SISI’S EGYPT: REPRESSION AT A CROSSROADS

By Matt M. Joye
Senior Editor

In Egypt, it remains a very good thing to be a general. Even the protestors who occupied Tahrir Square and brought down the former general-turned-dictator Hosni Mubarak courted the support of the army. Now, after just over a year of rule by President Mohamed Morsi, the coup that unseated him has placed another former general in the presidential palace. Indeed, since the toppling of the monarchy in 1952, Morsi remains the only civilian elected to Egypt’s highest office. Yet despite the clamoring of average Egyptians for a return to stability, the landslide electoral victory of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not been a harbinger of democratic transition. It may in fact signal a dark road ahead for the country that cast off a 30-year despot less than four years ago.

Much has transpired since the momentous swell of popular protest and revolution—known collectively as the Arab Spring—began in Tunisia on Dec. 18, 2010, and exploded onto the world stage. Indeed, even now its imprint extends from the current Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, to the unseating of President Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso after 27 years of rule, and more ominously in the continuing civil wars in Ukraine and Syria. Nowhere became more synonymous with this global movement than Egypt: hundreds of thousands gathered in the streets of Cairo, centered on the iconic Tahrir Square, to demand the ouster of President Mubarak. In the end, after withstanding a brutal and deadly crackdown, they remained; gone was the former general who had ruled the country for almost 30 years.

The celebration of that victory would certainly have been tempered if protestors had known three years later another former general would occupy the presidential palace. Elected with 96.1% of the vote, President Sisi seemed to gain some form of democratic legitimacy after leading the coup that deposed President Morsi in July 2013. In one sense it ended an aberration: the military has been the dominant institution in Egypt since at least the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. After being sidelined for a year by the electoral victory of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood—the only other viable organized political institution in Egypt—it would appear the generals have escaped banishment to the barracks and returned to the field, albeit with somewhat bruised egos. [1]

Indeed Sisi’s ascension has taken on aspects of a jilted institution determined to re-establish the power and prestige of a group that has long dominated the Egyptian state. At times this has bordered on the bizarre. Sisi and the regime have advanced a cult of personality built around the president as Egypt’s savior. The Egyptian media coverage of his recent United Nations speech portrayed a triumphant and overwhelming response by the assembly to his address; the New York Times version was less glowing, noting the applause came almost exclusively from his entourage. Egypt’s private media outlets have vowed to observe a self-imposed gag order on criticism of his government. One satellite network even stated, “…freedom of expression cannot ever justify ridicule of the Egyptian Army’s morale.” After the United States briefly suspended some military aid to Egypt, US Secretary of State John Kerry was subjected to security wands on visiting the presidential palace—unusual for a visiting dignitary. In the midst of protests in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs even issued a statement advising the US to undertake “respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion.”

Obviously at times it pays to have a short memory. The violent attack on Pro-Morsi demonstrations by the military in the aftermath of his overthrow killed over eight hundred people, according to Human Rights Watch, and was unlikely to have occurred without at least tacit approval from Sisi: he was in charge of the military and deputy prime minister at the time. The Muslim Brotherhood is now banned as a “terrorist” organization, which has swept up many non-Brotherhood supporters in the subsequent raids. Perhaps most ironic, the leader who has only risen to power because of a series of protests now bans demonstrations of more than ten people without a special permit, and these are hard to procure.

Foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations, under the guise that they provide a conduit for foreign interference, have also faced new restrictions. NGOs that are based in Egypt will now need the approval of the government before accepting any foreign funding. When HRC tried to deliver its findings on the Rabaa Square massacre, its representatives were turned away at the airport and prevented from even entering the country: this was the first time HRC had been denied entrance to Egypt. Former US President Jimmy Carter’s NGO, which promotes free elections and human rights, has already withdrawn, with Carter citing an environment so antithetical to democracy that it “could be extremely difficult, and possibly dangerous, for critics of the regime” to remain.

Two Egyptian institutions that were critical to the development of resistance and opposition to Mubarak were universities and mosques. Both have been targeted by repressive government measures. Muslim imams and preachers must now have approval from the government, and many smaller houses of worship have been closed. At Friday prayers, every preacher must deliver the same sermon. Universities, once a space free from police and thus safe to demonstrate after the restrictions, have been rocked by arrests and violence now that security forces have returned. Now long lines and searches are mandatory just to enter campus, staff may be fired for “inciting” demonstrations, and the head of each university is appointed by the president under new restrictive policies. A wave of preemptive arrests and protests has resulted.

In the aftermath of an attack by militants in the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 24 that left more than 30 soldiers dead, the Egyptian Army bulldozed hundreds of houses to create a buffer at the Gaza border—initially giving only 24 hours advance notice—and leaving thousands homeless. The Sinai has long been a battleground between militants and the Egyptian military. But the attack has upped the ante, as the military had claimed until now it was winning the war against the insurgents. The Egyptian government has responded with additional repressive measures. One such policy, which hands prosecution for violations of public utilities over to military courts, is broad enough that marches on public roads could fall within the new jurisdiction.

Under even the most enlightened leadership, Egypt faces numerous challenges that would test the functionality of the state. Economic pressures are almost at a breaking point, with the collapse of the tourism industry, the decline of export revenues as gas and oil production decline, and a bloated bureaucracy and huge debts that siphon off much of its budget. Recent cuts in fuel subsidies, which caused gas prices to spike by 80 percent while electricity costs also rose, are not popular and thus speak to the extent of the crisis. The violence in the Sinai is unlikely to diminish in the near future. The specter of a Muslim Brotherhood re-emergence from the shadows is equal parts convenient spook and real fear in the minds of military brass.

Yet in the overwhelming crackdown on any entity that remotely threatens the rule of the military, there are potential seeds of opposition sown. Public support of the military has fallen dramatically, and the underpinning of earlier support—the wish for a return of stability after the chaos of the revolution and the Morsi regime—largely hinges on whether Sisi can deliver both stability and the economic growth that might accompany it. The removal of fuel subsidies was in part directed at the IMF, which is currently withholding a $4.8 billion loan critical for debt payments. Some investment has returned, but Sisi has not shed the state-centric economic model of old. Egypt has a history of cronyism based on state protections for favored industries: the military has often been the biggest beneficiary of state-directed economic ventures (Mubarak was personally connected to at least 469 businesses). It is possible that the stability of a Sisi regime will restore the stability necessary for economic growth and investment, which might be the biggest panacea for the ills of Egyptians.

There is a more dire option. With so much pressure on every avenue of dissent and political organization, overwhelming repression might produce far more determined—and risk-adverse—adversaries. The designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is no doubt politically expedient, but the wider net of oppression might alienate much larger segments of the population. Cracking down on universities, mosques, demonstrations and the like leaves little room for opposition within orthodox political channels. The domestic situation also limits the support that Egypt can garner from its longstanding allies, namely the US. The attempts by Sisi to foster closer ties with Russia stem in part from the hesitancy the US showed—read temporary suspension of military aid—after the coup that brought him to power. Egypt needs to address its structural deficiencies and attract investment to deliver on the growth that is the justification for its authoritarian rule—trading freedoms for the sake of stability. If Sisi cannot deliver an economy that at least partially fulfills the promises of the revolution and coup, it may take all of the qualities of the general in him to hold onto power. For those who occupied Tahrir Square four years ago, this might seem all too familiar.

1. Bahgat, Gawdat and Robert Sharp. “Prospects for a New US Strategic Orientation in the Middle East.” Mediterranean Quarterly 25.3 (2014): 27-39. Project MUSE. Web. Oct. 29, 2014.

Photo by EEAS

TAIWAN: FROM SUNRISE AT ALI MOUNTAIN TO SUNSET IN KENTING

Dome of Light in Kaohsiung, Taiwan

By Kirstie Yu
Staff Writer

My previous photojournal invited the reader to traverse Taiwan through its cuisine. There is so much else Taiwan has to offer, including impressive architecture, wondrous nature, and many simply unforgettable sights. I wanted to capture Taiwan’s most enticing tourist spots outside of its capital Taipei in this sequel.

Ali Mountain (阿里山)

Alishan National Scenic Area (阿里山國家風景區) in central Taiwan is best known for its cloud sea and sunrise, which we woke up at 3 a.m. to catch. Although the sunrise usually attracts throngs of tourists, we were fortunate enough to arrive slightly before a typhoon warning closed off the mountain road. We were thus able to watch the sunrise from a perfect vantage point without having to fight too many other tourists for the best viewing spot.

Photo 1

We took the first train of the day to the sunrise viewing location. The Alishan Forest Railway is a 53-mile network that was originally constructed by Japanese colonialists in 1912 to transport wood down the mountain. The trains themselves are famous as well, and there is even an Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park (阿里山森林鐵路車庫園區) for retired trains in the city of Chiayi (嘉義) at the base of the mountain.

Photo 2

Xitou (溪頭)

Also in central Taiwan, the Xitou Nature Education Area (溪頭自然教育園區) was established for research purposes for the National Taiwan University (國立臺灣大學). President Chiang Kai-Shek famously posed for a photo with college students on the bamboo bridge at University Pond (大學池) within the recreational area. I found the bridge itself to actually be quite steep.

Photo 3

Within the Forest Recreation Park (森林遊樂區) are many unique natural creations, including a tree in the shape of a heart (pictured below) and a 3,000-year-old cypress tree called Shen Mu (神木) or “God Tree.”

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Within Xitou is a small Japanese-inspired Monster Village (妖怪村) built in 2011 that has eccentric monster statues, red lanterns and hidden secrets throughout. The village, which contains a wide array of themed souvenir shops and restaurants, is eerily pretty when the lanterns are lit up at night.

Photo 5

Jiufen (九份)

Jiufen, only an hour away from the heart of Taipei by bus or train, attracted attention in the late 1800s due to the discovery of gold in the region. With the vibrant and bustling Jiufen Old Street (九份老街) and hillside town speckled with houses, it is not hard to understand why director Hayao Miyazaki drew inspiration from this town for his film “Spirited Away.”

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Yilan (宜蘭)

The Lanyang Museum (蘭陽博物館) showcases the geography and history of Yilan county in northeast Taiwan through its Mountains Level, Plains Level, and Ocean Level permanent exhibitions, as well as other special exhibitions featuring the culture of Yilan. Inspired by the cuesta rock formations in the region, the architecture mimics a rock or mountain rising from the earth.

Photo 8

Tainan (台南)

In southern Tainan, remnants of Dutch and Japanese rule in Taiwan still remain in the form of preserved architecture. Fort Zeelandia (熱蘭遮城) was built in the early 1600s by Dutch settlers and still stands today as a museum filled with history about Dutch rule in Taiwan. It was fascinating to see something so European in Taiwan.

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Formerly a warehouse owned by British trading company Tait & Company established in 1967, the Anping Treehouse (安平樹屋) has since been taken over by banyan trees that have turned the warehouse into a fairytale-like building due to years of neglect. Roots and branches snake along every wall, and trails and stairs were built in 2004 to allow visitors to explore every inch of the mysterious building.

Photo 11

Kaohsiung (高雄)

Public transportation is extremely convenient, accessible, and cost-friendly in Taiwan. Taiwan’s transportation includes the MRT (mass rapid transit) a.k.a. metro system in Taipei City and Kaohsiung, train, HSR (high-speed rail) that runs from Taipei in the north all the way to Kaohsiung in the south), city bus (a low-cost comprehensive bus network), Taiwan Tourist Shuttle, and taxis galore. Formosa Boulevard Station (美麗島站) is the central station where Kaohsiung MRT’s two lines meet, and it houses the Dome of Light (光之穹頂), the largest glass work in the world.

Photo 12

Kenting (墾丁)

Kenting’s unbridled natural beauty and year-round tropical weather always attracts visitors to Maobitou Scenic Area (貓鼻頭), the southwestern-most tip of Taiwan, and Cape Eluanbi (鵝鑾鼻), the southeastern-most tip. I saw the bluest cerulean ocean water I’ve seen in my life at Maobitou, which means “cat’s nose.”

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Eluanbi Lighthouse is called “The Light of East Asia” because it is supposedly the brightest lighthouse in Asia, or at least in Taiwan. Eluanbi means “goose’s beak.”

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The Kenting Night Market (墾丁大街) bustles with life after dark with locals and tourists alike eager to snack on traditional Taiwanese food, win prizes in a variety of games, and buy souvenirs from the numerous vendors after a long day at the beach.

Photo 15

Finally, one cannot leave Kenting without going to Guanshan (關山), a seaside hill that was named one of the top sunset spots by CNN last year. I have been to Guanshan to see the sunset twice, and the colors and aura of the sunset are never the same each time. Pictures do not do the sunset justice, so this definitely must be seen in person when visiting Taiwan.

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All images by Kirstie Yu, Prospect Staff Writer

VOYAGE TO THE MOTHERLAND: A LOOK AT INDIAN CULTURE AND HISTORY

Lotus Temple in New Delhi

By Param Bhatter
Staff Writer

Every few years, my family and I travel back to India to visit all of my cousins and relatives who live there. This winter break, I decided that I should spend more time learning about my cultural heritage, which stems from my North Indian roots. I decided to visit two separate cities, New Delhi and Jaipur. The former is where I was born and the latter is where my family originates from.
This photo journal displays some of the rich history, religion and culture that can be found in India today. From the palaces of Maharajas and Maharanis (kings and queens), to the Hindu and Muslim relics throughout the city, and the crowded streets with cultural crafts and food, India has much to display.

New Delhi

The largest city in the north of the country, New Delhi is also the capital of India. Due to its proximity to a Pakistan, there is rich Muslim culture found throughout the city and its relics, even though many citizens are still Hindu.

The Lotus temple, which was constructed in 1986, is probably one of the most recent landmarks to be built in the city of New Delhi. It is actually a Baha’i temple, and one of the largest of its kind. As indicated by its name, the temple is designed in the shape of a lotus flower, which represents divinity and spirituality in Indian culture.

Qutb Minar is one of the oldest standing towers in India, measuring about 73 meters in height. Built from red sandstone and marble in the year 1192, this tower is actually an Islamic monument covered with Arabic inscriptions. This tower is the main attraction of the Qutb complex, which over 500 years ago was a religious sight where many people of the Islamic faith would gather and pray. Most of this site has been damaged over time from pollution, and the tower is the only building in the complex that has ever been restored.

This giant statue found in Karol Bagh stands over a 100 feet tall on the outskirts of the Chatarpur Temple. The god shown here is Hanuman, who is famous in Indian folklore and from one of the most celebrated religious texts of Hindu culture. Legend has it that he once lifted an entire island on his finger to aid a dear friend in need of a lifesaving herb from that island. Hanuman is the deity that is often worshiped to protect against trouble from evil spirits.

The Red Fort, though no longer very red due to the pollution found in New Delhi, is located at the heart of the city. It was the center of residence for the Mughal emperors for a good 200 years, until it was put out of commission in the mid-17th century. It was built by one of the most famous Indian emperors of all time, Shah Jahan. Even though the Mughals were Muslim, the architecture of the Red Fort reflects Hindu and Persian cultures as well.

This central suburb in New Delhi is known as Chandni Chowk, one of the most famous markets in India. The streets are full of traffic from sunrise to sunset, occupied by motorcycles, cars and rickshaws. Specifically, the market focuses on textiles and electronics, with many great street food vendors all around. Unfortunately, I got the stomach flu from eating the street food here, which I probably shouldn’t have done as a foreigner. Even though the food was amazing, it was definitely not worth the trouble!

Jaipur

Jaipur is located in the state of Rajasthan, one of the most beautiful states in all of India. Although mostly desert, the state has been home to many palaces and emperors, who have created many monuments. The city of Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, and just happens to be the home of the type of Indian that I am, which is Marathi. My family and I spent a couple days here touring the many palaces and temples that were built in India, many of which were the oldest of their kind.

This palace, surrounded by water on all sides, is known as Jal Mahal. Closed to tourists, this is the closest you can get to actually entering the building. It is located in the Man Sagar Lake in Jaipur, and is built out of red and pink sandstone. Unfortunately, the pollution in the air limits the view of the surroundings, but without the pollution you would be able to see that the temple overlooks one of the largest dams in India.

Built in 1799, Hawa Mahal is one of the most famous landmarks in the city of Jaipur. Its translation in English means the Temple of Wind. The reason it was given this name is all the tiny holes and windows in the structure, which can be seen above. These holes would let wind run through them and resonate, causing sounds to be made that were noticeably audible. Originally, the Hawa Mahal was built as a way for queens to view public processions. Because they were not allowed in public but still wanted to watch, the King built this giant temple with many windows that the Queens could look out from.

This view of the city of Jaipur is taken from a tall watchtower upon a mountain close to the city. The big structure towards the left of the picture is one of the most famous attractions in Jaipur, the Amber Fort. Built in 1592, the Amber Fort was the home of the rulers of Jaipur for over 300 years. Many members of the royal family, as well as the military took residence here, while overlooking the city.

Of course, you can’t visit India without riding an elephant! For about $15, you and a friend can take a 30 minute ride up to the top of the Amber fort. This was definitely a highlight of my trip, and for many other tourists as well. In fact, the government keeps over a 100 elephants to make daily trips up and down to the fort, showing how popular this attraction really is. Everyone feels great to be standing tall and treated like royalty I suppose, even if only for half an hour!

Perhaps one of the most interesting architectural pieces that I encountered on my trip is this room within the Amber Palace known as the Sheesh Mahal. Translated to the Mirror Palace, there is a famous legend behind the building of this room. Supposedly, one of the kings who lived in the Amber Palace, was very fond of one of his Queens. He told her that she could have anything she wanted, and she demanded a piece of the moon. Knowing that this was impossible, the king built this room, which has thousands of tiny mirrors to amplify the moonlight on a starry night to one place in the room, so as to ‘capture the moon(light)’.

Just through exploring these two cities, I learned many things about my rich cultural and religious heritage. I encourage foreigners to visit these places in India, as well as other site around the country, especially if they are interested in the stories of kings and queens, Middle Eastern religions, and amazing architecture. I myself can’t wait to return to India sometime soon to explore other cities.

All images by Param Bhatter, Prospect Staff Writer