Amnesty International has condemned the “chilling escalation” of the Sisi regime’s repression of civil society and opposition in Egypt following the execution of at least 57 people in October and November alone, almost double the number recorded in 2019.
Since overthrowing the democratically-elected president in 2013, Sisi and the Egyptian military leadership have gone on to crush the political space that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring by sweepingly imprisoning opposition figures from across the spectrum; legislating limits on the use of social media and free expression; using intimidation tactics such as deploying tanks in the streets to deter protests; targeting families of opposition figures criticizing the regime from abroad; and detaining citizens for lengthy periods without trial—in some cases allowing them to die in prison as in the case of the late President Mohamed Morsi.
It is important to stress that the regime’s relentless pursuit of opposition and crackdown on dissent is rooted in a general consensus among the ruling army elite that allowing the people to choose their leaders would result in an emphatic relegation of the army to the confines of military barracks.
The Arab Spring protests against Mubarak were not solely an eruption of discontent at living conditions, but also a rejection of the political structure imposed by the army.
The Arab Spring protests that broke out against Mubarak were not solely an eruption of discontent at living conditions, but also a rejection of the political structure imposed by the army whereby it would unilaterally choose a president committed to preserving their expansive influence over Egypt’s economy and decision-making processes. Moreover, the protests broke out at a particularly difficult period in the unofficial relationship between the president and the army as Hosni Mubarak had sought to impose his son as his successor against the wishes of the army elite.
The following elections delivered a result for Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood against former Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, Ahmed Shafik, as the army struggled to reassert itself against an insatiable revolutionary wave. But, rather than stand against it, the army repositioned itself as the facilitator and “guarantor” of the revolution, overseeing the elections and transition of power to Mohamed Morsi.
Within a year, the fall-out between the jostling political parties and new elite – exacerbated by a deteriorating economic situation compounded by unrealistic expectations from the protesters – created an environment in which the army was able to reassert itself with the blessing of anti-Brotherhood elements in the political spectrum. Prominent liberals, including Alaa al-Aswaany and Mohamed Al-Baradei, as well as religious political elements, including Hizb-ul-Noor al-Salafi and the Sheikh of the Islamic institution of Al-Azhar, all lent their support to the military coup.
Still, the army was not yet assured of its return to power and ostensibly sought to present itself to the people within a democratic framework. The army deduced that in free and fair elections, it would not be able to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood. It also realized that this sentiment was shared by the liberal elements and disgruntled religious groups who had lent their support for the coup instead of urging early elections and preserving a framework for a smooth and peaceful transition of power.
The army engaged with those political elements supportive of their intervention, and successfully co-opted them into engaging with new elections to lend them an image of “legitimacy” amidst widespread criticism that Egypt was returning to authoritarianism. Hamdeen Sabbahi, who had placed third in the 2012 elections, agreed to run in the hope that he would be the lightning rod for revolutionary sentiment.
The elections however produced a controversial 97 percent victory for Sisi, making it absolutely clear that the army was back in control and that the period of free political activity was over. Sisi would go on to declare that he had a clear “mandate” to bring “stability and order” to Egypt and wield it against all opposition. He accused his opponents of fomenting chaos against the will of the people and argued that stern measures were required in order to end the “suffering” of the people.
It is following this careful navigation on the part of the army that suppressive actions were implemented and a campaign of crushing dissent gathered pace as Sisi and the military elite imposed their presence once more on the state. The army had learned the “lessons” of 2011 and has been especially susceptible to public expressions of opposition and discontent by demonstrating a willingness to deploy tanks and security personnel at any hint of mass protests. It has clamped down on media outlets and whipped media presenters into propagating the government narrative with enough impassioned vigor to promote the idea of a “rescue operation” to save Egypt if deemed necessary.
Sisi’s brutal repression has also been enabled by an international climate that has prioritized security and force in tackling radicalism and extremism.
However, Sisi’s brutal repression has also been enabled by an international climate that has prioritized security and force in tackling radicalism and extremism instead of addressing the root causes associated with lack of freedoms, human rights abuses, poor governance, and socio-economic deprivation. As the war with ISIS raged in Iraq and Syria, the army in Egypt presented itself as a bulwark against militancy and fanaticism, and an ally in international efforts led by Washington. As Libya descended into civil war, Egypt subscribed to the narrative propagated by the UAE (which resonated with some Western capitals) that the fall-out from the Arab Spring was a result of the inability of the Arab populations to make correct choices when offered the opportunity to freely express themselves.
While the ousted President Mohamed Morsi languished in prison as his health deteriorated until his death, and as Egyptian prisons swelled with political opponents including Alaa Abdel Fattah and other young bloggers and activists across the political and ideological spectrum, the international debate on the Arab Spring was focused on issues of “security” and “stability” and the extent to which this might have been impossible if the democratically-elected president had remained in power. Sisi continued to receive growing international recognition and addressed the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit at the 73rd UN General Assembly in 2018, where he called on the world to “remember the values of Nelson Mandela.”
These sentiments have been encouraged more recently by French President Emmanuel Macron, who alluded in an interview with Le Grand Continent in November 2020 that the 2012 Arab Spring election results favoring religious elements were a sign of regression. Macron also stated in a press conference during Sisi’s visit to Paris on December 7 that the sale of arms to Egypt would not be conditioned by issues of human rights so as not to “weaken Cairo’s ability to counter terrorism.” The French president went so far as to give the Egyptian leader France’s highest award, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.
Many of those who supported Sisi’s coup, including prominent figures such as Alaa Al-Aswany and Mohamed Anwar Sadat, have turned against the regime and begun to call out its transgressions and abuses. There have been attempts to re-mobilize politically. Mohamed Ali, a construction magnate, who worked closely on army projects publicly defected in 2019 and called on the Egyptian people to take to the streets, which rattled the regime enough that it deployed tanks to Cairo’s main squares in the build-up to the appointed time and date.
Still, there is a notable difference in the environment today compared to 2011. Where there was momentum from the successful revolution in Tunisia at the time, and a unified sense of despair that exploded into a full-blown revolution, today there is a sense of having tried, failed, and been defeated. The upheaval and instability has brought about a sense of hopelessness and fatigue and a feeling that “stability” is preferable to the war and chaos of neighboring Libya and Syria further along the Mediterranean coast.
This pessimistic mindset is compounded by widespread social resentment of the political parties that failed to deliver on promises during the short period of democracy. However harsh an indictment this might be, given the complexities of democratic transitions generally and the unique climate in Egypt specifically, it is nevertheless prevalent and means there is a notable absence of any potential rallying point to express and mobilize popular discontent in a manner that can produce real results.
Moreover, the regime is beginning to find that international antagonists such as Turkey are increasingly demonstrating a willingness to reset relations as mutual interests emerge in Libya and the East Mediterranean, while its relations with Moscow and Paris present an opportunity for Cairo to navigate any pressure that might come from a Biden administration keen to restore US leadership in the region. Investments from prime antagonist Qatar, which led the charge against the Sisi regime, have increased over the past year as Doha looks to reconcile with the blockading countries.
The increasing brutality and authoritarianism being adopted suggest that the army does not perceive its position as secure.
Therefore, while circumstances appear conducive for the regime to survive, the reality is that the increasing brutality and authoritarianism being adopted suggest that the army does not perceive its position as secure. Sensitivities remain over the possibility of a renewed outbreak of protests. There is a sense that where the army successfully created a sense of distance between itself and the president during the reigns of Sadat and Mubarak, it has failed to do so under Sisi; even as the military has embarked on its own PR initiatives and campaigns to appear engaged in a “rescue” operation.
Furthermore, military leaders are concerned over the upheaval taking place so close to Egypt borders, whether it be Libya to the West, the escalation in the East Mediterranean to the North, Sudan and the war in Ethiopia to the South, or suggestions that UAE-Israeli ties are set to undermine one of Egypt’s most important economic lifelines—the Suez Canal. Sisi’s policy to insulate Egypt from the chaos is to increase the intensity of his oppressive methods and implement unpopular economic measures that fall hardest on Egypt’s working class.
The explosion of the 2011 Arab Spring took the region by surprise, successfully toppling those who were seemingly invincible only months before. The absence of any indications of a new outbreak of protests in Egypt, even as Sisi appears increasingly secure, is not in and of itself a sign that it cannot happen again. In the words of Ibn Khaldun: “Oppression announces the fall of a nation.”