Analysis

Why Dictators Always Pretend to Love the Law

There’s something farcical—but entirely rational—about the way authoritarians such as Egypt’s Sisi invoke legal justifications for repression.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi arrives for a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on June 3, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi arrives for a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on June 3, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Adam Berry/Getty Images

Last week, Egypt’s House of Representatives approved amendments to the country’s anti-terrorism law that strengthen the powers of the presidency and the country’s armed forces. With these changes, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can undertake “measures to preserve security and public order.” No doubt the Egyptian authorities will define the preservation of security and public order as broadly as possible. The result is a law to combat terrorism that will likely be more expansive than the emergency measures the Egyptian leadership had lifted a week before, which it had used routinely against both violent and peaceful opponents of Sisi. The Egyptian state giveth, and the Egyptian state taketh away.

None of this was shocking, though my blood ran cold when I read that conducting research on the military and writing about it without written permission from the government would result in a sizable fine. If I were doing my dissertation research now instead of in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I would have never embarked on the project that became my first book.

But that is the point, of course: to strike fear in the hearts of graduate students, scholars, and journalists. This is not just trivial maliciousness but legal cover to abuse people like the poor Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, who was in Egypt not studying the armed forces but was, nevertheless, hunted down, tortured, and killed for researching a topic the government did not like.

Last week, Egypt’s House of Representatives approved amendments to the country’s anti-terrorism law that strengthen the powers of the presidency and the country’s armed forces. With these changes, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can undertake “measures to preserve security and public order.” No doubt the Egyptian authorities will define the preservation of security and public order as broadly as possible. The result is a law to combat terrorism that will likely be more expansive than the emergency measures the Egyptian leadership had lifted a week before, which it had used routinely against both violent and peaceful opponents of Sisi. The Egyptian state giveth, and the Egyptian state taketh away.

None of this was shocking, though my blood ran cold when I read that conducting research on the military and writing about it without written permission from the government would result in a sizable fine. If I were doing my dissertation research now instead of in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I would have never embarked on the project that became my first book.

But that is the point, of course: to strike fear in the hearts of graduate students, scholars, and journalists. This is not just trivial maliciousness but legal cover to abuse people like the poor Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, who was in Egypt not studying the armed forces but was, nevertheless, hunted down, tortured, and killed for researching a topic the government did not like.

With all the power in the hands of Sisi and his advisors, it might seem odd that they are bothering with amendments to legislation and passing it through Egypt’s House of Representatives. Why do authoritarians who are hostile to virtually every aspect of democratic politics so often feel that it is necessary to pantomime democratic practices? What is in it for them? Actually, quite a lot.

To the totally uninitiated, the Egyptian Constitution provides for an open, democratic, and just system of government. For example, Article 4 states: “Sovereignty belongs to the people alone, which exercises it and protects it. They are the source of power. They safeguard their national unity, which is based on the principle of equality, justice and equal opportunity between citizens, as provided in this Constitution.” And the following article declares that Egypt’s political system is based on the peaceful transfer of power, respect for human rights, separation of powers, and “partisan multiplicity.” Sounds pretty good, no? The constitution’s drafters clearly understood what a liberal and democratic constitution sounds like.

But they were also canny enough to include phrases such as “in the manner specified by law,” “in the manner organized by law,” and “in accordance with the law,” throughout the text. It may seem like semantics, but these kinds of formulations allow the Egyptian authorities to have it both ways: institutions that resemble those in liberal and democratic polities but with trap doors that facilitate repression. Although Egyptians are formally granted freedom of research (Article 66) and freedom of publication (Article 71), those rights are actually limited by rendering them subject to laws concerning incitement and “impugning the honor of individuals,” which are interpretated in ways that do not actually protect the right to conduct research and publish.

This explicates how it works, but it does not explain why the Egyptian government bothers to leverage pseudo-democratic practices to situate anti-democratic provisions in the law. Since Sisi and his counterparts in other nondemocratic countries have all the power, it hardly seems necessary, but they benefit in two ways. First, codifying the amendments to the anti-terrorism law provides a mechanism of enforcement that contributes to political control, which is the Egyptian state’s prime directive. Second, and more importantly, it gives defenders of the regime a way to deflect or undermine criticism from home and abroad.

On the occasion when the U.S. State Department might express “concern” or even “utmost concern” about the repressive nature of Egypt’s political system, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson can simply refer to the fact that Egypt is a parliamentary system, where there is a separation of powers and a constitution in which human rights, freedoms, and the rule of law are enshrined without actually lying. This is what Stephen Colbert called “truthy” or “truthiness,” meaning that a statement is true enough but it does not capture the whole story. One can imagine an Egyptian official responding to questions about the anti-terrorism amendments: “They were passed in parliament, which represents the Egyptian people, who are sovereign. That is how the system works. This is our law. We are a sovereign country.” Anyone who has ever had a conversation with an Egyptian official about these kinds of issues knows exactly what I am talking about.

This is not only an Egyptian phenomenon. Turkish, Hungarian, Russian, Polish, and other officials use the same kind of talking points. If one were to inquire with a Turkish diplomat why there are so many journalists jailed in Turkey, even though Article 28 of the constitution guarantees freedom of the press, they are apt to say that these guarantees do not apply. That is because, the diplomat would argue, the reporters and editors in question sought to undermine the irrevocable Articles 1, 2, and 3 of the constitution, which establish Turkey as a democratic and secular republic governed by the rule of law. Many of Turkey’s jailed journalists did no such thing, of course. But because there are provisions in the constitution that limit the very same freedoms the documents set forth, the persecution of journalists for political reasons is all perfectly legal, which is what Turkish officials often argue.

Does anyone believe what officials representing authoritarian regimes have to say? It is hard to tell. Staying on the Turkey example, supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) look at you as if you are crazy for suggesting that Turkey is not a democracy and that in democracies journalists should not be in jail. Similarly, Egyptian officials reject Western assessments of their country’s deplorable human rights record, emphasizing that people in jail are there for a reason and that Egypt’s independent judges put them there. This is only plausible for supporters of the regime, of course. That said, convincing supporters of something about which they are already convinced is not the point. Rather, situating restrictive measures and authoritarian tools in a legal system and constitutional order helps turn aside the criticism of foreign governments, international human rights groups, and the few standing domestic opponents.

Activists have often implored U.S. and European leaders to hold authoritarians such as Sisi to their own words—to judge them by their constitutions’ commitments to respect individual rights. It is a reasonable strategy, but the authoritarians have leveraged a kind of legalism as an outer perimeter of the regime’s defense. By staking their right to abuse their own citizens (and foreigners) on the law, they have sought to turn constitutionalism back on their critics. So far, it has worked.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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