sayed said she believed that the media and online activism has affected the president’s morale and that he had to fight back. “He knows better than anyone and there are too many rumours,” she said. “No one in the media is honest. They are all liars.”

Eissa said that Al-Sisi appeared to have “lost patience too quickly” and is intolerant of opposing opinions. “Then maybe we should all just pack up and leave,” said Eissa. “He seemed to have a monopoly on the truth, but maybe others also have solutions. All Egyptians must participate in taking decisions about their country — even by disagreeing.”

Al-Sisi noted that when there was an entity in charge of the media — the Ministry of Information — there was a trustworthy channel of communication between the state and the media.

“We are upset with all the criticism and he needed to respond,” said Al-Sayed. “He was firm because we are in danger from the inside and outside. The country can’t take it anymore. He wants people to know the battle is not over.”

“Don’t focus on the bad things,” Al-Sisi suggested. “Look at the glass half full because we have to raise our morale.”

But Eissa disagreed. “Why should we only look at one half? Let’s look at the entire glass, the good and the bad and fix it.” Eissa further said that there cannot be sustainable development — the aim of Vision 2030 — without democracy.

Al-Sisi had addressed this particular issue in his speech, saying, “It is still too early to practice full-fledged democratic practices, like criticism and pushing [officials] out of office,” he said. “I’m not saying there is no democracy, only that we are doing this under difficult circumstances, so let’s safeguard Egypt.”

He said terrorists want to crush the construction of the country to undermine its existence, and that this could have been avoided. “We could have all lived together, each with his own ideology, but they started it,” he said, admitting there are excesses in security measures to counter terrorism. “Am I happy about it? No,” he said, but added that it is difficult to combat terror while safeguarding people’s rights.

“He knows best,” concluded Al-Sayed, “but if you want to view him in a dim light, you will no matter what.”

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