Egypt’s President Sisi has acquired sophisticated technological capabilities to block internet activity, passed restrictive internet legislation and now surveils users and censors content on a scale never seen before. Much of this has been facilitated by Western allies who have been more than happy to sell potentially repressive technologies to the authoritarian regime, emboldening Sisi’s attempts to eliminate freedom of expression in Egypt.
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. Egypt under President Sisi has succeeded in reestablishing authoritarianism in a manner that is far more brutal—and far-reaching—than that of the deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak. Once contested, albeit controlled, battlegrounds for politics are being decimated.
Cairo, July 2. The National Progressive Unionist Party (Tagammu‘) held its second national congress in Cairo on June 27-28, 1985. The Tagammu‘, Egypt’s principal left opposition party, is a united front formation including members of illegal communist organizations, independent Marxists, Nasserists, enlightened religious elements and a number of newer, less politicized members who have joined the party since the parliamentary elections of May 1984. The Tagammu‘ did not win any seats then in the People’s Assembly, due to an undemocratic election law and some falsification of the election results.  But the nationwide campaign and the presence here of some 750 representatives from throughout Egypt—including women, workers and peasants—indicates that the party has substantially increased its size and organizational capacity since its first congress in 1980.
Although climate change is a major issue of global consequence, blaming climate change for the 2011 uprising in Egypt fails to account for the political and economic issues that were behind the uprisings across the region and distracts from the factors that produced bread shortages in Egypt.
From day one of his July 3 coup, al-Sisi has directed a relentless campaign to depoliticize and incapacitate the population, riveting the old relations of deference and subordination between those who rule and those coerced to obey. But plebiscitary elections are part of a different type of autocratic rule, one that orchestrates continuous and diverse performances of citizen enthusiasm and state-identification.
Last April, an Egyptian court acquitted Aya Hijazi and seven others of charges related to their work with a charitable foundation for Cairo’s street children. After nearly three years in prison, Hijazi, a dual US-Egyptian citizen, was released and allowed to return to the United States where President Donald J. Trump welcomed her with a visit to the White House. “We are very happy to have Aya back home,” Trump exclaimed while seated next to Hijazi during a photo opportunity in the Oval Office. Even by the standards of an already unorthodox presidency, the scene was a strange one.
Wael Eskandar is a Cairo-based independent journalist who blogs at Notes from the Underground. He has written for Ahram Online, al-Monitor, Daily News Egypt, Counterpunch and Jadaliyya, among other outlets. He has also contributed to Egypt’s Kazeboon campaign and other projects that focus on youth and digital information. Eskandar spoke with Jessica Winegar, associate professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and an editor of this magazine, in April 2017.
Traffic crawls as usual through Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, making its noisy way around the 65-foot pole flying the Egyptian flag newly erected in the middle of the plaza. It is hard to imagine that in January 2011 this very spot was the epicenter of the grassroots revolution that toppled President Husni Mubarak. Since the summer 2013 coup, the military-backed regime has remade this space of insurrection into one of imposed national unity. The revolutionary graffiti is long since whitewashed; the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, incinerated during the uprising, is demolished.
One need not cast one’s mind too far back to see that both the Egyptian government and the Coptic Orthodox Church are worried more about the December 11 church bombing’s destabilizing potential than about the national unity they spoke of during the state-run funeral.
In January 2015, Christie’s announced that a painting by the Palestinian Suleiman Mansour, Camel of Burdens II (Jamal al-Mahamil), would be the highlight of its annual auction of modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art held in Dubai. The piece was listed as the second version of the 1973 original, which was thought to have belonged to Muammar al-Qaddafi, the long-time Libyan dictator, and to have been destroyed in the US bombing of his Tripoli military compound in 1986. An iconic portrayal of Palestinian steadfastness (sumud) in the struggle for a homeland, it was expected to sell for somewhere between
$200,000 and $300,000.
On January 25, 2014, Karim Taha and Muhammad Sharif organized separate marches about five miles apart in Cairo to commemorate the third anniversary of the uprising that toppled Husni Mubarak. Both demonstrations were quashed, and the two men met up to share a cab home. The driver took a detour that led them straight into a police checkpoint. They were both arrested and interrogated at a police station. The next day, they were transported to an unofficial prison at a military camp near one of Cairo’s satellite cities.
On December 2, 2013, Mahienour al-Massry organized a protest on the corniche running along the Mediterranean seafront in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city. The human rights attorney’s raven ponytail and oversized black glasses made her easy to spot amid the dozens of people with their backs turned to the sea and their eyes trained on the courthouse across the busy roadway. Inside the building, two police officers were appealing their conviction for the brutal killing of Khalid Sa‘id in 2010, one of the incidents that galvanized the 2011 uprising that brought down President Husni Mubarak. The protesters shouted: “Down with every agent of the military!”
After the coup of July 3, 2013, judges in Egypt repeatedly shocked polite world opinion. In hasty proceedings held in police facilities, in the absence of defense attorneys, courts passed down sentences of death and life imprisonment for thousands of supporters of the ousted Muhammad Mursi, Egypt’s first elected president. In one pair of cases in Minya province in 2014, 1,212 people were condemned to die for the killing of two policemen. Mursi himself faces six separate trials. In one of these, related to Mursi’s escape from illegal detention as a political prisoner in the early days of the 2011 uprising that unseated Husni Mubarak, judge Shaaban al-Shami imposed the death penalty. Shami had ordered Mubarak released in a 2013 corruption case, and two years later was promoted to assistant justice minister for forensic medicine.
Scholars of the Egypt and the Middle East call on President Obama to stop the longstanding US support for Egypt’s undemocratic military regime.
Ever since the Black Lives Matter movement exploded into the headlines, violence by American police officers has come under fire from activists and ordinary citizens alike. Less discussed, however, is how the US government winks at the police brutality of its client states abroad.
The military government in Egypt, for example, is cracking down hard on its restive citizenry—harder than any time in memory. And the United States, which sends the country over a $1 billion a year in security aid, is looking the other way.
The cops on the beat in Egyptian cities are a menace. They demand bribes from motorists on any pretense and mete out lethal violence on a whim.
An authoritarian regime may be unpopular, even loathed, but at least it has rules. The rules may bear little resemblance to the law, but relations between state officials and society come to have a predictable rhythm. People understand where the red lines are, and they can choose to stay within them or to step across. Egypt does not work this way under the field marshal who became president, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi.
Constraints on academic freedom or violations of it are not new in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, while there is certainly variation among the countries of the region, regime attempts to control what is studied, how it is studied, and what faculty and students may do and say both on and off campus have a long history.