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A nation must think before it acts.
Words matter. Choose them carefully.
At PEN America, our mission is to champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of words to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers of all kinds, including screenwriters, poets, novelists, essayists, journalists, and bloggers, to celebrate creative expression. Of course, we defend the democratic liberties that make free expression possible, so that all of us, each one of us, can choose our words with care—and also have them heard.
So I have been struck in recent days by the casual choice of words bandied about in discussion of the visit to the White House by Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. As expected, Mr. Sisi was warmly embraced in the Oval Office by Donald Trump, who said, “I think he’s doing a great job.” This despite tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egyptian jails, including at least 20 American citizens incarcerated on dubious charges. This despite his re-election a year ago with 97.08 percent of the vote in a process that was much more Napoleonic plebiscite than election, after potential challengers were obliged to stand down by state security agents. This despite Sisi’s current drive to re-write the Egyptian constitution (again) to cement his hold on power until at least the year 2034. This despite an ongoing crackdown on free speech that has targeted a wide range of writers.
Among the many writers currently in prison is Galal El-Bahairy, a poet, lyricist, and activist; he has been in prison for thirteen months now on charges that include “terrorist affiliation, dissemination of false news, abuse of social media networks, blasphemy, contempt of religion, and insulting the military”—all for writing lyrics critical of powerful people, for a song performed by the popular artist Ramy Essam. The crackdown also goes after those whose works are deemed to “violate public modesty”—like the novelist Ahmed Naji, the 2016 recipient of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award, given each year to writers imprisoned unjustly for their work. Naji was sentenced to two years in jail because his racy novel The Use of Life gave a complaining citizen “heart palpitations.” Journalists in Egypt are especially at risk. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 25 Egyptian journalists were jailed during 2018, the third highest number in the world after Turkey and China. Long-time Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times, David Kilpatrick, was blocked from entering the country recently, apparently because his book last year about the tumult of 2011 to 2013 angered the regime.
Even writers not imprisoned for their work face restrictions and harassment that seek to stifle their voices. Author Alaa Al-Aswany, an Egyptian literary treasure, is being sued in a military court for having “insulted the head of state and incited hatred against the regime” in his recent novel about the Tahrir Square uprising in 2011, The Republic, As If. Blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was released last month after serving a five-year sentence for violating Egypt’s repressive protest law, on condition that he report to a police station every evening from 6pm to 6am—for the next five years.
All of this leads to an environment where citizens cannot dissent, journalists cannot report, and artists cannot create music without fear of retribution. Using the wrong words in Egypt can get a writer imprisoned. This is the country where, Mr. Trump says, General Sisi is “doing a great job.”
So, in these times where enduring truth and long-accepted facts are so often being called into question by those in high office, I want to plant a flag today for accuracy in labeling in our diplomatic discourse and political analysis. Out of what is no doubt an overabundance of politeness, this man is typically described in news reporting and think tank reports as “President” Sisi. But he is, in reality, simply a dictator, an army general who seized power in a 2013 military takeover that ousted the hapless Mohammed Morsi, the underwhelming Islamist elected a year earlier in the freest and most competitive election in the history of Egypt.
Whatever his faults and shortcomings, and they were many, Morsi was elected president by the people of Egypt when there were very few thumbs on the electoral scales; the outcome was uncertain and highly anticipated, by Egyptians and the rest of the world. After narrowly finishing first in a five-way field in the first round, Morsi took 51.7% of the vote in a runoff, to 48.3% for Ahmed Shafik, the candidate of the military establishment and the ousted ancien regime of Hosni Mubarak. Yet for more than five years now, Morsi has languished in a military jail, a death sentence having been overturned on appeal. And the man who put him there received, supposedly, 97.08 percent of the vote last year.
Therefore, a modest proposal: As a military man who has risen to be supreme commander or commander in chief, he should be called by his proper title, Generalissimo. It is not often used in English, but has been deployed over the years and around the world when appropriate—to describe Spain’s Francisco Franco, Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek, or the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo. Generalissimo Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt should now join this distinguished list—in news reporting, think tank commentary, and university analysis.
While we are at it, there is another word that needs to be tossed in the trash: “alliance.”
At the dawn of the Trump administration, on the eve of Sisi’s previous visit to Washington, the government of Egypt bought space in Foreign Policy to tout to American readers the supposed advantages of the Egyptian-American “alliance.” Falsely invoking “far-reaching reforms by President Sisi’s government,” the advertisement claims the U.S. and Egypt see “eye-to-eye” on many issues and claims that Egypt is “one of America’s oldest and deepest alli[es] in the Arab world.” The Egyptian embassy in Washington’s website boasts that “Egypt has long been among the United States’ most reliable and influential allies.”
The U.S. and Egypt are not allies, and commentators should stop using the word “alliance” in discussion of the relationship between the two countries. Egypt has long been a problem to be managed; not an “ally” in any meaningful sense. Even in the only battle in which the U.S. and Egypt share a common foe, the war against ISIS-affiliated extremists in the Sinai, Egypt isn’t much help, as its ham-handed tactics likely generate more recruits for the extremists than they capture or kill. Moreover, the major initiative of the present administration in the region, the construction of an Arab alliance against Iran called the Middle East Security Alliance (MESA) was dealt a significant blow last week—by Egypt, which formally withdrew from the planning for the initiative, mere days before Generalissimo Sisi visited the White House
Interestingly, the official White House statement posted shortly after the Trump-Sisi meeting in the Oval Office, reflecting good staff work, does not contain the word “alliance”—invoking instead the “strategic relationship” between the two countries.
Words matter. Choose them carefully.