Since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power last year, his country is looking more and more like a reinvigorated security state. His method of governance is one that sucks the life out of the democratic and pluralistic aspirations that millions of Egyptians embraced after President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in 2011. Judging by the brazen terror attacks in Cairo and northern Sinai in the past week, it also seems to be aggravating, rather than improving, the country's security.
The performance of Sisi’s government during this past year should sound alarm bells for the whole region, because Egyptian innovations, whether positive or negative, tend to fan out and influence other Arab countries. It also ought to prompt some serious thinking in Western capitals that claim to promote democratic pluralism and the rule of law. Is the best way for the West to engage with Egypt today to conduct business as usual with Sisi’s authoritarian regime?
In June-July 2013, then-Field Marshal Sisi rode a wave of anti-government protests as the military helped to overthrow elected President Mohammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi genuinely inspired millions of frenzied Egyptians who longed for a strong nationalist leader capable of stopping the bleeding in the economic, political and security sectors after a year of erratic and progressively troubling Muslim Brotherhood rule. In contrast to Morsi, under whose watch the availability of electricity and gasoline deteriorated, Sisi sold himself as the nationalist savior who would make things right. He projected the will and ability to lead Egyptians back to their former glories as political, cultural and economic leaders of the Arab world.
Two years after Morsi’s military-assisted ouster, Egypt is stuck with a leadership that came to power through direct intervention of the armed forces, and a political system that radically limits any dissenting voices. Egyptians’ support of Sisi has returned the country to a state comparable to the strongman days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser set the precedent for military rule and severe controls on the flow of information and knowledge, arguably the two greatest constraints on human and national development in the Arab world since 1952.
The country is now paying the price. Virtually every impartial assessment of Egypt in its domestic human rights conditions, democratization and the rule of law.
After Sisi was elected, he removed many subsidies on basic needs and raised taxes in an effort to attack long-standing distortions in the Egyptian economy and stop the fiscal bleeding that was threatening the country’s long-term solvency. Nevertheless, the Egyptian economy is struggling to keep up with its growing population: Around 1.5 million new Egyptians are born every year, adding to the estimated current population of almost 90 million.
The World Bank reports that Sisi’s reforms have triggered some initial positive trends. The rate of economic growth, which increased by 2.2 percent in 2014, is set to almost double over the next fiscal year. Meanwhile, Egypt's budget deficit is expected to decline to 11.3 percent of GDP, compared to 12.8 percent in 2014.
The problem is that Egypt's economy isn't growing organically. It’s propped up by massive injections of aid of more than $25 billion from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the U.S. and other wealthy countries. This is probably not sustainable.
Sisi will face his own set of citizen grievances and turbulence when it becomes clear that his reforms will not quickly improve the well-being of most Egyptians.
What's more, the World Bank was touting very similar figures for Egypt between 2006 and 2010 when social ills, economic stagnation, and political grievances were rising at a much faster pace than the reported 6-percent annual economic expansion.
It was precisely these conditions that sparked the January 2011 revolution. Those same pressures are likely to build up again in the years ahead, and Sisi himself may well face his own set of citizen grievances, turbulence and activism when it becomes clear that his reforms will not quickly improve the well-being of most Egyptians.
We should not overlook, as we did in the years prior to 2011, the negative impact of the combination of political controls and economic constraints on ordinary Egyptians, either. For example, Egypt’s position has declined sharply since 2004 in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, which measures how citizens experience the rule of law in areas such as corruption, open government, fundamental rights, the judiciary, and order and security. In the important “fundamental rights” index, which includes legal protection and freedom of expression, Egypt ranked 98th among the 102 countries surveyed.
Reports by Egyptian and international human rights groups similarly criticize the state’s increasing pressures on personal and political freedoms. The respected Egyptian Center for Economic and Social rights said in a recent report that the government had detained, charged or sentenced at least 41,000 people between July 2013 and May 2015. Many detainees were held without trial, and others had simply disappeared into a prison system bursting at the seams. Prisons were reported to have been at 160 percent capacity, and police stations at 300 percent.
Egyptians, on their part, have grown more concerned about the number of Muslim Brotherhood members and other political activists who have been arrested or who simply disappeared. The Egyptian Coordination of Rights and Freedoms says more than 210 such cases have been documented since May. These incidents are increasingly passed on to the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearance, which should generate greater international scrutiny of developments in the country.
Getting your day in court is a problem in its own right, as the mass trials of hundreds of defendants have resulted in life in prison or even executions — 547 people, including ex-president Morsi, were sentenced to death in the past year.
Many of the death sentences are likely to be reduced or annulled. Still, thousands remain in jail for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood or other leftist or student activist groups that Sisi banned. Last February, for instance, activist Ahmed Douma, women’s rights defender Hend al-Nafea, and 228 others received life sentences for participating in a December 2011 protest.
The first year of President Sisi's incumbency thus offers ample evidence that reverting to military rule, silencing pluralistic opposition and controlling the ideas and news that circulate in society cannot chart the path to a better Arab future.
Let’s hope that Sisi and his entourage grasp this reality soon and shift course, rather than repeat the debilitating military rule that ultimately brought Egypt to its knees in the past two generations. Citizens’ rights, anchored in a credible democracy, are more likely to open the minds and vitality of Egypt’s 90 million people than the current regime of repression, dependence and fear.