Gone are the days of the ancient Egyptian Kingdom where the great pyramids were built and one of the earliest forms of written communication were developed, but one thing has lingered: the Pharaoh.
The rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is one that mirrors, and perhaps exceeds, the absolute power once wielded by the Pharaohs of antiquity. While the title has shifted to “President,” there is currently nothing in the system indicating a democracy — merely the trappings of one. While this crackdown on civil liberties has been ongoing since the 2013 coup d’etat that effectively placed al-Sisi in command, it’s displayed clearly in the response to the protests that occurred during the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP27, hosted in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
Protestors rallied in Sharm El-Sheikh, calling for President al-Sisi to step down and release Egypt’s growing number of political prisoners including journalists, human rights attorneys, and political opponents, estimated to number roughly 60,000. Most notable of these prisoners is Alaa Abd El-Fattah, an activist who has been detained for nearly the past nine years due to his public condemnations of the increasingly authoritarian policies that have occurred under al-Sisi’s presidency. At least 150 protestors have been detained and are currently being investigated by the Egyptian government, while hundreds more have faced questioning and jail time.
The arrests started even before the protests occurred, with Egyptian security forces establishing checkpoints to search people’s phones for any content relating to the planned protests. If any online posts are found, citizens can be charged with abuse of social media, spreading false news, or even be charged with joining or assisting terrorist organizations. Surveillance measures were also taken to combat any potential effort of organized assembly, with authorities installing surveillance cameras in taxis in Sharm El-Sheikh that would keep audio-video recordings to be reviewed by Egypt’s Interior Ministry. The Egyptian government also released an app for COP27 attendees that require users to provide their passport numbers as well as access to the phone’s camera, microphone, and location.
All of this has been made possible through al-Sisi’s cunning utilization of democratic trappings to legalize repression and his heavy reliance on the Egyptian Armed Forces. Under al-Sisi, the military is not taxed, is not subject to competition, and utilizes free conscript labor to monopolize public land and public resources — all with no public oversight. Active duty Generals and military officers now directly rule in many parts of public administration, managing key utilities such as the food supply, health care, infrastructure, and other essential public services. His regime’s utilization of lawmaking to justify and legalize authoritarianism poses an equally grave threat to civil liberties, however.
Through legal processes, the regime has restricted political parties, hampered the right to protest, and expanded expand the power and jurisdiction of military courts into the civilian realm. Where the pre-Revolutionary President Mubarak ruled primarily through decree and emergency powers, al-Sisi has used democratic trappings to legitimize his repression and despotism. Vague language in new and amended laws, such as the Protest Law, NGO Law, Penal Code, Terrorism Law, and Military Court Law, have all enabled this to happen. These pieces of legislation have enabled the regime to arbitrarily prohibit or criminalize activities without definition, to make accusations of terrorism, and to transfer civilians to military courts without due process.
This is certainly seen in the autocratic response to the COP27 protests, where accusations of terrorism did not need to be proven in a court of law, they merely needed to file their claims with the court of appeals to officially list them. Once listed, a suspected terrorist can be detained, have their passport revoked, and be prohibited from holding public office. There is no possibility for appeal until after such a listing has been made, and there is no legal requirement for an appeal to be heard in a timely manner, meaning detentions can, and often do, continue indefinitely without a trial.
While many of these laws had been assented to law by Presidential decree, the Egyptian House of Representatives ratified all of these laws mentioned. In fact, the House of Representatives approved, without any changes, 342 out of 343 presidential decrees issued by interim President Adly Mansour and incumbent President al-Sisi. While elections for the Egyptian Parliament have been held as recently as 2020, it is clear by the overwhelming lack of oversight, debate, and amendments proposed, that no real power lies within the Parliament, only in the hands of the President and Armed Forces.
And now, even more recently, the Pharaoh is building a new palace. One that is far outside the bounds of Cairo, a city home to millions. Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, or the NAC, has been under construction since 2015 and is situated a whopping twenty-eight miles outside of Cairo, putting the regime far outside the grasp of the public. Embassies, government agencies and ministries, the parliament, and a massive Presidential palace will be moved from the center of Egypt, where massive protests in Tahrir Square in 2011 toppled the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, to just out of reach. With this move, al-Sisi’s consolidation of power will be all but entirely completed. The only thing that will be missing is his crown and scepter.