Whose freedom, President Sisi?

If the military-backed government had succeeded in getting its view of freedom into the brains of all, or even most, Egyptians, then they could simply take freedom as they define it for granted.

Egypt's President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt's President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The speeches of the military- backed Egyptian government constantly employ the words “freedom,” “free” and “liberty.”
President Abdel Fattah Sisi, in his first inaugural address, included these words. And if we take into account their opposites, “tyranny,” “dictatorship,” “slavery” and so on, as well as associated words like “democracy,” the frequency rises even higher. Repetition of the word “freedom” resurfaced in Sisi’s meeting with President Omar Bashir of Sudan. What’s important here is that the Sisi government – which wrested power from an elected government – is branding itself with “liberty” and “freedom.”
To too many Egyptians this is pure hypocrisy, and Sisi the hypocrite-in-chief.
How, Egyptians ask, can Sisi mean anything at all by “freedom” when he imprisons thousands of peaceful protesters indefinitely with no due process; when he sanctions torture; if he starts a preemptive war on false premises and retroactively claims it is being waged in the name of freedom; when he causes the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians; when he orders spying on Egyptian citizens in Egypt without a warrant; when, in the name of freedom, he seeks to prevent female university students from speaking out; when he supports oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (EAU ) and Syria? How can Sisi mean anything by “freedom” when he works against Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear? His policies strongly work against freedom from want by pushing more Egyptians into poverty, by denying even a minuscule increase in the minimum wage, and by seeking to end Social Security.
By promoting a siege mentality – announcing “Orange Alerts” and talking relentlessly about terrorism – he creates and maintains a state of fear, virtually a permanent state of emergency.
This state of emergency provides new police powers to the government, abridging individual freedoms.
He works against freedom of speech by spying on Egyptians’ accounts on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, by having the police threaten with imprisonment groups that speak out against him, by requiring all Egyptians to sign oaths of loyalty to him and by designating his opponents as “collaborators” and “enemies of Egypt.”
He works against freedom of the press by intimidating journalists into promoting his policies, denying access to reporters who criticize his policies and by pushing journalists to demonize the West and Turkey.
And he works against freedom of religion by banning religious slogans in public places, demonizing every man with a beard and every woman with hijab (look at the language and cartoons of the government messaging machine, the media), and by pushing anti-faith-based governmental programs of all kinds.
How, Egyptians ask, can he possibly mean what he says when he claims that such actions promote “freedom”? However, while Sisi’s actions stand in contradiction to the liberal concept of freedom, it would be a mistake to assume that this concept of freedom is the only one possible. This form of what is effectively denial leads to the notion that Sisi is saying nothing when he speaks of freedom, that he is merely degrading the language, that he is just a cynical and opportunistic propagandist who doesn’t mean what he says.
In thinking this way, we are blinding ourselves to the military’s real and constant progress toward cultural and political domination. It serves the purposes of the military when the public believes that we and it are using the same conception of freedom, disagreeing only over which side is its more vigorous champion. Or to put it another way, if we fall into the trap of believing that Sisi’s freedom is the same as ours, then the radical military has won.
But it has not won – not yet. If it had, if freedom had been redefined throughout Egypt in their terms, if our liberal freedom were gone and theirs were in its place, then there would be no need for them to repeat the word over and over and over. The point of repetition, as George Lakoff states in his seminal book ‘’Whose Freedom? The battle over America’s most important idea,” is to change not just individuals’ minds but also their very brains.
If the military-backed government had succeeded in getting its view of freedom into the brains of all, or even most, Egyptians, then they could simply take freedom as they define it for granted.
The writer is an Egyptian poet, actor, and a PhD candidate in cognitive science at Lodz University, Poland. He is also an affiliated member of Euroacademia and a former lecturer at Um al-Qura University, Mecca, Saudi Arabia.