Described as an “open air prison” by critics of the regime, Egypt has endured a tightening of freedom of expression like never before under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s auspices and the guise of fighting the Muslim Brotherhood. Now the coronavirus pandemic has presented Sisi with a new bogeyman; one which gives his military regime more capabilities to secure its control over civil society while further abusing human rights.
Egypt faced wide condemnation on May 14 after security officials burst into the home of Haisam Hasan Mahgoub, correspondent for the Egyptian daily newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, arresting him under charges of “fake news.” Freelance photographer Moataz Abdel Waha was also detained under similar charges.
“Egypt is determined to keep its prisons full of journalists instead of letting them cover the pandemic and other news events freely.”
“While some governments worldwide pardon prisoners during the time of COVID-19, Egypt is determined to keep its prisons full of journalists instead of letting them cover the pandemic and other news events freely,” said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
This came after Sisi, on May 8, ratified new controversial amendments to Egypt’s 1958 Emergency Law, which were presented as a strategy to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Some of the new measures may appear reasonable on the surface, including the quarantining of Egyptians returning from abroad, and the restrictions of various public and private gatherings.
However, they also enable the military freedom to abuse them, given that banning protests and rallies are mentioned in these new changes.
“Only five of the 18 proposed amendments are clearly tied to public health developments. Making them part of the emergency law means that the authorities can enforce the measures whenever a state of emergency is declared, regardless of whether there is a public health emergency,” Human Rights Watch said in an April statement, warning that these changes could lead to greater repression in future states of emergency.
Indeed, Egypt has been under a state of emergency for most of the past four decades, largely with counter-terrorism pretexts, so it is clear how these new powers may be exploited. The regime could further extend them to prevent opposition to its rule.
After WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic, Egypt ramped up its ongoing crusade against journalists and freedom of speech.
Soon after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, Egypt ramped up its ongoing crusade against journalists and freedom of speech. It reported only a few hundred cases of COVID-19 by late March, yet critics and scientific reports suspected several thousand or even tens of thousands were infected as early as the beginning of March.
Among those questioning the virus’ true scale in the country was Ruth Michaelson, a Cairo-based journalist for The Guardian who reported in a study making this claim. Egyptian authorities subsequently forced Michaelson to leave on March 26 for publishing her story.
Yet many Egyptians have faced harsher treatment. Two young women, Marwa Arafa and Kholoud Saeed were arrested and forcibly disappeared over social media posts, as part of the wider crackdown on those critical of the Egyptian government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
With a greater overcrowding of Egypt’s prisons, including tens of thousands of political prisoners, detainees also face a spread of the virus, particularly as some suspected COVID-19 deaths have occurred. However, some activists were even arrested in March during a protest for the release of detainees.
Egypt’s military has dominated the government and economy since a coup against the pro-British King Farouk in 1952.
Even before this recent growth of authoritarianism, the July 2013 coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi saw the military consolidate its power. Egypt’s military has dominated the government and economy since a coup against the pro-British King Farouk in 1952, and every ruler since has been a military general, to the exception of Morsi.
Yet with tremendous external support and impunity, Sisi has ramped up his authoritarianism more than any previous leader and may stay in power until 2034 after constitutional changes last year. Journalism and press freedom are among the main casualties of Egypt’s counter-revolution, with countless journalists and activists facing death or imprisonment since.
A painful reminder of this reality was the recent death of 24-year-old filmmaker Shady Habash on May 3, after languishing in prison for two years due to directing a music video which mocked Sisi. Other horrific incidents include the August 2013 Rabaa Massacre, where over 1,000 protestors against the coup were massacred in a single day, exposing the brutality which the Egyptian regime is capable of.
The coronavirus crisis has now granted the government more tools to repress any opposition.
Though renewed protests last September showed the world that the flames which ignited Tahrir Square’s huge protests in the January 2011 revolution were not yet extinguished, the coronavirus crisis has now granted the government more tools to repress any opposition. Particularly as the world turns even more of a blind eye to such human rights abuses, during the current fixation on countering coronavirus.
Still, Egypt’s autocratic rule does not need to be an existential reality. Western powers and their Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have propped up the Sisi regime since the counterrevolution. The US initially provided Egypt’s military with aid since 1979, to prevent its capitulation to the Soviet Union, and to prevent future conflict with its previous rival Israel.
A report from the Washington-based think-tanks Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and the Center for International Policy (CIP) recommends that the US should cut military aid to the Egyptian government. It highlights that Washington’s vast support, on which Egypt’s military depends heavily, creates a “sense of entitlement” among the country’s leaders.
A withdrawal of Washington’s military aid would send a firm message to Sisi that this support is not unconditional.
A withdrawal of Washington’s military aid would send a firm message to Sisi that this support is not unconditional, and that his human rights abuses are not welcome. Other Western powers which support Egypt’s regime, such as Britain and France, would send a similar message if they cut their own support.
Ultimately, this would require a significant foreign policy reorientation within the West as a whole. The Trump era may hinder such reforms, given Washington’s firm support of Egypt, and Trump even more crudely calling Sisi his “favorite dictator.”
A sooner and more realistic hope for reform is that some figures within the regime may challenge Sisi’s rule and push for better policies. This is a more conceivable outcome given the military’s overarching power in the country, though a suspension of military aid to Sisi would hasten such a possibility.