The referendum passed amendments not only extending al-Sisi’s current four-year term to six years but also bolstering the role of the military and expanding the president’s power over judicial appointments.
Electoral authorities in Egypt announced on April 23 that a national referendum had approved constitutional amendments further consolidating President Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s executive power in the country. The referendum, which garnered only a 44 percent voter turnout, passed amendments not only extending al-Sisi’s current four-year term to six years (thus enabling him to run for another six-year term in 2024) but also bolstering the role of the military and expanding the president’s power over judicial appointments.
The day after the announcement, the 64th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the African Union’s (AU) top mechanism for monitoring human rights records on the continent, commenced in Egypt. Many Egyptian and international human rights activists, enraged by Cairo’s latest crackdowns on fundamental freedoms, objected to Egypt’s brazen attempt to whitewash its record by hosting the human rights summit.
“Egypt is trying to appear like a country open for human rights delegates and sessions while, at the same time, crushing all dissenting voices and its once-vibrant human rights community,” said Michael Page, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) deputy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “We know that many Egyptian and international organizations are not allowed to work freely in Egypt and cannot voice concerns without severe retaliation from the government.”
Egypt’s Descent into Draconian Rule
Egypt’s recent authoritarian moves are nothing new. Since al-Sisi seized power in 2013, the country has experienced a “catastrophic decline in rights and freedoms,” according to Najia Bounaim, director of Amnesty International’s North Africa campaign. The Egyptian president has enforced new measures, often brutally, to silence any critics of his personal agenda, especially in the country’s non-governmental sector.
In 2017, the Egyptian authorities issued a “draconian law” that banned the independent work of non-governmental groups and prosecuted numerous employees of Egyptian NGOs. Furthermore, the bill established the National Authority for the Regulation of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations, which encompasses representatives from the General Intelligence Directorate, Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and the Central Bank of Egypt.
The authority aims to monitor the work of NGOs, “including any funding or cooperation between Egyptian associations and any foreign entity.” The 2017 law also “prohibits any Egyptian government body from making agreements with NGOs without the authority’s approval.”
The authority aims to monitor the work of NGOs, “including any funding or cooperation between Egyptian associations and any foreign entity.”
NGOs are not the only ones, however, who have been prohibited from promoting change in Egypt. The government has moved to suppress the country’s prominent human rights activists by freezing their personal assets and issuing travel bans to limit their movement, especially in reprisal for human rights defenders cooperating with regional and international human rights monitors.
Since al-Sisi was re-elected to a second term in March 2018, he and his security forces have only escalated their campaign of intimidation, violence, arbitrary arrests, and censorship against peaceful political opponents, activists, and NGOs. Egyptian authorities and state media continue to justify this repression by claiming that they are combating terrorism.
“The human rights trajectory in Egypt has been in a deep descent for several years now. The litany of serious abuses during President al-Sisi’s rule . . . appears set to continue with the constitutional amendments enshrining long-term autocratic rule,” MENA HRW director Page told Al Jazeera.
Egypt’s Rocky History with the AU
Earlier this year, al-Sisi assumed the chairmanship of the AU at the organization’s annual summit in Addis Ababa. During his address to his fellow African leaders, al-Sisi emphasized that “mediation and preventive diplomacy” would remain priorities during his tenure. The Egyptian president also emphasized the need to continue improving “peace and security in Africa in a holistic and sustainable manner.” Notwithstanding al-Sisi’s current enthusiasm for his new role as the AU’s chairman, he has not always been so sanguine with respect to the organization.
Egyptian security forces infamously massacred and injured hundreds of protesters during a largely peaceful pro-Morsi sit-in in Cairo’s Raba’a Square.
The AU’s Peace and Security Council suspended Egypt’s membership from the organization after al-Sisi ousted Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in July 2013. Just one month later, in August 2013, Egyptian security forces infamously massacred and injured hundreds of protesters during a largely peaceful pro-Morsi sit-in in Cairo’s Raba’a Square.
Despite calls from national and international organizations, including the ACHPR, to investigate the massacre, Cairo has failed to hold any official or member of the security forces responsible for the largest mass killings in Egypt’s modern history. HRW stated that the killings “likely amounted to crimes against humanity.”
The AU eventually readmitted Egypt into the organization in June 2014 after al-Sisi secured a landslide victory in the country’s presidential elections. Yet, since 2015, the Egyptian president has carried out a “vicious and sustained political attack” against the AU’s principal human rights body and its criticism of Cairo’s brutality, according to Amnesty International. However, activists fear that al-Sisi’s leadership of the AU could further compromise regional human rights mechanisms and their ability to engage with NGOs in the future.
Re-Emerging as a Leader in Africa
Despite the ongoing political and economic instability that Egypt is experiencing, it seems that the country is trying to re-establish itself as a regional power. In early April, al-Sisi began an African tour, which included Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, and Senegal. Bassam Rady, al-Sisi’s spokesperson, said that the Egyptian president’s tour of West Africa was “part of efforts by Egypt to intensify cooperation with fellow African nations and further strengthen its relations across the continent.”
As other countries continue to eye Africa’s prospects, Egypt is diligently working on bolstering its leadership role on the continent through collaboration, investment, and diplomacy. However, whether Egypt’s dysfunctional moral compass will thwart its chances of becoming a leader in Africa is still unclear.
Doubtless, al-Sisi’s ongoing attempts to consolidate power by eliminating dissent violates international and humanitarian law and Egypt serving as a host for the AU’s human rights summit is a farce. But none of this will matter if the world is willing to overlook Cairo’s wrongdoings in the interests of “fighting terrorism” and maintaining stability in the Middle East, and thus leaving the Egyptian people at the mercy of an increasingly tyrannical leader.