CAIRO – A prominent columnist on Sunday delivered the harshest attack to date against Egypt's president in the local media, saying that, in terms of freedoms, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's rule is not different from the Islamist regime he removed in 2013.
In a front-page column in the al-Maqal daily, Ibrahim Eissa expressed outrage over a two-year prison sentence passed Saturday against author Ahmed Naji for publishing a sexually explicit excerpt of his novel that prosecutors said violated "public modesty."
The sentence against Naji, passed by a Cairo appeals court, can be appealed.
"Say what you will, Mr. President and speak at your conferences ... as you wish, but the reality of your state is different," he wrote. "Your state violates the constitution, harasses thinkers and creators and jails writers and authors.
"Your state is a theocracy, Mr. President, while you are talking all the time of a modern, civilian state," he wrote. "Your state and its agencies, just like those of your predecessor (Islamist Mohammed Morsi), hate intellectuals, thought and creativity and only like hypocrites, flatterers and composers of poems of support and flattery."
Eissa, also a popular TV talk show host, strongly supported the July 3, 2013 ouster by the military of Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president. His removal, led by then Defense Minister el-Sissi, followed days of massive street protests against the divisive one-year rule of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group now labeled a terrorist organization.
But Eissa, like many of the secular and leftist pro-democracy activists behind the 2011 popular uprising that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, has slowly moved away from el-Sissi's camp and is now openly critical of his policies.
El-Sissi, elected to office a year after he ousted Morsi, has overseen the harshest crackdown witnessed in Egypt in decades, jailing thousands of Islamists and hundreds of secular activists. He has also tolerated what rights activists say is widespread abuses by police and introduced restrictions on freedoms and the erosion of public space. A newly elected parliament is packed by his supporters, rendering it as little more than a rubber stamp chamber.
The crackdown is playing out against a backdrop of a new constitution adopted in January 2014 and labeled as the country's most liberal, a fight against an insurgency by Islamic militants and el-Sissi's own, one-man drive to revive the country's ailing economy.
Naji's case follows a series of convictions against writers and reformist religious thinkers that have given rise to questions about el-Sissi's declared commitment to the reformation and moderation of Islam's discourse as a means of combating religious militancy.
El-Sissi has tirelessly boasted since 2013 that his ouster of Morsi saved Egypt from the Brotherhood's tyrannical theocracy, but Eissa on Sunday wrote that Morsi's record on freedoms of expression was better than el-Sissi's.
"Where is this civilian state? Where do you see it?" he wrote, addressing el-Sissi. "This is a state that witnesses more legal prosecution of writers than what we have seen during the Brotherhood's one-year rule."