Today, Egyptians will take part in the third day of voting for constitutional amendments that would allow for President Abdel Fattah al Sisi to stay in power until 2030. This Critical Issues & Trends – Middle East post explains the background and significance of this vote to the situations in Egypt and the Middle East.
In 2010 the Arab Spring broke out in Egypt with the dramatic overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak held power in Egypt for 30 years thanks in large part to American support. In 2010 it was believed the Obama administration and the US would come to Mubarak’s aid against the rising tide and demand of reform in Egypt. This did not happen. Mubarak was instead tried for the murder of some of the Arab Spring protesters and sentenced to prison until 2017.
The new President of Egypt, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected and took office in 2012. Little more than a year later Morsi himself was overthrown in a military coup and Abdel Fattah al Sisi now operates as Egypt’s President.
Economic Issues in Egypt
In all of these transitions and upheavals, the basic complaints and frustrations raised by the Egyptian people during the Arab Spring have been left unresolved. Unemployment is still high. Prices are still high. Corruption is still rampant.
Drastic austerity measures within the economy have created more pain and frustrations for the people at large but produced economic improvements in Egypt’s situation. These measures have made the Sisi administration eligible for more loans and foreign aid through the International Monetary Fund even while the Egyptian people themselves fail to see a lot of improvement in their day to day situations and reality.
- See my previous post on the developments in Egypt: Danger in Egypt
Terrorism Issues in Egypt
Partnered to these domestic issues and at least partially in response to the failure of the protests in 2010, extremism is also on the rise. ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups have taken a greater foothold in Egypt since 2012.
President Sisi has struggled with the Sinai Insurgency, an extremist uprising in the Sinai. Extensive clashes and violence have resulted from this fight and terrorist activity has escalated within Egypt even while it is downplayed in reporting throughout much of the world.
In many instances, terrorist activity has focused not only on Egyptian political and military targets but also Muslim mosques and Christian minorities. In 2016 and 2017 multiple terrorist attacks against religious minorities and Christian churches dramatically escalated the death counts from terrorism in Egypt.
Human Rights Issues in Egypt
A dangerous mix has now developed in Egypt. Adding to the preexisting issues of corruption, economic dysfunction, rising levels of resentment among the public at large, and violent extremism, we must now add oppression from the Sisi government.
President Sisi is not resolving Egypt’s growing list of issues. Instead, he is seeking to contain them with greater levels of oppression and authoritarianism. In effect, he is seeking to silence those who draw attention to his unsuccessful policies and growing list of problems.
Human Rights Watch has noted that President Sisi is presiding over Egypt’s worst Human Rights crisis in decades. Amnesty International has reported that people can be arrested for no reason at all and described it as one of the worst periods in terms of crackdowns and arbitrary arrests in Egypt’s modern history. Sisi has used Egypt’s massive prison system to suppress any hint of opposition or unrest in the country.
More than 60,000 people were arrested in Egypt in 2016 as part of Sisi’s crackdown on terrorism. This was a year after the government acknowledged the prison system was 160% over capacity. Even while the prisons are overflowing more prisoners are added to the nation’s jails. Human Rights Watch has reported 18 new prisons built in Egypt in the last six years to help with the overcrowding.
According to a recent editorial in the Washington Post:
Since 2015, Egyptian security forces have announced the killings of more than 460 people, alleging that they were terrorists killed in action. While more than 300 of those killed remain unnamed, numerous forensic reports, as well as testimony and evidence contradict the narratives of the security forces, pointing instead to extrajudicial executions. Some of the victims were in police custody for months before their deaths.”
Extensive means and methods are used in this government crackdown on alleged terrorism. For example, an old law used by the British in Egypt during the colonial era (known as Law 10 of 1914 or the Assembly Law) has been resurrected to target protesters and even to issue mass death sentences.
Two weeks ago 30 men were convicted and sentenced for planning a terrorist attack which did not take place. At least ten of those who were convicted were not even present for the trial. In February, nine men were executed for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and acts of terrorism. At the time, this brought the Egyptian government’s total executions in 2019 to 15.
According to Amnesty International, many of these individuals say they were abducted from their homes by the police and forced to confess under torture. Families were notified by the government the bodies of the executed could be picked up at the morgue. More than 2,500 people have been sentenced to death by civilian and military courts in Egypt since 2013.
The Historical Relationship of Prisons and Terrorism
The world is not a stranger to the problems created in Egypt’s prison system. Historically, prisons have been a breeding ground for extremist ideology, allowing imprisoned radicals to leverage the oppression and injustice being dealt out by the government within the prison system to build more radicals and extremists.
Sayyid Qutb was part of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Free Officers Revolution in 1952 but he and Nasser soon parted ways. Qutb became more active with the Muslim Brotherhood and was imprisoned. In prison, he wrote his famous book Milestones which is seen as one of the founding documents for the ideologies and philosophies of modern Islamic extremists. He was eventually executed for his alleged part in a planned coup against Nasser.
After the assassination of Anwar Sadat in Egypt in 1981 the Egyptian government cracked down on radicals. One of the disturbing images of modern history is that of Ayman al-Zawahiri in an Egyptian prison cage shouting at western journalists after the assassination of Sadat.
Zawahiri was an educated man, a nationalist and frequently in trouble with the law from an early age. He stood out during this crackdown because he was yelling in English to the reporters.
“They kicked us, they beat us, they whipped us with electric cables, they shocked us with electricity. And they used the wild dogs! They used the wild dogs! And they hung us over the edges of doors with our hands tied at the back! They arrested the wives, the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, and the sons!”
The reference to the wild dogs was a reference to the Egyptian prison torture technique where dogs were used and trained to rape prisoners.
Zawahiri was already radicalized before going to prison. Still, it is easy to recognize how this torture and imprisonment helped to escalate his radicalization process.
Ayman al-Zawahiri went on to become Osama bin Laden’s second in command of al-Qaeda and since bin Laden’s death, he has continued to lead the terrorist organization.
Today the terrible pattern is being repeated. A new report from Foreign Policy asserts that Egypt’s Prisons are Becoming Recruiting Grounds for the Islamic State. Former prisoners recount how they were forced to watch torture sessions of suspected extremists while in prison.
One prisoner remembered, “They would handcuff their hands behind their backs and hang them from the ceiling until the moment their shoulder was dislocated. They used to electrify people in their sensitive parts.” Kids ages 13 to 18 were included in this torture.
Meanwhile, prisoners legitimately affiliated with ISIS leverage these atrocities to spark a thirst for revenge and extremists among the prisoners. The ranks of ISIS and other extremist groups grow as individuals are finally released from the prison system only to seek their revenge and justice against the Egyptian government.
The World’s Response
The global response to the deteriorating situation in Egypt has been mixed.
In a February meeting between the European Council and Arab League humanitarian issues were reportedly addressed in a closed door session. President al Sisi responded in a fiery public speech to reporters: “You are not going to teach us about humanity. We have our own sense of humanity, values and ethics, and you have your own idea of humanity and ethics, and we respect it. Respect our values and ethics, as we do yours.”
Presidents Trump and Obama both took initiatives to limit aid to Egypt on the basis of the government’s humanitarian record. Both presidents then removed these limits implying they were willing to tolerate the human rights abuses for the sake of Egypt’s aid in the war on terrorism.
This month President Sisi visited the United States and was commended by President Trump. President Trump feigned ignorance of the mounting humanitarian and democratic concerns in Egypt and explained, “I think he’s doing a great job. Great president.”
An important perspective on the situation in Egypt was recently presented by Brian Dooley from Human Rights First. He noted how the violent and chaotic Islamic Revolution in 1979 Iran was preceded by a period of widespread government oppression, including torture, against all forms of opposition toward the ruling Shah’s regime.
The United States backed the Shah at this time and did not recognize the levels of resentment and frustration that were about to boil over. Dooley asserts we are witnessing history repeat itself in Egypt today.