Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has his eyes set on a more systemic approach: pursuing any opposition as a terror threat to national security—and if dissenters are in exile, el-Sisi persecutes their families still living in Egypt.
Long before el-Sisi ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s governance was no stranger to silencing dissent and squelching free press.
Long before el-Sisi ousted former president Mohamed Morsi with a military coup on July 3, 2013, Egypt’s governance was no stranger to silencing dissent and squelching free press. The late Hosni Mubarak, who also rose to power through a 1981 military coup, reigned over Egypt with the same iron grip by opposing voices, however, his control was unrefined compared to now.
On March 19, Abdullah el-Sherif, an opposition journalist and YouTube presenter with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, posted a leaked video of an Egyptian soldier mutilating a body before burning it. Days later, el-Sherif said forces went after his family arresting his two brothers on terrorism charges.
“What you just saw happened, is happening, and will happen every day away from your eyes,” said el-Sharif, with a shaky voice. “Who’s the terrorist now, Mr. President? Who’s the bloodthirsty butcher now? Answer us.”
El-Sherif, who also said he’s been sentenced in absentia to life in prison, is not alone in having his family punished in his stead. A recent New York Times report detailed multiple occurrences where dissidents exiled or living abroad have security forces arrest their family members, forcing some to recant on their dissenting relative’s behalf or even disown them on national television.
The leaked and graphic video was shot in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where the government claims it’s leading a war on terror, accusing Sinai’s Bedouin population of plotting against the government. Locals, however, say it’s a war on civilians where the state engages in ethnic cleansing.
A UN 2020 report expressed “serious concern” over Egypt’s abuse of anti-terror laws, which ultimately suppress societal freedoms.
A United Nations 2020 report expressed “serious concern” over Egypt’s abuse of anti-terror laws, adding that these laws ultimately suppress societal freedoms rather than secure the nation.
Unlike his predecessors, el-Sisi’s grip aims to crush resistance systemically. After solidifying a second term in 2018, the former general and career militarist took aim at redrawing his power’s legal boundaries. For el-Sisi, using the law to deeply reshape Egypt’s media landscape and stamp opposition with terror charges points to the legitimizing of one goal: to remain in power for as long as possible—but not without a battle against Egyptian resistance.
The state’s most recent crackdown on defiance, notably on dissenters and news outlets acting as the last tent posts of Egypt’s decaying democracy, led to the arrest of journalist Lina Attallah on May 17. Atallah – the Editor-in-Chief of Mada Masr, Egypt’s leading independent and investigative online newspaper that’s been subjected to government raids in the past – was arrested on undisclosed charges outside Cairo’s Tora Prison after interviewing Laila Soueif, a mathematician and human rights advocate.
Soueif is also the mother of Alaa Abdel Fattah, a jailed prominent dissenter who was arrested late 2019 over charges of spreading false news and encouraging unlawful protest just months after being released from a five-year sentence, also for similar allegations. Along with a multitude of other dissenters, the former Arab Spring blogger’s imprisonment in Tora is one of many incarcerations backed by el-Sisi’s legal changes.
The Laws and Shadows of el-Sisi’s System
In 2015, during el-Sisi’s first term in office, Egypt’s constitution adopted a new counterterrorism law with broad definitions of what constitutes domestic terror, namely dissent. Within its ambiguous nature, the law allows the state to dictate what constitutes a threat to national security, be it “spreading false news” or “misusing social media.”
Years into abusing this law, from enacting mass arrests and blocking over 500 news outlets to censoring television shows and prosecuting social media users critical of the government, journalism in Egypt lies between a rock and a hard place. In fact, a late 2019 Amnesty International report states journalism in Egypt is effectively “a crime.”
Egypt’s Supreme State Security Prosecution now primarily acts as a henchmen-force crushing any perceived dissent.
Egypt’s Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), a secretive taskforce originally designed to combat threats to national security, now primarily acts as a henchmen-force crushing any perceived dissent, according to the report.
“The SSSP has become a tool of repression,” Philip Luther said, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director, adding the taskforce’s “primary goal appears to be arbitrarily detaining and intimidating critics, all in the name of counterterrorism.”
In early May, SSSP officers raided the home of Haisam Hasan Mahgoub in Cairo and detained him under charges of joining and funding a terrorist group along with spreading fake news. Mahgoub is a regular correspondent at Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent daily newspaper critical of el-Sisi’s government.
With the remaining threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the crackdown is amplified, if not accelerated, by furthering state control under the guise of combating the highly contagious and deadly virus. Like Bahrain, imprisoning dissenters with a virus may be el-Sisi’s way of indirectly executing them.
“Egypt is determined to keep its prisons full of journalists.”
“While some governments worldwide pardon prisoners during the time of COVID-19, Egypt is determined to keep its prisons full of journalists,” said Sherif Mansour, a Committee to Protect Journalists coordinator, commenting on el-Sisi’s expansion of coronavirus emergency laws.
Like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch tracked el-Sisi’s abuse of power for years, however, the non-governmental organization claims these methods of repression prove more “systematic and widespread” than what’s actually observed.
One way the Egyptian government solidifies this systematic control over a free exchange of information is through the General Intelligence Service—more commonly and famously known as the Mukhabarat. The agency, under the Ministry of Defense, is headed by Abbas Kamel, who advised el-Sisi’s 2019 constitutional designs to both prolong his reign and solidify his stranglehold on Egyptian society.
In 2017, Mada Masr led an investigation ousting the General Intelligence Service as secretly holding multiple media production companies, marketing and advertising agencies, private equity funds, security firms, and journalism outlets previously unknown to be state-owned.
“The level of repression [under el-Sisi’s regime] is significantly higher than it was under the Mubarak regime.”
Hossam Bahgat, the author of the investigation and a prominent human rights advocate who’s faced multiple arrests for allegedly disseminating fake news, said: “The level of repression [under el-Sisi’s regime] is significantly higher than it was under the Mubarak regime.”
Speaking anonymously to Inside Arabia, a source close to the General Intelligence Service scoffed when asked about the differences between Mubarak and el-Sisi’s methods. The source said: “Not much of a difference, other than el-Sisi basically perfecting Mubarak’s system.”
“During Mubarak’s rule, an officer could be your cousin noting down and reporting your religious and political affiliations,” they added. “With Sisi, it’s a hands-off approach where an agent can monitor and track your behavior online.”