Egypt: The New Dictatorship

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; drawing by James Ferguson

On July 3, 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, chief of staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces, appeared on national television. Clad in a military uniform and black beret, he announced that he was acting on “a call for help by the Egyptian people” and seizing power from the Muslim Brotherhood. Since winning parliamentary elections in 2011 and the presidential election the following year, the Brotherhood—a grassroots movement founded in Egypt in the 1920s—had stacked the government with Islamists, failed to deliver on promises to improve the country’s deteriorating infrastructure, and attempted to rewrite Egypt’s constitution to reflect traditional religious values. These moves had provoked large demonstrations and violent clashes between supporters and secular opponents.

Sisi declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and jailed its leadership—including the president he had deposed, Mohamed Morsi. Six weeks later, on August 13, he ordered the police to clear Brotherhood supporters from protest camps at two squares in Cairo: al-Nahda and Rabaa al-Adawiya. According to official health ministry statistics, 595 civilians and forty-three police officers were killed in exceptionally violent confrontations with the protesters, but the Brotherhood claims that the number of victims was much higher.

That fall, Sisi launched a sweeping crackdown on civil society. Citing the need to restore security and stability, the regime banned protests, passed antiterrorism laws that mandated long prison terms for acts of civil disobedience, gave prosecutors broad powers to extend pretrial detention periods, purged liberal and pro-Islamist judges, and froze the bank accounts of NGOs and law firms that defend democracy activists. Human rights groups in Egypt estimate that between 40,000 and 60,000 political prisoners, including both Muslim Brotherhood members and secular pro-democracy activists, now languish in the country’s jails. Twenty prisons have been built since Sisi took power.

In October 2013, President Barack Obama demonstrated his disapproval of the violent crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters by suspending military aid to Egypt. The aid—including a dozen F-16 fighter jets, twenty Harpoon missiles, and up to 125 US Abrams M1A1 tank kits—was restored eight months later. By that point, Sisi had shed his military uniform and become Egypt’s civilian president, winning more than 95 percent of the vote in a stage-managed May 2014 election. But Obama kept his distance, refusing to invite Sisi to the White House.

Donald Trump, who has spoken bluntly about “radical Islamic terrorism” and appears to share Sisi’s view that the Muslim Brotherhood is involved in such activity, quickly signaled his support for the military government. Sisi was the first Arab leader with whom Trump spoke after his inauguration, and in April the US president invited him to the White House for what was described as a cordial private meeting. According to reports, Trump did not broach the subject of human rights violations, and observers believe that his embrace may embolden the Egyptian leader to extend his repressive policies.

But recent events in Egypt have raised the question of whether the tradeoff Sisi has offered the Egyptian public—keeping them safe in exchange for an authoritarian state and far-reaching restrictions on civil society—is working. In the northern Sinai Peninsula, an Islamic State–affiliated group called Sinai Province has launched an alarming number of attacks on security forces in recent months. The group has claimed to have killed 1,500 people—including security forces and “collaborators”—since the beginning of 2016. (Egyptian military officials say that number is wildly exaggerated.)

International peacekeepers describe the fighting in Sinai as starting to resemble the conflict in Afghanistan, with a committed army of religious fundamentalists, rocket and sniper attacks on foreign military observers, and defections by government troops angered by the state’s persecution of Islamists. “They are globally inspired local insurgents,” Major-General Denis Thompson, the Canadian former commander of the peacekeeping force, said in a recent interview. “And their effort is really to use the [ISIS] brand to attract recruits, and locally they’re trying to redress many long-standing grievances they have with the Egyptian government.” Abuses by the military may also be drawing more local men to the ISIS cause. In late April, Human Rights Watch urged the US government to suspend military aid to Egypt after a video surfaced showing troops executing eight captured insurgents, then planting rifles next to their corpses to make it look as if they were killed in combat.

Meanwhile, a previously unknown militant group called Lewaa El-Thawra (Revolution Brigade) has taken the Islamist insurgency to more populous parts of the country. At dawn on a Saturday morning last October, a senior Egyptian army officer who commanded forces in the Sinai was shot dead by members of the group outside his home in an affluent Cairo suburb. In early April, the group injured a dozen policemen in an attack on a training academy in the Nile Delta. “The current regime has destroyed the people’s revolution, killed its members, and imprisoned others,” the brigade declared in a video released last fall, announcing that it was going to war to avenge the Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda killings. “Our message to the Interior Ministry’s mercenaries is that you all will be fired upon soon.”

Far more worrisome for Egypt’s stability, however, has been a series of large-scale attacks on the country’s Coptic Christian minority. Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, have been repeatedly attacked since the 2011 revolution, and numerous churches have been bombed. Many Christians blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for this violence and supported the coup that brought Sisi to power.

But the most recent attacks have caused many Christians to question that support. In December, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a chapel beside Egypt’s main Coptic cathedral in Cairo, killing twenty-five. Two months later, ISIS released a video that called Christians the jihadists’ “favorite prey” and vowed that the Cairo bombing was “only the beginning” of a campaign to “kill every infidel.” On Palm Sunday, two attackers detonated explosive vests within hours of each other at crowded Coptic churches in Alexandria and the Nile Delta. The coordinated bombings, for which the Islamic State again assumed responsibility, killed forty-five people and injured more than one hundred. It was the deadliest day of attacks against Christians in modern Egyptian history.

Some Egyptian intelligence officials believe that jihadists, facing pressure in other parts of the Middle East, are intent on opening a new front in Egypt. Many of the six hundred Egyptians believed to have fought with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have apparently abandoned the conflict in recent months and drifted home. With its erratic security forces, proximity to other jihadist battlefields, large Christian minority, repression of Islamists, and large population of young Muslims unmoored and angered by the authoritarian rule of Sisi, Egypt may present a rich opportunity for jihad.

Ayman Abdelmeguid, a member of the now outlawed April 6 Youth Movement, a secular opposition group that helped launch the Egyptian revolution, spent several weeks locked in a small cell with dozens of Muslim Brotherhood members last year after his arrest for violating the protest law. Many of these young men, who faced indefinite incarceration without trial, had been drawn to jihadism, he told me, by their experience in Sisi’s prisons. “The guys who started to shift toward violence had the sole idea of revenge and breaking the regime,” he said. “They argued that the regime deliberately killed, tortured, raped, and imprisoned them and their families and friends and hence deserved an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” If these men were released, Abdelmeguid told me, they would be ripe candidates for recruitment by jihadist groups.

After the Palm Sunday attacks, Sisi ordered the seizure of copies of a private newspaper critical of the regime and declared a three-month state of emergency, the first he had imposed since the aftermath of the violence in Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda in 2013. The law allows him to dispatch civilians to State Security Emergency courts, where no appeals are permitted; overrule court decisions that aren’t to his liking; monitor and intercept all forms of communication and correspondence; censor and confiscate publications; impose a curfew; shut down businesses; and seize property.

On May 8, an Egyptian court sentenced the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie, and two deputies to life in prison for “planning violent attacks” following the Rabaa al-Adawiya killings. The public prosecutor’s office had charged the men, along with three dozen other Brotherhood members, with “preparing an operations room to confront the state and create chaos in the country” and “planning to burn public property and churches.”

Sisi has meanwhile created three permanent regulatory bodies to monitor the press: the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, the National Press Authority, and the National Media Authority. Composed of panels of journalists and government officials, the new bodies can fine or suspend publications, broadcasters, and individual journalists—including the foreign media. Democracy activists I talked to, who were already chafing under a dictatorship that one called “far worse than the Mubarak era,” say there now appear to be few, if any, checks on Sisi’s power.

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
Supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi at a rally outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque, where hundreds of protesters were killed the following month in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood ordered by President Sisi, July 2013

How did Egypt reach this point? In The Egyptians: A Radical History of Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution, Jack Shenker, a former correspondent for The Guardian in Cairo, examines the brief period of hope that followed Mubarak’s downfall—and the unraveling that led to Sisi’s police state and the crushing of the country’s democratic aspirations. As Shenker tells it, Sisi’s primary interest has been to safeguard the military’s hold on power and the vast network of financial interests—land holdings, corporate investments, and businesses—it has accumulated over six decades. He has used the threat of terror to justify a clampdown on any kind of dissent.

Shenker draws a straight line from Sisi back to Gamal Abdel Nasser, who took power following a military coup in 1952. Under the stringent terms of a bargain that Nasser struck with his citizens, writes Shenker,

a new nationalist government would ensure healthcare, education and employment was available to all. But…there was no room for anti-regime protest or democratic participation by the masses; those who tried to intrude upon the realm of governance would be cast out from the national family as unpatriotic and dangerous, and face punishment.

After Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970, his successor, Anwar Sadat, kept the police state intact but took away the safety net that had guaranteed Egyptians employment and subsidized basic commodities. Islamist army officers assassinated Sadat in 1981, an event that brought Hosni Mubarak to power. Also under the guise of fighting terror, Mubarak imposed a state of emergency immediately after Sadat’s assassination, stifled political activity, jailed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members, and unleashed his state security forces to keep the population in line. Meanwhile, his National Democratic Party (NDP) served as a patronage machine for a coterie of businessmen-politicians who, in later years, gathered around Mubarak’s son and heir apparent, Gamal Mubarak. Public utilities and other state-owned assets were sold off for a song to Mubarak’s NDP cronies, who often plundered them, laid off thousands of workers, and then resold them for huge profits.

By the late 2000s, Shenker writes, “unemployment had risen so sharply that one in four Egyptians was out of work; among the millions who had been born since 1981 and knew no other leader than Mubarak, the jobless figure was estimated at over 75 per cent.” On the surface, Mubarak’s Egypt was stable, secular, and welcoming to tourists, but few of those who came to gaze at the pyramids and cruise down the Nile had any sense of the corruption, police brutality, and gross disparities of wealth that were breeding discontent among the population.

Shenker identifies several causes of the 2011 revolution: the rise of social media, which offered an alternative to the self-censored press of the Mubarak era; the stirrings of an organized opposition during a political opening caused by the US invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush’s quixotic determination to democratize the Middle East; pockets of activism such as Mahalla, an industrial town in the Nile Delta that, in 2008, became the setting for a lengthy strike that attracted wide support; and the excesses of Mubarak’s thuggish security forces. The tipping point may have come in June 2010, when Khaled Said, a young man who had posted photos online of police engaging in illegal activity, was arrested in a Cairo Internet café, dragged into an adjoining building, and beaten to death. When photos surfaced of Said in the morgue, his face bloody and disfigured, a protest page was started on Facebook that attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.

Months later, in December 2010, a wave of protests erupted against Tunisia’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, forcing him to flee soon after and further mobilizing a generation of Egyptians fed up with stagnation, powerlessness, and state-sanctioned violence. Beginning on January 25, 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square, starting the uprising that less than three weeks later brought down Mubarak.

After Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011, power passed to a military body called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which was determined to protect its interests and stop the revolution in its tracks. In The Battle for Egypt: Dispatches from the Revolution (2011), an enthralling account of the eighteen days of protests that led to Mubarak’s fall, originally published on The New York Review’s website, Yasmine El Rashidi captures the sense of foreboding that took hold as the SCAF tightened its grip. “Everyone I have spoken to over the past few days is concerned about the current situation,” she wrote on February 23, 2011:

There is general unease about the army and its growing power. We have become accustomed to tanks rolling through our streets; most of the soldiers are young, and in many ways just like us. But while the military leadership has arrested former business leaders and ministers, and corruption cases are now being reviewed, it is also becoming much more assertive about curfews, and activists have been alarmed by reports that people detained during the revolt were tortured.

About a week after Mubarak stepped down, two young protest leaders, Ahmed Maher, the cofounder of the April 6 Youth Movement, and Wael Ghonim, were taken to meet Sisi, then head of military intelligence. As Maher recalled when I met him in Cairo in February, Sisi told him:

“You are heroes, you did miracles, you brought down Mubarak, you did something we failed to do for years, but now we need you to stop demonstrating.” I told him, “The revolution is not complete. We need to change the structure of the government.” I met Sisi three times after that, and he said the same thing: “We need to be united, stop demonstrating.” Sisi hated the protests.

As street battles continued between security forces and protesters, resulting in hundreds of deaths, SCAF searched for a way to end the impasse. The challenge facing the generals was to appear to bow to popular pressure without sacrificing their power. “The military needed a political settlement that combined procedural democracy—the Egyptian people would clearly not be sated by anything less—with practical autocracy,” Shenker argues, “and to that end they needed a new partner in the ruling enterprise. That partner was the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Other close observers of the jockeying for power after Mubarak’s fall, including El Rashidi, have argued that the SCAF was simply bowing to the inevitable: the Muslim Brotherhood was by far the best organized political movement outside the fallen regime and was particularly popular in rural Egypt, largely because of its extensive network of charities and the spread of conservative Islam. According to this reading, military leaders saw little to be gained by actively opposing it. “Military leaders view the Brotherhood as the devil they know,” El Rashidi wrote at the time about the March nationwide referendum that led to parliamentary elections; “even in the event of a large Islamist representation in parliament, they would understand what they were getting and how to deal with it.”

As Shenker presents it, however, a behind-the-scenes bargain was struck that seemed to offer both sides advantages: the Muslim Brotherhood would let the military keep its assets and control the crucial ministries of Interior and Defense. The generals would cede to the Muslim Brotherhood day-to-day governance and allow it to write a new constitution. Yet the Morsi government lasted barely a year before Sisi overthrew it, jailed Morsi, and began reconstituting the police state.

Why did the revolution fail? In the four years since the military coup, journalists and historians have offered a number of explanations. According to some, the military cabal set out to sabotage the elected government from the start, blocking fuel supplies and creating electricity shortages to undermine popular support. Shenker places the blame squarely on the Brotherhood. “Once he had the tools of the authoritarian state at his disposal, Morsi turned upon the revolution,” he argues, “breaking strikes, beating protesters,…defending the security apparatus against popular demands for reform.”

The essays collected in Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism: Illiberal Intelligentsia and the Future of Egyptian Democracy, edited by Dalia F. Fahmy and Daanish Faruqi, single out a different culprit: the country’s liberal elite. In an essay about the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamad Elmasry, an Egyptian-American analyst of Arab media, argues that Morsi was set up as a bogeyman by secular democrats who had initially embraced his electoral victory as expressing the will of the people but subsequently recoiled from his Islamist vision.

In late 2012, Morsi was engaged in a battle with Mubarak-appointed judges, who had already dissolved parliament and were threatening to break up the constitutional assembly and reverse Morsi’s decree keeping the military out of politics. Morsi issued a controversial new edict granting himself, for a limited period, sweeping powers and shielding his decisions from judicial oversight. That same day, the opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei tweeted: “Morsi today usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt’s new pharaoh.” Tens of thousands gathered outside the presidential palace demanding that he withdraw the order, and violent clashes broke out between anti-Morsi and pro-Morsi factions. Elmasry argues:

The decree’s negative ramifications were grossly exaggerated in the Egyptian media and political circles. Disagreeing with Morsi’s decree—which was mishandled on a number of levels—was politically legitimate. Claiming that Morsi had turned into a dictator, however, represented a gross exaggeration, and fed an already existing myth about the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged dictatorial, anti-democratic fantasies.

Some of the country’s leading secular democrats joined Tamarod, a grassroots campaign—allegedly orchestrated by the military—that collected millions of signatures in an effort to force early elections and drive Morsi from office. In the aftermath of Sisi’s seizure of power, Faruqi and Fahmy note in their introductory essay, prominent liberals lined up behind him. Alaa al-Aswany, the popular novelist who had taken part in the protests in Tahrir Square, praised the general as a “national hero”; Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of the Arab world’s most respected pro-democracy reformers, lent “his enthusiastic support to the overthrow of Morsi, going so far as to support then General Sisi’s presidential ambitions”; and the respected journalist Ibrahim Eissa, a “champion of liberal values,” transformed himself into a “political reactionary” who applauded “the arrest of the April 6th Youth Movement founder Ahmed Maher, questioning the movement’s patriotism.” Maher would end up spending three years in the notorious Tora Prison, mostly in solitary confinement.

“There is little doubt that Egypt’s intelligentsia betrayed the revolution that they claimed to celebrate and support,” writes Khaled Abou El Fadl, a scholar of Islam at UCLA, in a harsh polemic, “Egypt’s Secularized Intelligentsia and the Guardians of Truth.” What they got instead was a police state far worse than any previous regime. Shenker writes:

In an effort to shut down Revolution Country, the state pressed Egyptians to turn in on themselves. A microbus passenger turned provocateur spoke of rebellion on a journey; when a fellow traveller agreed with her criticisms of Sisi, she hauled him off the bus and denounced him as a terrorist to the security forces. Schoolchildren were detained for sporting potentially seditious stickers on their pencil cases. A man who named his donkey “Sisi” was thrown into prison.

Today Egypt’s former revolutionaries are quiet, dispirited, and fearful. During two visits to Cairo in November 2016 and February 2017, I tracked down a dozen members of the April 6 Youth Movement, which a judge outlawed in 2014. Most had spent time in jail during the last four years. They were among the lucky ones: other members were still serving prison terms of up to twenty years, convicted by pro-Sisi judges and prosecutors of a raft of trumped-up offenses including assault, blocking roads, and “thuggery,” a catchall term for troublemaking introduced by the SCAF in 2011. Ahmed Maher was now under around-the-clock surveillance and, according to the terms of his release, was obliged to spend every night for the next three years at a local police station. “Even when I was in prison I had more freedom than I have now to criticize the regime,” he told me. He had frequently smuggled out eloquent critiques of the Sisi dictatorship, published in the Egyptian media and in The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, and sharp denunciations of the conditions at Tora. “I have to be very careful now, I don’t want to end up in prison again.”

Nearly everyone I talked to in Egypt believed that Sisi’s authoritarianism would only breed more violence and terror. One unseasonably cold afternoon in February, I visited an old acquaintance, Gamel Eid, a lawyer and the head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, in his office in Maadi, near the Nile. Eid has defended many political prisoners in recent years, including the prominent photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, known as Shawkan, who was arrested while covering the August 2013 crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters at Rabaa al-Adawiya. Charged with murder, Shawkan has been sitting in prison, awaiting trial, for nearly 1,400 days. “The general prosecutor can extend detention as long as he wants. It’s outside the law,” Eid told me. “Many times we find a person after a few months, [held] in a secret prison. It often means that he was kidnapped, tortured.”

Khaled Dawoud, a prominent journalist and leader of a small liberal opposition party, is among many in Egypt’s intelligentsia who supported Sisi’s removal of Morsi—he still refuses to call it a “military coup.” But he believes that Sisi’s position is more fragile than it appears. In Dawoud’s view, the dictator has staked his legitimacy on effectively fighting terror and turning around an economy that collapsed after the 2011 revolution; he has failed on both counts. The economy remains stagnant, with tourism down, inflation high, and huge, failing infrastructure projects such as a $9 billion expansion of the Suez Canal sucking up the country’s hard currency. Meanwhile, Sisi’s repression, Dawoud argues, has done little but foment anger. The Internet, he said, was the only free space left, “and they are chasing us there. People have been arrested for administering Facebook pages.”

When I talked to him in February, Dawoud predicted more violence and extremism in the months to come. “Libya is in shambles, and hundreds of fighters are coming back here intent on blowing things up,” he told me. “Egyptians who go to Syria are coming back to Egypt, having learned [to make bombs], and they’re screwing us. How can you solve this? By giving people political space.” Sisi has shown no inclination to do that, however, and with a new friend in the White House, he seems likely instead to shrink this space even further.

—May 10, 2017