The violation of human rights is a tough price to pay to bring stability to a country, at least in the eyes of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. al-Sisi has been in office since 2014, after leading a military coup-d’etat against the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Thousands of nationwide protests against corruption, police brutality, civil liberties, and censorship led up to President Morsi’s removal. A few years beforehand, in 2011, youth groups organized protests that included hundreds of thousands of people that ultimately led Egypt’s fourth President, Hosni Mubarak, to resign. The Revolution of 2011 ended Mubarak’s reign and the vulnerable country was in the hands of its military now. The shortlived democratic experience was introduced by President Morsi, but only lasted from 2011 to 2012. al-Sisi then took this democracy and won in a sham election twice. His presidency was filled with human rights violations and various symptoms of authoritarian consolidation.
al-Sisi won his first election in a landslide, winning 97% of the vote, and promised Egyptians a higher quality of life. His feat was only achievable after he detained one of his major rivals, Sami Anan, stating that he ran for President without precedent. However, by his second term, most Egyptians were living worse than before, suffering to make ends meet and still experiencing a lack of civil liberties. Though his second term victory was a sham, 485 out of 596 lawmakers on the Egyptian parliament voted on a new amendment to allow al-Sisi to extend his term limits for an additional twelve more years and pushing for a stronger military role in the government. This gives al-Sisi the power to appoint his own judges and the potential to serve in office until 2034, an authoritarian rule masked by “democracy”.
The Sinai Peninsula conflicts showed Egyptian military/police forces abusing the people of Sinai in their effort to punish members of ISIS affiliate groups. The residents of Sinai experience brutal torture, with thousands wounded and killed, their lives becoming a living hell since 2013. According to the Human Rights Watch, over 12,000 residents have been arrested by the Egyptian military and police forces. They also demolished thousands of homes and evicted almost 100,000 residents out of North Sinai. By 2017, al-Sisi put Egypt in a state of emergency, stating it is necessary to fight terrorism. However, this new policy allows for authorities to have unlimited power with little regard to rules. With their powers unchecked, a spike in disappearances, tortures, and death sentences (even against a child, but was later stated as a “mistake”) resulted in 2019.
As more and more of al-Sisi’s citizens protested against him, authorities prepared to retaliate. al-Sisi gave warnings against the rising protests as the police force/military detained almost 4,400 people in 2019. Another 160 activists in the Hope Coalition case were arrested and had their homes searched as they were accused of aiding a “terrorist” organization. The Hope Coalition was allegedly planning to form a new coalition against the 2020 election and the government banned 83 members from traveling along with freezing their assets. In light of this case, Egypt passed the NGO Law, which restricts NGOs from carrying out field research/ surveys or work with any international organizations without the approval of the government. Any violation of this law could result in fines of up to one million Egyptian pounds along with other fines for violating other parts of the law. Though the Egyptian court acquitted a few handfuls of defendants after stating that the charges don’t represent the country’s democratic values well. Nevertheless, the government still froze their assets and banned them from travel.
Egypt continues to wear the mask of a country that believes in its democratic values, but time and time again, it further exposes its authoritative traits. Basic civil liberties of freedom of expression, speech, and assembly are essential for citizens to influence their governments, and silencing the people is detrimental to democracy according to political scientist Robert Dahl. Democratic backsliding grows more evident the more the government censors its people. The Egyptian government has blocked hundreds of political/human rights websites along with social media apps and oversees all other media justified by a law passed in 2018. Just recently, two girls in their early twenties almost faced up to two years in prison for promoting their social media pages; luckily, they were acquitted. Thousands of others faced a different fate, being placed in detention centers for “spreading false news” or “misusing social media”. The political turmoil in Egypt has been supported internationally by Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom and former President Donald Trump of the United States. Both of whom emphasized the significant economic ties and celebrating the new “stability” in Egypt. Trump at the G7 meeting in France even went as far as asking “where’s my favorite dictator?” in search of al-Sisi. Neither Johnson nor Trump acknowledged the human rights violations to al-Sisi. The Egyptian government is going to lengths to silence its citizens in hopes of finding peace, but as censorship rages on, elections will not be fair and people will continue to be oppressed. In 2018, al-Sisi threatened the Egyptian people in regards to the 2011 Revolution, “be warned, what happened seven or eight years ago will not be repeated in Egypt… by God, the Prince of Egypt’s stability and security is my life and the life of the army”. President al-Sisi removed one corrupt leader just to take his place as another corrupt leader. Democratic erosion has been chipping away at Egypt for about a decade, and al-Sisi is enforcing an authoritarian regime by violating his people and silencing them. With no one to fight back, al-Sisi will continue to gaslight his people into thinking their elections are fair, and that he cannot be a dictator because he was “elected” by the Egyptian people.
I thought that your piece was a fascinating evaluation of how exactly an authoritarian can come in and use the guise of democracy to consolidate power. Your analysis of al-Sisi’s Egypt is one that is well done and makes me worry for the future of the country as a whole. This is not to say that al-Sisi’s polices, such as the referenced state of emergency, are unique to him or Egypt by any stretch. In fact, the policies that al-Sisi has managed to get through are similar to the polices of the Polish government that seeks to remove “outside” ethnic groups as well as political enemies. The portion of your piece that I was drawn to the most however, was in the tail end where you referenced Boris Johnson and Donald Trump’s attitudes towards al-Sisi, and I think that that brings up an extremely important point. The only reason that these leaders are not lamenting the state of Egyptian human rights is that Egypt is a significant financial ally to them, a point which you bring up. If the same type of human rights violations were occurring in a country that was not such an ally, the tone would be completely different. We must push our leaders to be loyal to more than the pocketbook, and we must examine our countries economic ties when something is either not brought up or swept under the rug. We cannot be friendly towards dictators when they provide us with something, because in that scenario our word becomes worthless when we begin espousing the crimes of others. Without consistency, any attempt to prevent democratic backsliding is all the more difficult. Time will tell if our tone with Egypt changes, but I believe that for as long as Egypt remains in control of one of the most important canals in the world, al-Sisi has nothing to fear from outside.
A great piece that analyzes the current consolidation of power in one of the Middle East’s most populated countries. You provided really essential information that is vital for anyone to understand the scope of the democratic erosion taking place in Egypt at the moment. One point I would like to mention on the topic of Abdelfatah Sisi is that I found it interesting how the military can play the role of suppressing democracy using force, it’s more interesting when you consider that military conscription is mandatory in Egypt. Moreso, the issue of terrorist groups in the Sinai peninsula probably provides the Egyptian government an excuse to justify the overstepping of the military institutions by claiming they are facing a “national security threat”. It is also unfortunate that the efforts of the Egyptian people topple the treacherous Mubarak regime during the Arab Spring essentially have gone to waste. What the world saw as a glimmer of hope was actually the beginning of a dark path I suppose. The complacency from Western powers who pride themselves on being protectors of democratic values, peace, and justice — is more detrimental than it is disappointing. I think that when countries like the US and the UK prioritize security agenda over democracy, they set a dangerous precedent for all autocracies over the world. We see this play out not only in Egypt but in other countries that serve the US a strategic purpose (i.e Saudi Arabia).
This was a really interesting topic and analysis to read about. I was not aware that this was going on in Egypt, so it was surprising and saddening for me to learn. It is a prime example of how an authoritarian leader can come into a country and consolidate power under the guise of promoting and protecting democracy. It seems this is an all too common occurrence today, as similar circumstances are going on in other regions of the world. Globally, democracy is under attack by populist leaders that accumulate mass support but then demand unchecked power and reject pluralism. In the case of Egypt, I would agree with you that democracy is backsliding due to the increasing power of President al-Sisi and his hindering of citizens’ rights. Even before al-Sisi, Egypt was in a state of democratic decline under former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi who was Egypt’s first democratically-elected president. Morsi’s presidency was characterized by corruption, police brutality, censorship, and violations of civil liberties. These are what led up to Morsi’s removal and al-Sisi taking office. Democracy continues to be threatened by oppression of civil liberties and authoritarian behavior by al-Sisi.
While reading your blog post, I noticed that al-Sisi’s rise to presidency largely resembles that of a populist leader which is a red flag because populist leaders are a significant threat to democracy. There were mass protests against former President Morsi which were motivated by anger due to economic hardship and a perception of a drift towards greater Islamist influence on public life. al-Sisi warned that the army would intervene if the government didn’t respond to the “will of the people”. After the successful coup, al-Sisi was elected president with 97% of the vote. He promised to raise the standard of living for Egyptians and pledged to support the poor. This is all very characteristic of a populist leader who gathers mass support by making moralistic claims and pledges to support the “ordinary citizen”. However, as you state, the standard of living actually has declined during al-Sisi’s presidency and people still lack civil liberties and face an unprecedented crackdown on dissent. Basic civil liberties like freedom of expression, speech and assembly are essential components of democracy, and silencing people is detrimental and leads to democratic erosion. al-Sisi has detained thousands of protestors that speak out against him through use of the police force and military; local media is dominated by pro-government figures; hundreds of political/human rights websites have been blocked; and laws prescribe jail time for any perceived criticism of the government or military. Censorship is high in Egypt right now, and this is dangerous because citizens are not able to speak out about the injustices and corruption in their government without fear of being punished. As Mueller discusses in What is Populism? populist leaders are dangerous because they claim that they know what’s best for the people, but “the people” are only those that agree with their populist views. It is the populist’s way or no way at all, and all competitors or conflicting views are deemed as illegitimate. Whereas democracy promotes compromise and cooperation, populism rejects all opposition. This can be seen in al-Sisi’s attempts to censor and punish those citizens who go against him and his government. By silencing his people, he consolidates his authoritarian rule and undermines democratic values.
Another way in which al-Sisi’s presidency can be seen as a threat to democracy is that it undermines the concept of free, fair, and competitive elections which are key to democracy. al-Sisi was reelected after all potentially serious candidates were either arrested or bribed to withdraw from the race. Therefore, he virtually had no competition besides one other candidate who himself was an ardent al-Sisi supporter. Free, fair, and competitive elections were also undermined by a new amendment that allowed al-Sisi to extend his term limits to an additional 12 more years and therefore remain in power until 2030. This is an absolute violation to democracy because it ultimately consolidates al-Sisi’s authoritarian power for a long period of time, rendering competitors illegitimate. The referendum that allowed this amendment to be passed was even held in an unfair and unfree environment because there is evidence that citizens were being forced to vote or bribed with food and money, which again exemplifies the continued poor standard of living of citizens. In Huq and Ginsberg’s How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy, they explain that constitutional retrogression is a threat to democracy. Constitutional retrogression is the risk of large incremental reversals simultaneously along rule-of-law, democratic, and liberal margins. One way to do this is by enacting a suite of legal and institutional changes that simultaneously squeeze out electoral competition, undermine liberal rights of democratic participation, and weaken legal stability and predictability. al-Sisi’s reelection and the new amendment follow along these lines. By diminishing legitimacy of competition and securing al-Sisi’s place in power, the Egyptian government distorted key democratic processes.
The events that have been going on in Egypt for the past decade are worrisome for the survival and success of democracy. Democracy began with Morsi but declined due to his oppression and corruption. al-Sisi removed this corrupt leader but only to take his place and continue the violations against democracy that his predecessor started. al-Sisi claims that he wants stability, security, and peace in Egypt which is what garnered his support in the beginning. However, this came at the expense of citizen’s liberties and human rights. The support of other populist world leaders such as Donald Trump only worsen the situation because it makes people think that things like this are acceptable- which they aren’t. Democracy will continue to backslide if al-Sisi and his government are not held accountable for their oppression of their people and their tampering with elections and fair alternation if office.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece on Egypt and its consolidation of autocratic power. Due to its history and strategic location, the events unfolding in Egypt are of both regional and international importance. One thing I found particularly interesting was how despite his sham victory over the election, lawmakers on the Egyptian parliament still voted on the amendment that allowed Sisi to extend his term. It reminded me of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die” in which they mention the various ways in which rulers undermine democracy; one of them being the capturing the referees. In this situation, the referees would be the Egyptian parliament who allow Sisi to continue his violations against democracy. The authors also mention that it’s not military coups or outside invasion that take down democracies but rather it is the agents within. It is through time that liberties erode, tolerance disintegrates, and the people who came to power through democratic processes crush the possibility that those processes might be used to remove them.