Sisi’s new Cairo is just one indication of a multi-prong strategy to clamp down on civil rights, freedom of expression, and independence of the judiciary.
The Egyptian government continues its mega-project to establish a New Administrative Capital on 700 square kilometers, 28 miles east of Cairo with guarded gates and high wall surrounding the city.
Egypt’s State Information Service said, “The major reason for [the] new capital is to relieve congestion in the old capital and to be the home for [the] presidential palace, ministries, the parliament and foreign embassies.”
The practices of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi indicate, however, that the new capital is a manifestation of a fortress strategy to maintain a total authoritarian grip on Egypt. Sisi pledged in a recent speech that what had happened in Egypt in 2011 would never happen again. One prominent professor of political sociology, who asked to remain anonymous, connected the dots.
“Sisi has a mission; which is to restore the strong authoritarian state. He does not want to see any popular uprising in Egypt again, so the new administrative capital is designed to be a fortress, a defensive capital inhabited only by the very rich and with its state institutions well-protected.”
He said Sisi concluded that Egyptian masses shook the pillars of the regime in the 2011 uprising when they were able to besiege the ministries of defense and interior and march toward the presidential palace. “To prevent that from happening again, state institutions should be away from Cairo, insulated behind guarded walls,” the professor added.
Multi-Prong Fortress Strategy
The fortress mentality became rampant in all practices of the General-turned-President. The regime resorted to legal measures to prevent Egyptian citizens from playing any active role in the public space.
The amended protest law of December 2016 gave the security services the right to prohibit, cancel, postpone or move any demonstration based on undefined security threats as well as the authority to “disperse by force.” The law curtailed any attempt to organize street protests and succeeded in severely restricting the freedom of peaceful assembly. Another contentious law approved in 2016 restricted the establishment of non-governmental organizations, giving the Ministry of Social Solidarity the power to decline registration of an NGO without judicial approval, and giving security and intelligence services tools to disrupt civil society activities.
Amy Holmes, an Associate Professor of Sociology at American University in Cairo said, “What Sisi is doing is crushing independent civil society by issuing a very draconian law that was designed to make it impossible for organizations to do their basic activities even if they are operating within the scope of the Egyptian law.” Holmes added that the fortress mentality made the regime look at civil society as the enemy of the state.
Sisi started his ascendency to power in 2014, asking the Egyptian people to give him a mandate to fight terrorism in the country. He resorted to military tactics instead of counter-insurgency tactics. To eradicate violent insurgency, particularly in Sinai, he imposed emergency law.
“I am concerned over allegations that Egypt has used counter-terror operations as a means to crack down on its opposition. The state of emergency laws has been extended and we have heard reports [that] rights of journalists, activists and critics of the Sisi government have been curtailed.”
In a July hearing, the U.S. Congress expressed concern over the direction Egypt is heading under President Sisi. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East. “I am concerned over allegations that Egypt has used counter-terror operations as a means to crack down on its opposition. The state of emergency laws has been extended and we have heard reports [that] rights of journalists, activists and critics of the Sisi government have been curtailed.”
Another tool Sisi is using to exert total control of the public space is the state’s takeover of independent media outlets in the country. The Paris-based Reporters without Borders condemned the increasing acquisition of Egypt’s media outlets by businesspeople close to the government and intelligence services. The latest acquisition this week is the influential Dream Channel, which follows the takeover of the Al-Hayat, On TV, and Extra News channels.
To manipulate the Egyptian public, the army funded its own channel, called DMC, and efforts are now underway to launch a news channel that would be the only source of TV news in Egypt.
Another manifestation of Sisi’s fortress mentality is targeting social media after realizing its role in mobilizing the popular uprising of 2011. On September 1, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ratified the “Media Regulation Law,” which reinforces the climate of online repression. It stipulates that any personal website, blog, or social network account with 5,000 or more followers is now subject to the same level of government scrutiny as a media outlet. As a result, the Supreme Media Regulatory Council now has the right to block or shut down such personal accounts if it deems that they “publish or broadcast false news.”
On August 18, President Sisi ratified the Cybercrime Law, which imposes stringent restrictions on digital rights, authorizes the mass surveillance of communications and legalizes the government’s existing method of online censorship, initiated in the spring of 2017, which entails blocking access to websites. Sisi’s government has blocked more than 500 sites, including that of Reporters Without Borders.
“At least 31 journalists have been detained because of their work and some of them faced trial at military tribunals.”
The new law directly violates Article 57 of the Egyptian constitution, which protects privacy and guarantees the confidentiality of correspondence. Sophie Anmuth, Head of the Middle East Desk at Reporters Without Borders, said that Egypt ranked 161 out of 180 countries for press freedom. “Egyptian journalists have a hard time doing their jobs,” she said. “At least 31 journalists have been detained because of their work and some of them faced trial at military tribunals.”
To further serve the fortress mentality, the judiciary has joined the list of Sisi’s targets. Sahar Aziz, Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School, said parts of the Egyptian judiciary have been politicized over the past four years.
“Judges whose rulings are consistently unfavorable to the regime may in turn find themselves transferred to a remote area in southern Egypt far from their families,” Aziz said. “A judge up for promotion as chief of an appellate court may be passed up if the regime fears [he or she] will not protect its core interests. Similarly, appointments to lucrative posts to the Ministry of Justice, international organizations, and embassies abroad are doled out as rewards for compliant judges and withheld from those who pursued independent stances.”
The latest World Justice Project Rule of Law Index ranked Egypt 110 out of 113 countries worldwide in its adherence to the rule of law. Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat is the President of the Development and Reform Party in Egypt. He said that under Sisi’s rule there is no room for opposition or government accountability.
“President Sisi never spoke about political reform or opening up political space for any party to express opinion or to engage him in a dialogue. What we have seen instead is security services getting involved in re-engineering the political life and structuring of the Egyptian parliament,” Sadat said.
Experts say Sisi gets away with all these repressive measures because the U.S. and European countries prefer security cooperation, with Egypt’s strategic location, to democratic values.
The only leverage that the U.S. has had to reverse Sisi’s repressive measures was the potential partial suspension of $195 million in military aid. However, just one day after the U.S. Congress expressed concern over human rights violations in Egypt, the State Department released the suspended aid, saying the country had taken steps to address those concerns.