The Cable

Egypt Cracks Down, Again

Rainbow flags, political challengers, and citizenship laws are all in Cairo’s crosshairs.

CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 01:  A youth waves Egyptian flags from a lamp post in Tahrir Square on February 1, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. The Egyptian army has said it will not fire on protestors as they gather in large numbers in central Cairo.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 01: A youth waves Egyptian flags from a lamp post in Tahrir Square on February 1, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. The Egyptian army has said it will not fire on protestors as they gather in large numbers in central Cairo. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The Egyptian government has clamped down on dissent against an array of targets over the past week, ranging from concertgoers unfurling a rainbow flag to a prominent political critic seen as a challenger to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Seven men were arrested Monday for allegedly raising a rainbow flag at a concert featuring the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay. Though homosexuality is not explicitly criminalized in Egypt, they were detained for “promoting sexual deviancy.”

The arrests come against the backdrop of renewed efforts by Cairo to punish critics of Sisi’s government, which has severely weakened opposition and civil society groups since coming to power in 2013. Under Sisi’s rule, security forces have put tens of thousands of Egyptians behind bars and faced accusations of torture and forced disappearances.

On Monday, an Egyptian court also sentenced Khaled Ali — a lawyer who gained notoriety last year for challenging the Egyptian government’s bid to hand over control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia — to three months in prison. Although Ali won the Saudi case last January, the government eventually ratified the transfer of the islands.

While the sentence is relatively light, the charge was likely an attempt to cripple Ali’s potential run for the presidency in 2018, according to Amy Hawthorne, former Egypt Coordinator at the State Department and current deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

“Some inside the regime see him as somebody who could mobilize public opinion, who has a public profile,” she told Foreign Policy. “They want to make a move that would disqualify him from running.” Candidates for president are subject to disqualification for a wide variety of reasons, including conviction for a “crime of untrustworthiness.”

The court case against Ali coincides with a move by the government to potentially undermine opposition activity through new legislation.

Last week, the Cabinet passed a draft amendment to the country’s nationality law allowing individuals to be stripped of their citizenship if they join a group or organization that aims to “harm public order … or undermine the social, economic, or political situation,” according to minutes from the Cabinet meeting.

Although the government has said that the amendment was designed to target terrorist groups like the Islamic State, rights groups and activists both inside and outside of Egypt fear that the new law could be used to target a wide swath of Egyptian civil society.

“There is a lot of very well-grounded fear that the government will use such a law as a way of really stamping out the last little breaths of dissent and opposition,” Hawthorne said.

The proposed legislation is still under discussion, and it’s not clear what the government will adopt in the end. But the government has a track record of seeking to squelch opposition and dissent.

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington was not immediately available for comment.

Other countries in the region have also used similar citizenship laws to strategically weaken opposition groups and tamp down on domestic unrest — often under the guise of increasing their security authority.

Bahrain has stripped 451 people of their citizenship since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and 2012. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have also utilized the same practice in response to political turmoil.

U.S. President Donald Trump initially vowed “strong support” for Sisi, but his administration in August chose to deny some U.S. aid to Egypt and to postpone other assistance due to the Cairo government’s track record on human rights.

The State Department was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.

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