CAIRO: Presidential front-runner Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted leader Mohammad Morsi, has prioritized stability over freedoms, insisting it will take up to 25 years for Egypt to achieve “true democracy.” Three years after millions of protesters demanding “bread, freedom and social justice” ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Sisi warned such aspirations were hindering national security and slowing a much-needed economic recovery.
“You write in the newspaper, ‘No voice is louder than freedom of speech!’ What is this?” Sisi asked a group of journalists at a round-table meeting in Cairo this week.
“What tourist would come to a country where we have demonstrations like this? Are you forgetting that there are millions of people and families who can’t earn their living because of the protests. It is one of the manifestations of instability.”
Since 2011, Egypt has seen two presidents ousted after mass street protests, a deadly crackdown on protesters that has killed scores and a spate of militant attacks that has left the country deeply polarized and its economy in shambles.
The situation was further aggravated when the interim authorities led by Sisi passed a law that bans all but police-sanctioned protests.
Several top campaigners of the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising have been jailed for breaking the protest law, while a brutal government crackdown against supporters of Morsi has killed more than 1,400 people since his ouster in July last year.
While there has been international outrage over the crackdown that has also seen hundreds of Morsi supporters sentenced to death after speedy trials, Egyptian media has largely backed the authorities.
“The number of TV channels that are shut down, the number of journalists who are in detention, the number of political prisoners who are in jails ... all this is unprecedented,” said Osama Diab, analyst with Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Sisi was attempting a “trade-off between freedoms and stability which we have been living for the past 30, 40 or even 50 years.”
“You can have human rights only when stability is based on genuine democratic principles and not on perceived short-term stability.”
Sisi said the authorities needed time to perform.
“Give officials a chance for say, four months,” said the retired field marshal who is expected to trounce his only rival, leftist leader Hamdeen Sabbahi, in the May 26-27 presidential election.
“If you have information on an issue, whisper it in the ear of an official instead of exposing it,” he said at the round table, excerpts of which were broadcast by private TV networks.
During the round table as well as in a separate TV interview aired Tuesday and Wednesday, Sisi repeatedly spoke of stability and showed unflinching determination to fight the Brotherhood to which Morsi belongs.
A senior journalist at a leading Egyptian newspaper said what Sisi meant was that the media must be more “accurate” in its criticisms.
“Sisi, who comes from military ranks, will not tolerate under the guise of freedom of speech any inappropriate criticisms that could threaten national security,” he said, on condition of anonymity.
Karim Bitar, research head at the Paris-based International and Strategic Relations Institute, was unconvinced, however.
“These remarks show that Sisi did not understand the lesson of the Arab Spring. They reflect an authoritarian, nationalist, conservative and an anti-liberal mind,” Bitar said.
“It also brings back the idea that Arabs have to sacrifice their aspirations of liberty and democracy for the sake of stability.”
Sisi said that given the situation in Egypt, which cannot be compared to Western democracies, it could take “20 to 25 years to achieve true democracy” in the Arab world’s most populous country.
Bitar said that “this will strike a chord with those who want a return to law and order after the postrevolution turbulence.”
“But they will soon be disillusioned when they realize that the ongoing repressive measures are sowing the seeds of future instability.”