As the largest protests Egypt has seen in years have been met with violence, it may be time for Western countries to reassess their support for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s authoritarian regime. This should come along with the realisation that the state of human rights in the North African country has gotten severely worse since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Tear gas, rubber bullets and beatings. This was what the demonstrators across some of Egypt’s major cities met as they took to the streets on Friday, September 20th. Their message to president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was clear: Leave.
The call for the protests came from a somewhat unexpected source. It did not come from a democracy activist or another representative from Egypt’s civil society, but rather an occasional actor and former contractor working with the regime – named Mohamed Ali. From a self-imposed exile in Spain, Mohamed Ali has been posting videos on his Facebook page, accusing the military of squandering billions of Egyptian pounds coined as public funds on vanity real estate projects. While Egyptians are still living through the consequences of a severe economic crisis, this seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In a country that has not only experienced an economic crisis, but also massive violations of the right to freedom of assembly and expression, the protests were a rare sight. This is partly due to a law that was passed, which effectively banned protests, following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The coup brought General al-Sisi into power who labelled the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation and hunted down its followers, of whom many have been driven into exile. Morsi died from a heart attack in court June 17th, 2019, according to Egyptian state television. His supporters, however, accuse the military regime of refusing him medical treatment in prison, which in the end should have caused his death.
Despite the controversial protest law, al-Sisi enjoys support from several Western leaders, including US President Donald Trump. He made this clear during the United Nations General Assembly, where he praised the Egyptian leader who ‘brought order’ to an otherwise chaotic country. Meanwhile, he dismissed Friday’s protests reminding us that ‘everybody has demonstrations.’ On the same occasion, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised Egypt without bringing up the crackdown on Friday’s protests, as he met with the Egyptian president.
The protests of September 20th were followed by an intensive arrest campaign. In the course of just one week, almost 2000 people had been arrested, including activists, civilians and human rights lawyers.
These arrests give us an idea of how frightening it is to demonstrate in Egypt these days. Fully grasping this fear, however, is impossible without understanding the reality Egyptians have been living in for the past 6 years.
A good starting point for this may be to ask the question: what happened to the people in Tahrir Square chanting for the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011? The Perspective talked to one of them. “I think that my generation and people that participated in the revolution mostly suffer from PTSD. And it is not just me saying this. People are diagnosed with PTSD. A lot of people got arrested”. The Perspective’s source, who wishes to remain anonymous, continues by explaining that more than 6000 people got arrested between 2013 and 2015. Many of them were members of Egypt’s civil society, which has gone through a devastating crackdown. “My house was raided, my office was raided, and I write on culture and media. I’m just writing on cultural policy. (…) Most of my friends went to prison at some point. Some of them are still there.”
The crackdown on civil society is framed by the government as justifiable under the guise of antiterrorism. In reality, it is a campaign of repression, targeting any kind of political opposition. The perspective’s source explains that “they [the government, red] basically realized that it is the civil society that is the only real opposition to the regime and then they came up with a new law that penalizes any foreign funds. They basically said that any foreign fund is spying”.
The law prohibiting foreign funds was followed by lawsuits against more than 300 different NGOs, freezing their money, shutting down offices, arresting people and banning them from travelling. Those who end up in prison will be at the mercy of the police and Egypt’s national security agency, both known for “systematic, widespread enforced disappearances and torture that most likely amount to crimes against humanity”, according to Human Rights Watch.
Another traumatic moment that haunts Egyptians to this day is the Rabaa massacre in 2013. At least 900 people were killed by security forces for participating in a sit-in against al-Sisi’s regime in the Rabaa al-Adawiya square. Besides that, 75 people more were sentenced to death in what Amnesty International calls “a grossly unfair trial”. The massacre marked the beginning of a regime using violence to a degree Egyptians had never experienced before.
It is tempting to conclude that with another figure from the military in charge, the revolution of 2011 has finally failed, and Egypt has gone back to the same autocratic state as during Mubarak’s regime.
The Perspective’s source rejects this narrative, pointing out that it has in fact gotten much worse: “There was street art before but now you cannot do anything in the street. If you go down the street and sing you can get arrested. People that do graffiti will get arrested and two graffiti artists were killed”. Others point out that the difference between al-Sisi and previous rulers is the degree to which the authorities have applied force against their own people. The massacre in the Rabaa Square supports this point all too well.
The experiences of the past 6 years with al-Sisi in charge gives us a picture of how dangerous it is to go into the street and demonstrate. It also begs for another serious question; namely, why Western countries continue to support a regime that continuously attacks its own people?
Al-Sisi’s strongest supporter can with little doubt be found in the White House, although the European Union is strengthening its ties to the Egyptian president as well. On a major summit meeting in February 2019, al-Sisi welcomed Arab as well as European leaders in the Egyptian holiday town Sharm el-Sheikh.
In his opening remarks, European Council President at the time, Donald Tusk, ended his speech pointing out that “we are not here to pretend that we agree on everything. But we face common challenges and have shared interests.” In this way, the European leaders seem to be walking on a rather tenuous. They do wish to work together with the Egyptian regime in their fight against terrorism and illegal migrants entering Europe from the African continent.
The German chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the French president Emmanuel Macron, have made official visits to Cairo within the past three years. As the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte says “sometimes you have to dance with whoever’s on the dance floor”.
On the other hand, the European Parliament has condemned the attacks of al-Sisi’s regime on the Egyptian people and its use of the death penalty. Already back in 2013 the European Union imposed an arms embargo on Egypt as a response to the regime’s escalating violence. The embargo, however, is not legally binding and many European countries continue their arms exports to Egypt
With a whole generation of activists traumatised by the events of the past 6 years, it is difficult to imagine Egypt heading towards a democratic future any time soon. The fact that Western countries continue to collaborate with and support al-Sisi’s regime makes it even more difficult.
Despite the challenges Egypt’s civil society has faced, it continues to find new ways of surviving. My source explains that “civil society takes such different shapes in Egypt. (…) We have a lot of opposition. We have a lot of human rights lawsuits that are filed against the government itself. And we still win some.” Though the demonstrations on September 20th may not lead to the kind of justice many Egyptians wish for, hope can still be found in Egyptian civil society’s ability to survive.