Western Leaders Are Promoting Dictatorship, Not Democracy, in Egypt
Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Cairo and Donald Trump’s cheerleading have bolstered Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he faces popular protest over his latest power grab.
The severity of the Egyptian authorities’ crackdown on dissidents in recent years has left many activists unwilling to defy the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The waves of political activism that preceded the 2011 revolution and peaked in the wake of that uprising have been fading since the military coup of July 2013. Fewer and fewer democrats and human rights activists are willing to subject themselves to the regime’s wrath, which can include military trials as well as “torture, arbitrary arrests, and enforced disappearances,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Given this environment, it was a surprise when a series of short, straightforward videos started to flood Egyptian social media networks on Feb. 6, featuring citizens from various backgrounds making a unified statement: “I am an Egyptian citizen, and I say no to the constitutional amendments.” If adopted, the government’s proposed amendments could pave the way for Sisi to stay in office until 2034. (When he was the country’s defense minister, Sisi led the 2013 coup that ousted then-President Mohamed Morsi before becoming president himself a year later.)
As it stands, Egypt’s Constitution, drafted and adopted in January 2014 in the wake of the coup, stipulates that no amendments may be made to the article that limits the presidency to two four-year terms. This is exactly what pro-Sisi forces are trying to change. After the idea was first floated in the media by pundits known for their ties to the country’s rulers, the amendments were proposed in Parliament, which provisionally approved them on Thursday.
The amendments will now be reviewed in a parliamentary committee before they are put to another vote. If passed in Parliament, a national referendum will be held. Unfortunately, Sisi’s latest power grab has been met with nearly universal silence from Western leaders who profess to care about human rights and democracy.
Many Egyptians have already announced their opposition to the amendments online. The majority of the videos have been posted by ordinary people rather than high-profile activists. Many among the latter group are in political detention or in exile anyway, or they are trying to keep a low profile to avoid the fate of those who are already under the security forces’ grip.
Instead, anger is being expressed in hundreds of videos that are posted on an anonymous Facebook page that defines its mission as helping Egyptians seek “change for the better” and “organize” to make that change happen. Ordinary people have been filming themselves expressing their opposition to the amendments and posting their videos online, in rapidly increasing numbers, via this page. The videos feature random faces of women and men, young and old, and bourgeois and working-class citizens as they make short statements against the backgrounds of simple Egyptian homes.
Some have no faces at all; they recorded only their voices to avoid being identified and harmed by the government’s security agencies. Commenters cheer for those who have had the courage to express their rejection of the amendments. The commenters also express their fear: “May God protect you” and “Stay safe” appear alongside “Bravo” and “We will prevail.”
None of those who posted the videos are reported to have been arrested or harmed, but fear for their safety is growing and justified. The Sisi regime has not taken action against every single dissenter, but it typically takes action at random, and when it does, it can be vicious and merciless. An estimated 60,000 people have been arrested “on political grounds” since the coup.
The regime’s response has already started—not toward those in the videos but toward a prominent public figure: Khaled Youssef, a film director and member of Parliament who had expressed support for Sisi amid the 2013 coup and who was a member of the committee that drafted the constitution in 2014. Youssef announced on Feb. 3 that he was against the amendments, adding on his Facebook and Twitter accounts that he realized this stance might result in imprisonment on “fake charges.”
His prediction has partially come true. Two actresses were arrested on Feb. 7 for committing “debauchery” over a leaked video in which they appear dancing in their underwear. The actresses reportedly told investigators that the video was filmed by Youssef in his apartment, according to Egyptian media outlets. While Youssef himself has not been arrested, he is being subjected to what he described to BBC Arabic as a “moral assassination.” In the context of a conservative Egyptian society, extramarital sexual relationships can seriously damage a public figure’s reputation. The two actresses’ arrest also constitutes an indirect threat against Youssef: If they were arrested, then he might soon be detained, too.
In a similar episode, a pro-government lawyer filed a lawsuit against yet another lawmaker, Haitham al-Hariri, who voiced his criticism of the amendments. The lawyer accuses Hariri of “harassment over the phone” in relation to a leaked call between him and his female office manager.
The issue is not whether the leaked recordings are real or whether Youssef and Hariri engaged in behavior that requires prosecution—it is rather about the timing at which their purported mistakes have surfaced. The current security agencies and judicial system are by no means known for supporting women against harassment and abuse.
Less than five months ago, an Egyptian court sentenced a harassment victim to two years in prison for a Facebook video in which she condemned sexual harassment and expressed resentment of the authorities’ failure to protect women. So when a pro-government lawyer, who is known to have acted on the regime’s behalf for years, accuses Hariri of phone harassment, this means that the regime is simply being opportunistic. After all, the same lawyer also filed a lawsuit in December against an actress, accusing her of “incitement to debauchery” after she wore a dress that was allegedly revealing and inappropriate. He is clearly no supporter of women’s rights and freedoms.
The silver lining is that the anti-amendment videos have continued to flood social media despite the attacks on Youssef and Hariri and in defiance of the fear that Sisi and the state’s security apparatus have been cultivating since 2013. This is not a sign of imminent regime change or radical progress toward more democratic rule in the country. It is nonetheless significant that Egyptians are undertaking collective action and becoming conscious of their ability to challenge a ruling elite that has created what Amnesty International calls an “open-air prison for critics.”
Popular anger has been growing, slowly. Sisi no longer enjoys the popularity he had when he first seized power in 2013 and 2014. The Egyptian polling center Baseera found that the president’s popularity fell from 54 percent in 2014 to 27 percent in 2016. In addition to resentment of human rights violations under his rule, anger against Sisi’s policies escalated after he devalued the Egyptian currency and lifted fuel subsidies that had been in place for decades. Both steps were implemented in 2016, leading to a hike in the prices of basic goods. This has in turn affected Egyptians’ standard of living and made it harder for many of them to make ends meet.
In the same year, there were rare and massive protests against Sisi’s decision to cede Egypt’s sovereignty over the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, whose rulers have supported Sisi and supplied him with aid and loans since the coup. The protests were suppressed, and dozens of protesters were arrested but only after they had signaled that Sisi’s actions would not always go unchallenged.
Unfortunately, the international community, by siding with Sisi, is defying the Egyptian people’s will. This is true of French President Emmanuel Macron, whose visit to Egypt in late January was an unmistakable show of support for Sisi and the ruling elite. Macron’s criticism of the human rights situation in the country boils down to empty rhetoric when assessed alongside the fact that France has become the top supplier of arms to Egypt in recent years. In addition to Rafale fighter jets, warships, and a military satellite, France also provided armored vehicles that have been “used to violently crush dissent in Cairo and Alexandria,” according to an Amnesty International report.
It is no wonder that the heads of Rafale producer Dassault accompanied Macron on his visit to Cairo, the very visit in which he said in a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart that “stability cannot be dissociated from the question of human rights.” Sisi responded by saying that “Egypt does not advance through bloggers.”
Macron’s policies are only part of a larger pattern across an international community that has recently engaged in unprecedented complicity with Sisi’s authoritarianism. U.S. President Donald Trump told the Egyptian president during a meeting in September 2018 that the U.S.-Egyptian “relationship has never been stronger. And we’re working with Egypt on many different fronts, including military and trade. … It’s an honor to be with you again.” Trump is also a strong supporter of the Saudi regime, which has backed Sisi economically and politically since the coup. And most recently, on Feb. 10, the Egyptian president assumed the chairmanship of the African Union—a first for Egypt since the regional organization’s establishment in 2002.
After being appointed the AU’s chairman, Sisi said in a speech to the AU assembly that the continent is facing the threat of terrorism. In doing so, he played a card that has served him well in international forums. Despite his tough talk on terrorism, Sisi has failed to defeat the Islamic State’s affiliate in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula nearly five years after he became president. And he has repeatedly misled his international audience by arguing that all his opponents are Islamist terrorists and that this justified their detention. This is not true. Many of the regime’s critics are secularists and liberals.
And those who do come from the Islamist-leaning Muslim Brotherhood cannot be described as terrorists, either. The group has repeatedly stressed its adherence to peaceful means of opposition. Its ability to pose a threat to Sisi’s power in any way has been dramatically weakened because thousands of its members were jailed or fled the country after 2013. Only a small minority of its younger members have reportedly become radicalized and disillusioned with the group’s leadership in recent years. If a small minority of younger Islamists have become extremists, it only proves that flagrant injustice breeds grievances and raises the chances of radicalization.
Egypt’s post-2011 political spectrum, which saw a stark division between Islamists and non-Islamists, does not represent the country’s scene any longer. Resentment and bitterness are now rising among Egyptians from various backgrounds, and many of Sisi’s critics are ordinary people with no political experience or interest in ideology.
It is up to European and U.S. leaders to side with the Egyptian people or with a regime that has trampled its citizens’ human rights. It is up to Western powers to live up to their claims that they value and champion justice, rights, and freedoms—or to turn a blind eye as their ally violates these values.