While mass arrests and arbitrary detentions are nothing new to Egypt, the escalation and widening pattern of arrests over the past year indicate that the authoritarian mindset of the Egyptian regime has significantly changed since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former head of military intelligence, took power in a military coup in 2013. Since then, Egypt has arrested or charged at least sixty thousand people, forcibly disappeared hundreds and tried thousands of civilians in military courts. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been killed, detained and targeted under the banner of fighting terrorism. Many dissidents have been accused of belonging to the outlawed group to justify their arrest.
The overall pace of arrests and detentions has only escalated in 2018 as part of a mass arrest campaign undertaken by Egyptian police and security forces of human rights workers, lawyers, journalists and political activists along with a growing number of former regime insiders and even supportive public figures. The government has also introduced restrictive anti-NGO legislation and bolstered its draconian anti-terror laws, among other measures, to silence speech and dissent of any kind. Torture and mistreatment are rampant in Egypt’s prisons and security facilities.
The Egyptian government’s escalating arrest campaign, however, is less about simply detaining the opposition than it is about eradicating any openings that may lead to dissent.
Egypt under the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, like many modern dictatorships, enjoyed a vibrant ecosystem of brutal security bodies, a ruling party, a controlled opposition and a media that masqueraded as free. Islamists were controlled through a mixture of covert deals and brute force. At times they were allowed space and at other times they faced intense security crackdowns. The judiciary was kept under control for the most part, but there were pockets of independence afforded to judges if they chose to use them, particularly in areas like the administrative court and the court of cassation. Any opposition was targeted through an arsenal of weaponry that ranged from soft threats, business related pressures and even forced disappearances.
But now, the older form of authoritarian governance is disappearing. While the overall security apparatus is essentially the same as it was under Mubarak in terms of its tools and tactics, there is a marked strategic shift from Mubarak’s Egypt to Sisi’s Egypt in how these tactics are employed and by whom.
Under President Sisi, the regime’s approach is far less permissive of any dissent even within ranks that are loyal to the state and antagonistic to any form of revolutionary resistance. The government is no longer tolerant of even the simplest gestures of a faux democracy that were present under Mubarak, no matter how symbolic and meaningless they appear to be. There is no longer a ruling party, no tolerance for the role of opposition formerly played by regime supporters and not even the pretense of a free press. Accompanying this strategic shift in the targets of repression, there has been a major shift in the power balance among security agencies such as state security (now renamed Egyptian Homeland Security), general intelligence and military intelligence. Under Mubarak, state security controlled Egypt’s domestic space in terms of strategy and execution. Following the uprising in 2011, the balance between them shifted: The military stepped in to exert more influence over domestic affairs through its military intelligence branch, peaking with the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The regime, moreover, no longer cites terror and security concerns as a pretense for arrests. Opponents are targeted without a meaningful reason and without the flimsy paperwork that in the past justified these arrests. The most recent trend is to accuse the arrested of spreading false information and joining a banned group. This accusation ensures detainees are referred to state security prosecution, which allows for even less judicial oversight.
There is no other time in Egypt’s modern history when the widespread government assault on rights has been more severe. The state’s attempt to dominate the social and political field indicates a significant change in the current regime’s view of authoritarian governance in the aftermath of the popular uprising that broke out on January 25, 2011. Eight years later, despite the regime’s tight control of the street and state institutions, Sisi’s public pronouncements about the 2011 uprising often warn of a determination to prevent its reoccurrence: “What happened seven or eight years ago, will not happen again in Egypt. What didn’t work then, will not work now. No…it looks like you don’t know me well.”
This unprecedented state of repression would not have been possible without Sisi’s internal consolidation of power within Egypt’s state institutions since 2013, winning the support and complicity of the United States and the European Union (EU) along with the financial backing of Egypt’s Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the increasingly permissive international and regional environment for autocrats and authoritarians, firmly embraced by President Trump, outlined in Pompeo’s Cairo speech.
Arresting Spaces of Dissent
There are a number of factors fueling speculation about why the escalating repression is happening now, particularly as most of the arrests are made with no clear charges, no evidence and in response to no threatening or illegal actions taken by most of those arrested.
Egypt currently faces growing economic hardships, which is often cited as a factor fueling the state’s desire to keep the street tightly under control. The so-called ‘economic reforms’ and mass printing of money by the central bank have led to spiraling inflation and a lower standard of living for Egyptians on the whole. In addition, private businesses have suffered as military related businesses have used the military’s hegemony over politics to grab a larger market share in various industries. The military’s growing clout may explain why in every move that impoverishes the average Egyptian’s lifestyle, the government operates in a military-like fashion that views citizens as the enemy who must be coerced into accepting new policies.
There is also speculation that the government is preparing to alter the constitution to extend Sisi’s rule or that the government may be preparing the ground for a controversial embrace of the Trump administration’s much discussed ‘”deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians, which may include a major Egyptian role in Gaza.
Yet while these factors are certainly present, there is also a deeper factor at play. Sisi’s Egypt views the downfall of Mubarak as a cautionary tale for what might happen when too much space is allowed for opposition, even if it is controlled opposition. Hence a managed ruling party, a largely subservient judiciary and a media operating on a tight leash are seen as too permissive to ensure regime survival: politics itself is the enemy. The regime’s notion is that only a unified and singular political voice can and will take Egypt forward. What’s more, the regime’s crackdown goes beyond repressing overt or clandestine opposition: It has become a fight against existing and potential spaces where dissent might be possible in the future.
This broader transformation of Egyptian authoritarianism under Sisi is illustrated not only by the scale of the crackdown, but also by the broader pattern of arrests and repressive policies that have taken place since 2013, and have taken a harsh turn in the past year.
Upon assuming power in 2013, Sisi introduced legislation that blocked possible roads to dissent in order to cement his rule. Early examples include anti-protest law followed by the long fight to get rid of Hesham Genena, Egypt’s former chief auditor, which started with legislation to give the president the right to remove him. He was subsequently arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.
Despite all the legislative power consolidated by Sisi to control dissent, arrests remain the central tactic for purging opposition voices, even from within ranks loyal to the state, and the scope of arrests has expanded far beyond traditional targets.
While many of the arrested figures who make the news are well known political activists or opposition figures like Wael Abbas, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh and Shady El Ghazaly Harb, the regime is also arresting lesser known individuals who have carved out social or political space in Egypt. For example Mohamed Radwan, known as Mohamed Oxygen for his Youtube channel Oxygen Egypt, was arrested in April 2018. His video blog consisted of interviews conducted on the street with ordinary people. The satirical blogger Shady Abuzeid, famous for a controversial video where he films himself distributing condoms to policemen in Tahrir on the revolution’s anniversary in 2016, was arrested even though he had been silent on politics since the video. Many many young people associated with the exiled singer Ramy Essam and the production of his song ‘Balaha’ (a mocking nickname for Sisi which means date) have all been arrested by state security forces.
Moreover, a number of former regime supporters and insiders have increasingly been targeted for arrest as well. For example, Ahmed Shafiq was placed under house arrest in the Marriott Hotel temporarily after being deported by the UAE for having announced his 2018 candidacy for president there, where he was quickly coerced into withdrawing from the presidential race. The regime imposed an even harsher measure against former Egyptian military chief of staff Gen. Sami Anan who was was arrested, and remains in custody of the military prosecution, simply for declaring his intent to run for the presidency. A former ambassador and former military officer, Massoum Marzouk, was also arrested on August 31, 2018 for criticizing al-Sisi and calling for protests to take place.
Other actors within the regime such as Mahmoud Hegazy, the former army chief of staff, Osama Askar, Commander of the Unified Command in the Sinai, and Sedky Sobhy, former minister of defense, have been the subject of repressive measures when their views were not completely aligned with command. Instead of being merely sidelined, as happened in the past, this new development is a sign that suppression extends beyond opposition and is now internal to the regime.
One controversial personality under arrest is Hazem Abdel Azim, who had been a strong supporter of Sisi and part of his presidential campaign at one point. Initially a supporter of the revolution, Abdel Azim took a sharp turn against it when Sisi came to power. Sometime after Sisi was sworn in as president, he took yet another U-turn and apologized for his support of Sisi. More controversially, he exposed how parliamentary elections were were orchestrated behind the scenes and became a vehement critic of the Sisi regime. He also published a recorded phone call with someone allegedly from security services threatening him on his personal Facebook page.
Yet Abdel Azim is not the most surprising arrest. TV presenter Khairy Ramadan, a regime hardliner was also arrested. He was released on bail fairly quickly, but the move was a strong message that even within the regime’s ranks all messaging must be aligned and not go off script. Even Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal were arrested this September. A journalist close to the regime accused Gamal Mubarak of trying to regain power and close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which became the pretense for his arrest.
The regime’s fight is no longer about simply suppressing dissenting voices but rather a targeted attack on all spaces and battlefields that may be used to voice dissent, whether political, social or physical. Because football stadiums had been one of the places of free, often subversive, expression, football fans have been banned from attending matches. The government has also targeted bookstores and media outlets as well as shut down libraries that were started by the opposition figure and human rights activist Gamal Eid.
The elimination of all and even potentially oppositional voices and spaces so that only one can be amplified is a clear indication that there can be no semblance of opposition. Even when it was time for elections, whose results were a foregone conclusion, Sisi eliminated all competition. Had it not been for US Vice President Mike Pence’s condition that the presidential election in 2018 must have a contender Sisi would have run alone. When competition was presented, Sisi dispatched one of his supporters to run against him, a man who rallied for Sisi even during his own presidential bid.
None of these increasingly bold and repressive moves would have been possible without the support granted Egypt from the US, the EU and the Gulf states. President Trump’s praise for dictators and disdain for human rights and democracy, along with rising authoritarian parties in a number of European countries, has enabled the Egyptian regime to violate human rights law with impunity. In addition, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been committed supporters of Egypt’s government and policies through their massive economic support packages and by lobbying western governments to recognize and embrace Egypt’s government without criticizing its human rights violations.
While it may be a permissive period for aspiring authoritarians, it is also the case that many Western countries have significant business and security interests in Egypt that not only reinforce their silence on its human rights violations but also cause them to offer open support for the regime.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, for example, has been criticized for refusing to speak about Egypt’s human rights record particularly as Egypt has been the largest recipient of arms from France between 2013 and 2017. France has also been supplying surveillance equipment and other hardware used to target activists. Great Britain’s ambassador to Egypt John Casson has come under fire for his reluctance to talk about Egyptian human rights abuses even though the Great Britain is a major supporter of Egypt’s security services as well. Many other interests bind it to Egypt, including the IMF loan which will pay arrears to international oil companies, including British Petroleum.
Germany also has close business and security ties with Egypt and in return Prime Minister Merkel has downplayed the human rights abuses taking place in Egypt. Germany has established a security agreement with Egypt which has deepened despite the Egyptian government’s poor track record on human rights. Trade between Egypt and Germany remains lucrative, including the sale of a German-made attack submarine and an eight billion euro deal for the German company Siemens to build power stations, which Egypt granted directly without competition with other companies.
Greece and Cyprus have also been supportive of Egypt’s current government, and their representatives have blocked several attempts by the EU to take action against Egypt for its human rights abuses. The reason appears to be the lucrative agreement around the exploration and transportation of natural gas from Cyprus’ gas fields to Egypt for re-export to Europe.
Spain and Italy have also largely remained silent about Egyptian government actions, and it is also the case that they are set to be paid over two billion dollars by Egypt over a natural gas dispute through their joint venture Union Fenosa Gas. Despite the murder of the Italian researcher Guilio Regeni in which the Egyptian government has been implicated, Italy has been trying to find a way to return to business as usual rather than seek justice for its murdered student. Just two and a half years after Regeni’s murder, Eni, an Italian energy company has been granted an offshore exploration license in the Mediterranean Sea by Egyptian authorities.
A Repressive Formula
While the Egyptian government’s widening campaign of arbitrary arrests and extended detentions have been mounting, the chances of fighting this repression has been diminishing. The Egyptian regime now aims to eliminate all existing or potential political or social battlegrounds rather than build state capacity to fight in these battlegrounds and win—employing mass death sentences that are sometimes carried out and enforced disappearances that are not questioned. The recent measures taken by the regime have not only eliminated real or potential opposition figures but have also eradicated any space where it was once possible to conduct a battle for rights. In an autocratic state, there are often sites of contestation: the press, courts, elections and other sites. Battles erupt in these spaces. What the current regime is doing now is eliminating the ability for citizens to contest its rule through any of these traditional institution-based processes.
It seems that Egypt has mastered a mode of operation that eliminates battlegrounds instead of engaging with them. Internal consolidation of power is a meticulous process that involves making sure that both opposition and regime supporters fall in line, whatever the cost. At the same time the regime appears to be succeeding in fending off external pressure from the international community that could hinder the process of internal regime consolidation.
But Egypt’s repressive crackdown on political space has not come without a political cost. In order to secure international support, Egypt has strained its economy with debts, and inflation has hit an all-time high. Economic hardship for most Egyptians has negatively affected Sisi’s popularity, though dissatisfaction is being contained through a brutal security apparatus. At the same time, the mass arrests of its opponents, real or imagined, is creating more enemies for the regime. Once manically popular, Sisi is now cursed at even though people are painfully aware of the price of speaking out.
Egypt has succeeded in reestablishing authoritarianism in a manner that is far more brutal—and far-reaching—than Mubarak. It has managed to control the street while undermining its own judiciary and institutions. The military’s hegemony over the economy is turning into full-fledged domination. Once contested, albeit controlled, battlegrounds are decimated. The diminishing role of state institutions and structures has led to more centralized regime control over all aspects of governing, eliminating a governing process.
At the same time, people are governed through fear and are unwilling to risk the brutality that may accompany calling for their rights. This formula gives the appearance of relative stability. But with a deteriorating economy that affects the livelihood of the majority of Egyptians, will this be sustainable in the absence of state structures and institutions that have traditionally acted as a pressure release? Time will tell whether this attempt at a totalizing form of political control is a modern-day authoritarian’s winning formula, or a house made of cards that will readily crumble when a new crisis or event sparks mass outrage.