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.
I thought you’re opening to this blog post was very good and described perfectly what you wanted to talk about. “One thing has lingered; the Pharoah” was such a good way to grasp someone’s attention. I think your focus on that the “President” of Egypt is using his power in the most corrupt ways he can by detaining those that oppose him provides really good insight. There is no sort of checks and balances for the individual branches of Egypt’s government and that is shown when you say that a presidential decree was voted on and passed 342/343 presidential decrees without any sort of revision. In your closing paragraph, you mention that Al-Sisi is building a new palace away from one of Egypt’s largest cities which not only shows that he doesn’t want to associate with the public, but also that he just doesn’t care about the public and is more concerned with having the benefits of being a country’s leader while also staying away from the public eye.
Great article about Egyptian authoritarianism. Throughout this article we can look deeper into the Egyptian bureaucratic machine, still focusing on the Egyptian leader President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. What’s interesting is that this article shows us that despite the President’s success in tightening the rights of citizens we can still see that there are parts of society who disagree with this.
This is a great piece that looks at al-Sisi’s authoritarian tendencies. The comparison to a pharaoh makes for a vivid image and a helpful way to view the situation. Al-Sisi’s use of democratic institutions to legalize his authoritarian actions seems especially devious. I wonder if he feels a need to do this because it is commonplace for democratic erosion or because of the country’s history of protest. The military’s involvement in the government is also a troubling factor that you lay out in your article. With his own connections to the military, it does not paint a promising picture.
Cameron Sweeney in his article on Egyptian authoritarianism argues that the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has not only ripped unbelievable amounts of power from the hands of the Egyptian populace but also goes as far to say that al-Sisi has made himself a modern day pharaoh. Al- Sisi rose to power after former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mouhammed Morsi both resigned in disgrace following massive protests in Tahrir Square. He later details how oppressive the Egyptian government has become, suppressing later protests at Sharm El-Sheikh as well as social media access for many protesting citizens. Many of these people have been arrested in response to their activity both in person and on social media, with roughly 60,000 political prisoners (Sweeney 2022). Sweeney’s hyperbolic description of President al-Sisi’s government ultimately undermines itself through a lackluster understanding of ancient Egyptian government and culture and how both have greatly developed over the centuries.
This hardly is the first time Egyptians have dealt with authoritarianism. The Netflix documentary, al- Midan (The Square), details how the Egyptian youth responded to other authoritarian presidents, the aforementioned Hosni Mubarak and Mouhammed Morsi by protesting for years in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The protests began as a response to the Arab Spring beginning in Tunisia as well as economic stagnation happening in Egypt itself. Robert Dahl in his book Polyarchy mentions how important a good economy is to liberal democracy, and with so many young people unemployed at the time of the protests in Tahrir Square, it is no wonder why they were so upset and how they had enough time to live there in protest for months on end. Al-Sisi was able to capture the minds, hearts, and support of these people by playing on their emotions like one of Müeller’s populists. He and other military leaders sided against the established government, calling for the removal of Morsi either outright or via an early election. He subsequently was violating another of Dahl’s preconditions for democracy: an apolitical military. This military board with al-Sisi at its head later seized power, citing the inefficiency and ineffective nature of democracy, supposedly until the country was ready to try again.
Now, ten years later, al-Sisi’s government has done away with civil liberties, making Egypt into a quasi-surveillance state. The government is holding many political prisoners without trials or official charges, a sign of democratic backsliding. They have installed surveillance cameras everywhere as cited in Sweeney’s article as well as the app required for attendees of a UN conference which logs passport numbers as well as access to a phone’s camera, microphone, and location. He has also made elections and the legislature obsolete, winning 97% of the vote in the 2018 election. This margin of victory reflects the low contestation and high participation mentioned in Dahl’s work, and although it is far from the polyarchal ideal, it does not exactly reflect a monarch. He does, however, hold most of the lawmaking power, using much of it to keep himself in power.
Sweeney’s critique via comparison to the ancient Egyptian office of pharaoh, though is quite a stretch. The authoritarian nature of the former has no comparison to one of Egypt’s monarchs of the distant past. The pharaoh was not just a tyrannical autocrat, rather, he himself claimed to be a god. With this claim of divinity and divine right, the pharaoh enslaved not only outsiders but also his own citizens. Basically, in the earliest forms of Egyptian society, the pharaoh owned all the land on which the people would farm and he would subsequently take the fruits of their labor and give them back enough to barely survive (an early form of feudalism). The average pharaoh also already held all the power in the nation, whether over how religion was practiced, whether his people lived or died, or how history was to be recorded. Take, for instance, the response to the radical pharaoh Akenaten, who tried to switch the Egyptian religion to a monotheistic worship of the sun. Not only did subsequent pharaohs revert back to the status quo, but his descendants did their best to erase his name from history, moving the population of the cities he built out and taking his name out of recorded histories. Now, with globalization, al-Sisi or any other authoritarian could never hope to wield even a sliver of the power of these god-kings. The monotheistic (mostly Muslim but sometimes Christian) nature of the population challenges fundamentally the belief that the ruler is an incarnation of a god (typically Horus). Although his description of the president as pharaoh is effective, the statement by its nature is misleading because it comes from a point of ignorance on Egyptian history and politics and that office has many other cultural ties that do not apply.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.” Encyclopedia
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Davison, John, and Ahmed Tolba. “Egypt’s Sisi Wins 97 Percent in Election
with No Real Opposition.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, April 2, 2018.
Sweeney, Cameron. “Egypt Still Has a Pharaoh: The Al-Sisi Regime.”
Democratic Erosion, November 30, 2022. https://www.democratic-erosion.com/2022/11/30/egypt-still-has-a-pharaoh-the-al-sisi-regime/.