Egyptian-born and naturalized American citizen Mustafa Kassem died on January 13, 2020 after more than six years in an Egyptian jail. A dealer in auto parts from Long Island, New York, Kassem was arrested in Cairo in August 2013 on wrongful charges of participating in protests against Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s freshly established military regime. Beaten and held in pretrial detention for over five years before facing a sentence for 15 years with no due process, Kassem’s case outraged international human rights organizations.
Following his death, a bipartisan group of U.S. Congressmen demanded the administration of President Donald Trump place sanctions on specific Egyptian government officials. Human rights activists have pushed the Trump administration to punish Egypt by cutting its annual 1.2 billion USD in military assistance.
During a meeting with President al-Sisi this January at an international peace summit dedicated to Libya in Berlin, Germany, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed his concern about the “pointless and tragic death” of Kassem.
Human rights abuses in Egypt have become a new normal since al-Sisi became president in July 2013.
Human rights abuses in Egypt have become a new normal since al-Sisi became president in July 2013. Human Rights Watch, an international rights group, complained last year that al-Sisi has tightened his authority through increasingly heavy-handed crackdowns on dissent.
In April 2019, the Egyptian government passed constitutional amendments to allow him to remain in power until 2030, thereby solidifying the military regime’s repressive control over the country. Demonstrations against al-Sisi and government corruption last September led to arrests of more than 4,000 people – by far the biggest number of arrests since 2013.
These protests emerged after a former Egyptian army contractor and businessman Mohamed Ali disseminated videos through the Internet, in which he criticized al-Sisi, the Egyptian army, and members of the intelligence over construction contracts he worked on with them. Ali, who resides in Spain, accused al-Sisi of corruption and called for street protests in Egypt.
The stories of subsequent violent crackdown and abuse of demonstrators prompted human rights experts at the United Nations to call on the Egyptian government to “protect peaceful assemblies” and “to immediately cease its campaign of persecution.”
Arrests, detention, imprisonment, torture, and forced disappearances of peaceful protesters, journalists, academics, lawyers, and activists have increased under al-Sisi’s rule.
Arrests, detention, imprisonment, torture, and forced disappearances of peaceful protesters, journalists, academics, lawyers, and activists have increased under al-Sisi’s rule. Security forces have also brutalized, imprisoned, and massacred hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni religious and political movement in Egypt that the authorities have designated as a terrorist group since 2013. These days, al-Sisi’s government equally considers liberals, centrists, and Islamists as terrorists.
Under the guise of the country’s counter-terrorism law, Egyptian security forces have routinely used live ammunition, tear gas, and rubber bullets against protesters and randomly arrested and brutalized people, including Mustafa Kassem.
There is a near total ban on dissent, criticism, and freedom of assembly, as Egyptian authorities associate any form of opposition with terrorism. A recent police raid of Anadolu Agency—Turkey’s state-run news agency—in Cairo and arrest of its four employees without any explanation or reason for their detention indicates that Egyptian authorities are now expanding their crackdown to foreign media sources.
Al-Sisi has also been selectively using carrots to win hearts and minds of Egyptians. Mindful of the fact that discontent among Egypt’s youth had led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s longstanding regime, al-Sisi has been trying to address the needs of young people to head off more protests. There are now youth-related social and economic programs, including housing, health care, and assistance to young businessmen.
With a firm belief that the 2011 revolution destroyed the country’s economy and brought religious extremists out of the woodwork, al-Sisi has emphasized stability and economic prosperity at all costs, even if that meant less freedom and democracy. But he seems to be failing on both fronts.
Although the country’s economy has been improving slowly over the past three years, the quality of life has not gotten better for most Egyptians.
Although the country’s economy has been improving slowly over the past three years, the quality of life has not gotten better for most Egyptians. The authorities boast improved public debt levels, public finances, inflation rate, and foreign currency reserves. But the buoyant economy has largely bypassed the masses. While Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP) has increased in recent years, the poverty rate has also gone up.
Reportedly, more than 30 percent of Egyptians live in dire poverty. Poverty has jumped up by more than 11 percent in Egypt’s major cities since 2016, while subsidies of basic goods, such as bread and electricity, have gone down. Unemployment, especially among young people, remains high, and is estimated at almost 30 percent (Egyptian officials put it at 15 percent).
With more than half of Egypt’s population under the age of 25 and a million young people ready to join the workforce every year, al-Sisi is rightly worried about a potential unrest if he fails to create enough jobs.
Despite his efforts to entice young people, the mass protests last September against corruption in the government and military have shown that the resentment against al-Sisi’s growing authoritarianism runs deep. Arrests and imprisonment of thousands for political activity hardly has won him many allies among the youth. Security forces did not even spare children as they arrested more than a hundred of them in the crackdown. According to Amnesty International, “at least 69 minors aged between 11 and 17” were arrested.
While Egyptian security forces managed to crush last year’s protests, similar popular demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, which have persisted since October 2019, are likely to inspire more restlessness in Egypt.
While Egyptian security forces managed to crush last year’s protests, similar popular demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, which have persisted since October 2019, are likely to inspire more restlessness in Egypt; particularly, if the improving economy fails to help the poor and ordinary people and the government intensifies repressions.
If recent Egyptian history is any guide, the confidence of a sitting regime can backfire if the vast majority of people have little to lose in the face of state repression, economic stagnation, corruption, inequality, poverty, and unemployment.
As the rate of population growth continues to outstrip youth employment, it will likely become a key cause of another uprising, yet again. In fact, the ingredients of the 2011 revolution are still present in Egypt, and none of the political, social, and economic problems that led to it have been solved.
The Egyptian civil society may have been weakened under al-Sisi, but it has not been eliminated. It is only a question of time to see what the tipping point will be for another mass unrest and, when it happens, if al-Sisi continues to make Mubarak’s mistakes.