Sisi’s Last Stand
The Egyptian president enjoyed relative impunity during the Trump years. Now, an uptick in repression at home—and criticism from abroad—may end up spelling his downfall.
No one is safe in Egypt. Faced with myriad crises both at home and abroad, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has sought to cement his already unilateral grip on power with a massive smear campaign meant to discredit his regime’s opponents as “terrorists” and “traitors.”
Last November, the Sisi regime placed 28 human rights defenders—some of whom were already political prisoners—on a terrorist watchlist. They joined hundreds of people, both secular and Islamist, who had already been established as enemies of the state. Far from just a rhetorical blemish, those on the watchlist face stark consequences: a court-imposed travel ban, frozen assets, and ineligibility from holding public office for the next five years.
Neither is an actual terrorist, nor are any of the other new additions to the list, which the government uses solely to reinforce its police state. As a result, these so-called terrorist lists continue to expand—sweeping up people from a variety of political orientations—and have abandoned all credibility in the process.
But, beyond the meaninglessness of Sisi’s hit list, I know that Abdel Fattah and Aboul Fotouh aren’t terrorists because I met them after Egypt’s 2011 revolution. At the time, Abdel Fattah was a young activist and software programmer focused mostly on promoting open-source technology. He had worked at a South Africa-based company until the revolution broke out, when he decided to quit his job and return to Egypt.
Aboul Fotouh is a politician and former Islamist who won fourth place in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections, Egypt’s first—and only—free and fair election. Aboul Fotouh has been well known in Egypt since the 1970s, when he publicly left the fundamentalist group al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya. The group believed that democracy was forbidden in Islamic societies and instigated sectarian violence against Coptic Christians in rural Egypt before going on to assassinate President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Aboul Fotouh’s departure from al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya initiated a major split that drew thousands of young people out of the movement in favor of peaceful political action. Aboul Fotouh himself joined the Muslim Brotherhood and ascended to the top of the organization’s hierarchy.
Aboul Fotouh is known for his pursuit of compromise and political consensus—for which his political opponents would ridicule him—and has advocated for reconciliation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling military regime. It’s no surprise, then, that Sisi—a military stalwart—sees him as a threat.
But state repression doesn’t only target political dissidents and opposition politicians. Under Sisi, even career human rights defenders are facing a tightening security clampdown—just for doing their jobs. Unfortunately for them, human rights defenders work in a country where human rights are most certainly not defended. The number of political prisoners in Egypt is estimated to be in the tens of thousands: Islamists, liberals, leftists, people with no specific political affiliation, secular activists, academics, lawyers, and even girls and women who publish videos of themselves dancing on TikTok all find themselves in jail. If you’re a human rights defender, even calling attention to these cases can land you, too, in trouble.
In November 2020, three leading members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)—one of the last remaining rights organizations in Egypt—were abruptly arrested just two weeks after hosting European and Canadian diplomats to discuss the human rights situation in the country. There are no other discernable proximate causes of their detention.
EIPR Executive Director Gasser Abdel-Razak and his colleagues Karim Ennarah and Mohamed Basheer were first subjected to forced disappearances, then later put in solitary confinement, and have been denied prisoners’ basic rights throughout it all. They were snatched from their homes—in one case, from a seaside vacation—just as thousands of other Egyptians from all walks of life have been swept up in Sisi’s widening crackdown over the last seven years.
Despite mounting international pressure and demands for these prisoners’ release, Sisi’s regime stuck to its well-worn script in defending the detentions. The detainees were first accused of “belonging to a terrorist group” and “spreading false news” before being released two weeks later. But a terrorism court has still ordered the personal assets and property of the EIPR members frozen, and their defense lawyers have been prohibited from seeing the charge sheet or presenting a defense to the court.
The Egyptian government slaps nearly all political defendants with terrorism charges, regardless of their affiliation or identity. Only a minority of those facing terrorism-related charges are actually involved in terrorism; the majority are activists who seek to peacefully resist the military-run government. But the Sisi regime does not tolerate dissent.
EIPR gender rights researcher Patrick George Zaki—the victim of a previous sweep—has been imprisoned since February 2020. His detention was renewed by a terrorism court on Dec. 6, when a judge issued a sweeping decision to renew the detentions of more than 750 political prisoners in a marathon 12-hour session. Of the hundreds of cases considered, the judge chose to exempt only one individual from further imprisonment.
For 18 years, EIPR has been at the forefront of human rights work in Egypt. While most similar NGOs have focused on documenting human rights violations and defending political prisoners only since Sisi took power in a military coup in 2013, EIPR has been in it for the long run. The organization also involves itself in more mainstream political debates, such as those surrounding government measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and sectarian violence. And EIPR delves into taboo topics in Egypt, including the ongoing security crackdown on LGBTQ+ people and the increased use of capital punishment.
EIPR is not the only organization that Sisi is working to squeeze out of existence. In August 2020, authorities sentenced the director and co-founder of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Bahey el-Din Hassan, to 15 years in prison for allegedly spreading false news and inciteful material against the state. CIHRS, which was founded in 1993 and is of the most prominent human rights organizations in Egypt, was forced to close its offices in the country following an unrelenting pressure campaign by the Egyptian government, which, among other things, froze its funds (a favorite tactic of the Sisi regime). The state also seized Hassan’s personal assets, and he faced numerous death threats throughout the ordeal.
The Egyptian government doesn’t only detain human rights defenders themselves—their families are at risk, too. In June 2020, relatives of the Egyptian American activist Mohamed Soltan were subjected to arbitrary arrests just days after Sultan filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court against Hazem el-Beblawi (Egypt’s prime minister from 2013 to 2014) for crimes against humanity. Five members of Soltan’s family remained in detention for 144 days until their release on Nov. 3—a decision timed to coincide with the U.S. election and subsequent victory of Joe Biden over Donald Trump, who had famously called Sisi his “favorite dictator.”
The arrest of Soltan’s relatives sent a powerful, dangerous message to the world: The Sisi regime has no problem taking hostages to intimidate activists and force them to give up their work. And, though their case gained rare international prominence, Soltan’s family is not alone.
In addition to arbitrary detentions of ordinary citizens, the current Egyptian government works day after day to close all spaces for expression. Since 2017, the Sisi regime has blocked dozens of independent news outlets, and the intelligence services have bought out what’s left—gaining complete control of the country’s media landscape.
So how long will the regime continue to wage this war against its own people? And how long can it afford to do so?
At present, Sisi is able to take advantage of Egypt’s position in the Middle East—as well as global fears of political upheaval in the region—to cement his police state. More crisis in the Middle East would almost certainly inflame another refugee crisis in Europe, which EU leaders are keen to avert at almost any cost. Indeed, on Dec. 10, 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron awarded Sisi the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor, during Sisi’s state visit to Paris—a move condemned by the human rights community as brazenly hypocritical for a country ostensibly devoted to liberté and égalité.
But, ironically, Sisi’s policies may themselves turn to cause such political unrest. As the president prevents any real political activity, shuts down rights campaigns, and locks away political dissents, the only voices suppressed are those of peaceful dissent. They are the ones who give frustrated, ordinary Egyptians hope for a democratic future where justice and the rule of law prevail.
Labeling activists and political opponents “terrorists” discredits attempts by the government to be taken seriously in its conflict against real threats in a region that—despite Sisi’s show of force—remains virulently turbulent. Average Egyptians will dismiss the government’s security procedures, and international security agencies will take with a grain of salt the terrorist lists published in Cairo. It’s only a matter of time.
The message Sisi sends to the international community—and to his allies in Washington and Europe—is simple: There is no role for civil society in Egypt. The only voice to be heard in the country is the voice of the president, his government, and his supporters.
These voices alone are not enough to rule a country like Egypt. If Egypt is to have real stability, it urgently needs input from a variety of perspectives to inform approaches and solutions to its problems. Egypt faces a number of crises, both foreign and domestic, that have been put by the wayside in order to crack down on opposition. One of the most visible in recent months has been the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which poses a threat to Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water supply. Not to mention the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, which Egypt’s health system is ill-equipped to fight.
The only way Sisi’s authoritarian government can maintain stability in Egypt is to work toward adopting gradual policies that ease the social and political tension festering since 2013, when Sisi assumed power. A good start would be to end the arbitrary arrest and harassment of citizens who participated in the 2011 revolution; order the compassionate release of elderly, sick, and nonviolent prisoners serving short sentences due to the coronavirus pandemic; and to unblock the websites of independent news organizations that have been unable to reach their Egyptian audiences for three years.
Abdel Fattah, Aboul Fotouh, the staff of EIPR, girls and women dancing on TikTok, and the thousands of political prisoners Sisi has left languishing in jail under the guise of fighting instability are the people who can and should lead a democratic transition in Egypt, and they need support. Sisi’s U.S. and European allies should use the weight of their respective offices to send a clear message to the Egyptian government that its repressive policies threaten Egypt’s stability in the long run and, more specifically, increase the danger of real terrorism. The Egyptian people are not waiting for the West to deliver them democracy. They only want a chance to bring it about themselves.
This is not a demand that the Egyptian government surrender to outside pressure but a call for Cairo to cooperate with those countries it claims as allies and friends abroad so that it can do its most important task: work with—and listen to—the Egyptian people so that they can create a political process that works on behalf of everyone.