Whatever uncertainty as to what Egypt’s future holds after the recent inauguration of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president can now be set aside as we examine the regime’s most recent behavior. Presidential elections and the crackdown on dissent extending to journalists and human rights defenders suggest a far more oppressive future for the country.
Past signs indicated the current trajectory, and the June 2014 election to crown the military’s candidate as president of Egypt were purely ceremonial. Sisi was in the driver’s seat from the start. Not only was he Minister of Defense and Commander-in-Chief of the army, he was also the front man executing the military takeover, appointing himself Deputy Prime Minister in July 2013. The majority will attest that the election outcome was a foregone conclusion, even those in favor of it.
In the run-up to elections, the regime was bent on getting its way, irrespective of local or international considerations. There was a strong media bias, deeming all opposition traitors and painting Sisi and the army as the infallible saviors of Egypt. The police force acted violently against dissidents, with incidents of murder, torture and rape going unpunished. State Security blatantly threatened activists and prominent figures. The judiciary abused the law targeting regime opponents and renewing the detention of randomly arrested citizens, many of whom were found innocent, after having spent months in jail. Meanwhile, the military institution entrenched itself in politics and urged its commander to become president. Sisi duly went back on his promise not to run for president.
When the regime came to terms with the chance of a low turnout, its reaction was forceful. On the night after the first day of elections, the Prime Minister rushed to declare the second day of elections a public holiday. Even then, the turnout remained low, and the regime now attempted to both force and entice voters to participate. Television stations and newspapers announced that non-voters would not only be fined 500 Egyptian pounds for not turning up, but they would also be referred to the public prosecutor’s office. The Presidential Electoral Committee (PEC) then declared an extension of voting into a third day, to adjust the turnout. The European Union (EU) preliminary statement countered that this extension “caused unnecessary uncertainty in the electoral process.” Miraculously, despite the empty polling stations, the participation rate reached over forty-seven percent, slightly exceeding the first round of presidential elections in 2012.
A small yet telling excerpt from the preliminary statement of the EU Observer Mission (EUOM) reports that “observation activities were restricted in 30 visits” and that even with this limited scope, “ballot stuffing was noted in four cases.” In the preliminary statement by Democracy International, which also monitored the elections, the regime’s actions were also highlighted: “Throughout this election process, both state and private media have engaged in a relentless campaign to bolster turnout, often equating abstention with treason and stigmatizing those with opinions differing from the state narrative.”
After the Elections: Further Repression
Once Sisi had become president, secular former dissidents were willing to give the military a chance, and held hopes of a U-turn by the regime. These hopes were swiftly dashed as the regime intensified and accelerated its repressive Mubarak era practices. One of its earliest targets was the European Union Observer Mission, whose delegates were berated and expelled during a symposium held by the National Council for Women. Constitutional court judge Tahany Al-Gebaly and former ambassador Mervat Al-Telawy performed the shaming ceremony, and expressed their dissatisfaction with the EU’s report. This was particularly strange as the report came off as not overly condemning of the state’s brutal practices.
Soon afterwards, twenty-five activists were sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment based on a flawed protest law. One of the group, Alaa Abdel Fattah, was not even present at the protest in question. Activists like Ahmad Doma and Mahienour El-Masry, who had a prominent role in the protesting the murder of Khaled Said at the hands of the police, remain in prison. It is worth noting that the protest law applies also to electoral conferences, and can be used to punish unwanted political gatherings.
Moreover, the way in which the judiciary has operated has undermined Egypt’s justice system locally and internationally. The most widely highlighted case is that of the Al-Jazeera journalists alleged to be fabricating news stories that ‘harm’ Egypt’s image. They were said to be conducting their work from the Marriot, a five star hotel in the heart of Cairo. The irony is that the case itself seems to be the only fabrication, judging by the evidence presented at the trial. Yet despite its absurdity, the judge presiding over the case handed down heavy sentences of between seven and ten years, many in absentia. The defendants included students that have very little to do with Al-Jazeera.
Similarly, a total of 1211 preliminary death sentences were handed down to alleged Muslim Brotherhood members by a court in Minya. The first 528 were sentenced in just one session of this farcical trial on 24 March 2014, after the previous session was quickly adjourned. Of those sentenced to death, one man was paralyzed on one side of his body. The judge who handed down these sentences was alerted that he had sentenced a minor to death by chance only when he read about it in the news.
Aside from these internationally publicized cases, the judiciary continues to act with the same levels of absurdity in local cases. Sectarianism persists as a Coptic journalist was sentenced to five years in December 2013, accused of spreading false information, after covering sectarian violence in Minya. Another was sentenced for liking a Facebook page, while a Coptic teacher was given six months in prison for insulting Islam.
The abuse of the judiciary is clearly systematic and not limited to court sentencing. It is the continuation of oppressive tactics through the politicization of law and justice. This is highlighted, for example, by the swift referral of twenty-four defendants accused of demonstrating in June 2014 to end the protest law, which is widely seen as violating constitutional and human rights. The trial of the defendants, eight of whom are women, including Yara Sallam, a human rights defender, and Sana Seif, a rights activist and sister of Alaa Abdel Fattah, was postponed for two and a half months while they remain incarcerated. The judge left the circuit before formally informing the defendants or their lawyers of the outcome.
Police violence has not been curbed, and as many as four people died in the same day while in custody due to violence or torture by authorities. There seems to be no accountability for the police force, nor for state security, which continues to harass citizens suspected of being opposed to the current government. In prison, people are tortured and disappeared, and yet no institution is capable or perhaps even willing to uphold the constitution or any of these citizens’ rights.
Censorship also prevails, as room for free expression continues to shrink. Satirist Bassem Youssef was pressured to discontinue his show in June 2014, while Ahl Eskendereya (“People of Alexandria”), Belal Fadl’s television serial about corruption in the police force, was banned. Even internationally established writer, Alaa Al Aswany, indicated that he was facing pressure, causing him to stop writing his column in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.
Going forward, there will probably be fewer articles like this one written by journalists based in Egypt. There will be laws and mechanisms to silence any dissent or ridicule of those in power, even if they make a mockery of themselves. There will be more international support for the regime, hand in hand with more hollow references to human rights violations as they continue. The government will reject these accusations and continue with abuses, and the international community will continue to act concerned but very likely will not press for the end of human rights abuses.
The EUOM for example, issued a weak response to the insult handed down by the regime to its monitors, perhaps so as not to further offend the Egyptian government, and in preparation for inevitable future dealings with it. The EU’s monitor mission’s reaction is permissive, and allows for more of this treatment, which is unacceptable by all standards. Moreover, it is a sign that the Egyptian authorities are willing to treat even EU monitors as dissidents, as it does with everyone opposed to the regime. Likewise, Egyptians on a local level are allowing a host of absurdities to pass, such as the decision by Sisi to appoint university heads instead of their election by university peers. This is in direct violation of article 21 of the constitution, which safeguards the independence of universities.
With no police to uphold the law, no judiciary to deliver a semblance of justice and no media to bring the truth forward, those who bear the brunt of the regime’s oppression face difficulties finding help from anyone, domestic or foreign. At home, the same Egyptians who cheered on the youth for leading a movement against corruption, oppression and injustice are now willing to swallow the new injustices handed down to that youth. Abroad, the same international community, who cheered on the youth and expressed admiration for their values and resilience, is dealing cooperatively with their oppressors, providing aid, weaponry, support and technical assistance to help suppress them.
Inevitable Collision Course
The presidential elections, as farcical as they were, were aimed at establishing legitimacy. This was a new legitimacy necessary not just locally for Egyptians to move beyond the Muslim Brotherhood era, but also as an excuse for the international community to move on and engage with Egypt without the pressure of dealing with a military junta.
The regime has since used a combination of gestures to placate the majority, while remaining intolerant of criticisms or pressure. It has exerted significant effort in providing explanations to the public through the media, in order to justify its repressive practices. The “war on terror” is one of its most successful examples, exaggerating a threat and excuses for people to fall back on when they see others being repressed or abused. Dissenters are labeled as traitors and agents of foreign plots.
Yet despite all these efforts, things may not go ahead as smoothly as anticipated. There are signs of tension within the regime and a growing rift between army leadership and old businessmen. This was highlighted when the media, usually loyal to the state, went into a frenzy to highlight the low turnout during elections. The exaggeration indicates that perhaps one body within the state was messaging another that Sisi will not be able to do it alone, that he needs the entire propaganda machine behind him, with all its businessmen, security sectors, and networks.
Repressive tactics employed by the regime combined with populist rhetoric and gestures seem to be working to maintain the status quo so far, but in the long run, gestures of good faith may not be able to placate the public and particularly Egypt’s youth. The youth’s dissatisfaction, together with rising prices, the economic crisis, repressive police tactics, an unconvincing judiciary, the targeting of journalists, and no tolerance for dissent will make for a very trying time for Sisi’s Egypt. It is unlikely that any of the current figures will be able to absorb the youth’s rage after many of them have been imprisoned, tortured, vilified, accused of treason, and sidelined.
It does not help that incompetence seems to permeate every aspect of the Egyptian state, including its revered military. Last February, the military announced that it had discovered a cure for Hepatitis C and AIDS, and that the device would be operational nationwide by 30 June 2014. Then, days before the salvation promised to nearly fifteen million Egyptians, the army claimed it required six more months. Meanwhile, the regime is managing the country just like it managed the hoax cure. There is no accountability, particularly for men in uniform who fail to deliver on their promises, and such let downs eat away at people’s trust and patience.
As prices rise, poverty deepens, and injustice prevails, frustration will increase, and people will realize that they must put their interests first, since nobody else will. Meanwhile, as the rhetoric of fighting terrorism grows old, the regime will realize that the same tactics of repression that earned Mubarak his fate are not enough to bring stability and rule a country, even if they are applied and multiplied tenfold.