The Price of Security: Egyptian Freedom in the Age of Sisi

Ever since the Arab Spring, Egyptian politics have been a mess. Beginning with the successful ousting of US-backed technocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Egyptian people have been taken on a tumultuous political journey.

After winning Egypt’s first democratic presidential election by a razor thin margin, Muhammad Morsi of the Egyptian Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), initiated a constitutional crisis by attempting to set his newfound executive authority above the oversight of the Judiciary branch. This largely came in response to popular pressure to remove the influence of the Supreme Council of the Armed forces (SCAF), which had also set itself above the 1971 constitution when acting as the interim government. The resulting firestorm of protests and military backed coup removing Morsi from power have all added up to give the Egyptian Revolution a decidedly lukewarm legacy. Even with the democratic election of Mubarak era military general Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in June, support for the government remains low, best exemplified in Sisi’s cartoonishly large victory margin which stems from his ban of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most successful post-Mubarak political organization in Egypt and the major political group backing the FJP, from the political process.

While Egypt was stealing all of the headlines a little more than a year ago with the spectacle of revolution and its own first (ill fated) democratic election, surprisingly little has been said of the country since Sisi rose to power. Casting himself as a populist strongman capable of taming Egypt’s tumultuous political landscape, he has unfortunately made good on his promise through a series of increasingly controversial moves.

From the onset, Sisi’s administration has been defined by its crackdown on political activists. Playing upon the desires of the Egyptian people to see some semblance of stability re-emerge within the political system, Sisi has focused upon casting himself as a pragmatic and moderate reformer. By using his own version of Islam as a battering ram against constituencies that traditionally align with the FJP, Sisi rose to power in a way that appeared to placate both those suing for security as well as the more militant Islamist base within the Egyptian electorate.

Unfortunately, the crackdown was not merely a well-played political gesture. As many have been quick to point out, one of Sisi’s first acts as President was a vicious crackdown on members of the Muslim Brotherhood staging a peaceful protest of the coup and demanding greater oversight over the Sisi administration. Human Rights watch estimated that the crackdowns at Rab’a al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Squares alone killed over 900 people. More distressingly, their report concluded “[that] the government used disproportionate force, failed to take measures to minimize loss of life, and knowingly opened fire on unarmed protesters with live ammunition, therein committing serious violations of international human rights laws…coupled with evidence indicating that the government anticipated and planned to engage in mass unlawful killings, i.e. murder”

Rather than cooperating with the international community in order to detect possible abuses of power within his administration, Sisi has instead opted to condemn NGO’s like HRW for their work. Sisi has also further ramped up anti-protest measures by arresting over 22,000 peaceful protesters.

Asking the international community to accept the quasi-democratic election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is already a stretch. Though his rise to prominence was largely dictated by circumstance, it is too much for anyone genuinely concerned with human rights to bear to see a democratic election be used to re entrench a dictatorship. If the international community cares at all about the legacy of the Arab Spring, and all it stands for, now would be the time to act. The United States could add provisos to its aid, attached to demanding improvement in Sisi’s abysmal human rights record, and the EU could connect future trade ties to similar measures.

An excellent example of this principle in action occurred when US Senator Patrick Leahy, America’s longest serving senator currently in office and head of the Senate appropriations committee, refused to give support for the Obama administration’s plan to send a massive aid package to Egypt. The package, according to the Atlantic Council, was to include “125 M1A1 battle tank kits, twenty F-16 fighter jets, twenty Harpoon cruise missiles, and ten Apache attack helicopters.” The continuous supply of aid is critical for the military, as its largely American-made arsenal requires a great deal of maintenance in order to function, providing valuable leverage for Americans concerned with the legitimacy of the regime.

Leahy’s opposition occurred in response to the infamous Minya Court ruling, which saw 529 people sentenced to death in under an hour-many in absentia, and all without any proper defense- for their alleged connections to an attack on a police station in 2013. Though negotiations between Leahy and members of the Obama administration had resulted in an agreement that will see the helicopters sent off this November, the rest of the supplies have all been retained under the provision that they will not be delivered until Egypt makes steps ‘towards a more inclusive democracy’, a proviso unparalleled in the history of U.S. Egyptian relations.

All of this also has a very strong lesson for those concerned with America’s responsibility to act in the global community. As examples from Libya to Syria best attest, the continual problem that the United States has had in acting in the international community in recent years has been its focus on military based solutions to very complex problems. A sort of might makes right approach, only, we are assured, with more nuance. Unfortunately, this has had the predictable consequence of not only increasing the likelihood for instability, but also encouraging regional or intrastate actors to find solutions through raw coercion.

Ultimately, this may be the greater, darker legacy of the Arab Spring. That those states that have received the greatest amount of attention from the United States-invariably in a military fashion- have seen their revolutions crumble or decay. In Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and so many other countries that found themselves in the throes of a genuinely democratic impulse, such a force has been invariably destabilizing. It is telling that the first country to be swept up in the protests, Tunisia, saw its revolution occur at a rate too quick to see an international response. It will also be having its first democratic election next week. While some, such as Egypt, may have been able to avoid an all out war because of Washington sheltering influence, it has all come at a terrible price. A price that all future revolutions continue to be forced to pay, and that Egyptians have paid all too dearly for: the price of security.

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