In 2013, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup. At the same time, the 2012 Egyptian Constitution was suspended. Shortly after, in 2014, the former defense minister and commander of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a central figure in the coup, was elected president in a landslide victory. Since then, Sisi has instituted what is arguably one of the most oppressive regimes in Egypt’s history.
According to data collected from the Arab Network for Human Rights, there has been a threefold rise in the number of death sentences handed down by Egyptian courts, increasing from 800 over the six years prior to 2014 to more than 3,000 since Sisi came to power. Moreover, Reuters reports that “At least 33 civilians were executed following trials in military courts from 2015” compared to none between 2008 and 2014. President Sisi has thrown countless journalists in jail and intensely limited freedom of speech as almost all websites that are believed to be critical of the government have been blocked since 2017.
Opposing Repressive Regimes in the Middle East Is a Death Sentence
In addition, one of Sisi’s first actions as president in 2014 was to dramatically slash subsidies for fuel and food. According to the Atlantic Council, this led to a 78% price increase on gasoline and a 175% price increase on natural gas — a big hit for a country where 33% of the population was classified as poor in 2018, up from 28% in 2015.
Over the course of Sisi’s rule, the government has effectively quelled all protest through rough detention practices, inhumane prison conditions and harsh military crackdowns. However, in September last year, Egypt saw its first major protests since 2013. The demonstrations began when Mohamed Ali, a 45-year-old Egyptian actor and former building contractor living in self-imposed exile in Spain, posted videos on social media criticizing corruption in government. In his videos, Ali encouraged Egyptians to protest in the streets and called for Sisi’s removal. Though these videos were blocked within hours of posting, Ali’s message spread like wildfire throughout Egypt.
As a result of Ali’s call for action, protests broke out in at least eight cities. Citizens from all walks of life, but mainly young people, took to the streets and chanted “rise up, fear not, Sisi must go” and “the people demand the regime’s fall.” Hundreds of residents, mainly from working-class backgrounds, also stormed a popular football match. The government responded with rubber bullets and tear gas in an attempt to quell the protests, establishing a heavy presence around Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo, the site of the 2011 uprising that brought down Egypt’s long-serving dictator, Hosni Mubarak. By establishing a military presence in Tahrir Square, the government sent a strong message to the people of Egypt: There will be no repetition of the January 25 Revolution.
Following the protests, more than 3,120 people were arrested, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. Based on data from Amnesty International, over 2,300 were arrested, including at least 111 children, “some as young as 11, with several detained on their way home from school.” Government officials also searched protesters’ phones and social media for anything it could use as evidence against them. These actions taken by the government have been heavily criticized by rights groups as unconstitutional.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only furthered Sisi’s authoritarian grasp as the regime ratified 18 new amendments to Egypt’s emergency laws. Some of these new amendments make sense given the current context of the situation as they give President Sisi the right to close schools and universities, to mandate hospitals to work together with the government to resolve the crisis and also to control scientific laboratory work. In addition, these new developments allow the president to ban public gatherings and processions given that the transmission of COVID-19 at large public events is extremely dangerous.
However, while these laws may be beneficial in the short term, they also pose extremely concerning questions for Egypt’s future. As Human Rights Watch points out, just five of the 18 amendments “are clearly tied to public health developments.” For example, Article 13 allows the president to “restrict public and private meetings, processions, and any other forms of gatherings” regardless of whether there is any actual health crisis. Furthermore, these changes give Sisi greater leverage over the economy as he can regulate prices of various goods and “determine methods of collecting monetary and in-kind donation.” By ratifying these amendments as part of emergency legislation, authorities will be able to strictly enforce these measures whenever they wish.
Egypt’s Relationship With the United States
Given the ever-increasing power of the Sisi regime and the government’s disregard for freedom of speech and basic human rights, the seemingly most honorable option for Washington would be to sever its relationship with Cairo and withdraw economic and political support. However, the relationship between Egypt and the United States is becoming more important for both nations, who have historic ties dating back to the Cold War. Egypt’s geographical positioning gives a unique influence in the region, inviting more than $40 billion in military and $30 billion in economic assistance from the US since 1980.
The United States and Egypt have common interests in limiting Iran’s influence in the Middle East as well as curtailing the spread of radical movements in volatile states like Iraq and Syria. Both the US and Egypt have a strong relationship with Israel. In addition, though Egypt has been struggling economically, it is still the most populous Arab country, and its control of the Suez Canal is vital for international commerce with an average of 300 million tons of goods passing through its shipping lanes each year. Moreover, Egypt’s transportation routes are beneficial for the US, with two-way trade between the two countries totaling $7.5 billion in 2018.
And yet while the connection between these two nations is undoubtedly one that must be preserved, the US could slowly begin to withdraw some of its support and show less outward “affection” that has become more apparent during President Donald Trump’s tenure. His support for Sisi stems from an attempt to emphasize US foreign policy objectives of counteracting terrorism, as well as to seem more statesmanlike. This comes in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s freezing of military aid after the 2013 protests against Morsi and the general cooling of relations between the two nations.
In recent years, Cairo has begun to have a more independent role in regional affairs and is working with the US to reach a deal for Arab-Israeli peace. At last year’s G7 Summit, President Trump has even referred to Egypt’s leader as his “favorite dictator” who is a “great leader” that is “highly respected.” While both nations are benefiting from the relationship, the Egyptian military is heavily dependent on weapons and contractors from the United States. Washington could use this to leverage pressure against Cairo on its human rights record.
If the US continues to permit a cruel dictator to tyrannize his citizens under an oppressive regime, it is sending a strong message to other nations both in the region and the world that attempts to undermine and subvert democratic principles may be ignored for economic and political control.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.