Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism: Illiberal Intelligentsia and the Future of Egyptian Democracy
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…
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