On October 25th, 2021, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced that he is finally lifting Egypt’s nationwide state of emergency. On the surface, this is a positive change for Egyptian democracy and human rights, and seems to be putting Egypt on the path towards democratization. As Human Rights Watch wrote, however, this change is far from sufficient to stop the nation’s continued democratic erosion and human rights violations. In fact, it will allow al-Sisi to continue his stealth authoritarian practices while still maintaining a guise of preserving democracy.
Egypt’s state of emergency was declared in 2017 as a response to terrorist threats. On April 9, 2017, ISIS claimed suicide bombings at two Egyptian churches that killed at least 45 people. In response, Sisi declared a state of emergency that was initially intended to last three months, and Parliament unanimously voted to approve his decree.
Egypt’s Emergency Law dates back to 1958, and grants Egyptian security forces the powers to detain citizens without trial, monitor private communications, ban gatherings, seize property, and more. According to Egypt’s constitution, the president must consult his cabinet before declaring a state of emergency, and it can only be extended with the approval of Parliament for up to three months. Even with these restrictions, Egypt has been in a state of emergency since 1981 with only two brief interruptions in 2012 and 2017.
Under this state of emergency, Sisi has been able to massively erode Egypt’s democracy. He imprisoned up to 60,000 human rights activists, politicians, and their families. Cairo’s Scorpion Prison is thought to have been built for the purpose of accommodating Sisi’s political prisoners; in Scorpion Prison, Sisi’s prisoners are held in inhumane conditions, deprived of medical care and contact with family, beaten, and force-fed.
Critics continually accused Sisi of using terrorism and the state of emergency to distract from his larger human rights abuses. In the context of the state of emergency, Sisi was able to pass an anti-protest law giving security forces the absolute power to cancel or postpone any demonstrations, without any kind of judicial review. He also created the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, allowing him to appoint officials that can then fine and suspend publications and broadcasters and give or revoke licenses to foreign media.
When Sisi decided not to extend the state of emergency, he made a Facebook post stating that “Egypt has become, thanks to its great people and loyal men, an oasis for security and stability in the region”. Human rights activists were quick to point out that, although the state of emergency has certainly been Sisi’s most powerful tool for eroding democracy, ending it will not automatically end Sisi’s stealth authoritarianism. Ending the state of emergency will not lead to the release of the tens of thousands of political dissidents that have been imprisoned without trial, nor will it dissolve the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, or repeal the anti-protest law. Still, Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights and other organizations are praising Sisi for ending the state of emergency, calling it “an important step towards bolstering, implementing, and protecting human rights”.
This action by Sisi, although it may seem democratic, is actually indicative of his strategy to covertly erode Egypt’s democracy and increase his own power. As political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt outline in How Democracies Die, today’s aspiring autocrats “maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance”.  Ending Egypt’s state of emergency allows President Sisi to appear as if he’s attempting to return Egypt to its previously democratic state, without actually having to release political prisoners, allow independent media to exist, or otherwise sacrifice his personal power.
This strategy for autocrats is not new. In “Stealth Authoritarianism,” law professor Ozan O. Varol explains that aspiring autocrats will often make surface-level democratic reforms for the benefit of both domestic and international audiences. Varol writes that “to imbue their regimes with the veneer of legitimacy and legality,” would-be authoritarians “implement democratic reforms and employ rhetoric that invokes the rule of law, democracy, and constitutionalism”. Varol compares this strategy to a “sleight of hand,” distracting the people from their leaders’ true autocratic tendencies. 
Many Egyptians believe that the end to their state of emergency symbolizes President Sisi’s commitment to improving Egypt’s democracy and human rights, when in reality it represents the opposite. Ending Egypt’s state of emergency allows Sisi to retain his guise of legitimacy, while also opening to door to further executive aggrandizement. Since ending the state of emergency Sisi has already passed a new terrorism law that massively expands the president and military’s powers, allowing him to take any measures “necessary to preserve security and public order”. The end to Egypt’s state of emergency will thus allow Sisi to preserve his legitimacy as a democratic president while continuing to covertly erode Egypt’s democracy and expand his personal power. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (London: Penguin Books, 2019), 5.
 Varol, Ozan O. “Stealth Authoritarianism” Iowa Law Review 100 (2014): 1673