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The World

Aug 29, 2017

Egypt’s government tightens authoritarian control

With the Arab Spring and the attention of the international media now in the past, Egypt is still struggling with repressive governmental control and increasingly volatile attacks on human rights, writes freelance journalist Salma Islam.

For two years between 2011 and 2013 images of protesters in Egypt were a constant feature on news channels internationally. The streets of Cairo’s downtown district transformed into huge waves of demonstrators, demanding that leaders listen to the will of Egyptians. Yet walking through the traffic-clogged streets of downtown Cairo today, there is little evidence left that such extraordinary and regular demonstrations were once the norm.  

The space for dissent has shrunk drastically in Egypt in recent years. Observers says the country is experiencing repression with a greater severity than what Egyptians experienced under the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in the heady and hopeful days of Egypt’s revolution in 2011 by popular protest.

Ever since the revolution seemingly ended in 2013 — after the presidency of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s first democratically elected president was prematurely cut short by the military following popular protests — Egypt has been in the throes of a brutal and wide-ranging crackdown on dissent.

It has ensnared political opponents, activists, judges and journalists. Human Rights Watch estimates that there are at least 40,000 political prisoners languishing in Egypt. And protesting — the tool through which Egyptians fought for their rights for two years — has become near impossible after a law introduced in late 2013 placed restrictions on demonstrations.

There are so few left to challenge the Egyptian regime’s authority, and those that are have had their ability to do so significantly crippled by the Egyptian regime. Yet the regime under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was head of the army when Morsi was removed before becoming president in 2014, has this year displayed its intent to quieten the remaining dissenting voices, no matter how debilitated they already are, marking a new phase in the crackdown.

Intensifying repression of basic freedoms

“It has been a difficult phase,” one Egyptian journalist told Crikey about working for Mada Masr — an independent news website in Egypt. The journalist, who asked not to be named out of concerns for their safety, was referring to the blockade of websites including Mada Masr — known for its critical coverage of the government — which the authorities started in May.

Whilst Mada Masr is still available through use of some proxies, and the publication has also resorted to publishing its articles on social media, the journalist admits there is uncertainty over the publication’s future. “We are still not certain if there is an investigation against Mada or not, and we do not know if we will ever be back online or not,” they said.

It has turned out to be a massive assault on internet freedoms in Egypt: initially 21 news sites were blocked, including international sites like Al Jazeera and the Huffington Post Arabic, as well as Egyptian ones like Mada Masr. Since then the number of websites blocked has increased to 127, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and has widened in scope. It’s now expanded to rights groups like Reporters Without Borders and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information as well as VPNs — making it harder to access the blocked websites through other means.

While press freedoms have been significantly eroded the past few years and censorship has been on the rise, the CPJ says that online censorship was nevertheless rare in Egypt.

And it’s not just the media that has been targeted of late. Human Rights Watch says the internet crackdown is part of a wider effort by the regime in “intensifying repression of basic freedoms” in Egypt.

Since April the authorities have been arresting political activists including the prominent rights lawyer, Khaled Ali, who announced in February that he was considering challenging Sisi in next year’s presidential elections. As of June, 190 political activists have been arrested.

In late April Sisi strengthened his control over Egypt’s courts when he ratified reforms giving himself new power to appoint the most senior members of the judiciary. The move — which analysts say was done to prevent the promotion of two rebellious judges — has been criticised by judges and rights groups, who say it endangers the remaining semblance of independence in Egypt’s judiciary.

The following month, Sisi turned his attention to civil society. He ratified a controversial NGO law that rights groups say criminalises the work of NGOs and makes it difficult for them to operate independently. The law marks an extension on the crackdown within the NGO community to developmental organisations too, says Mohamed Zaraa, a member of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Several human rights organisations, including Zaraa’s own, have long been targeted by this regime through a long running legal investigation on charges of using foreign funding to destabilise Egypt. “I think this law isn’t targeting human rights organisations, but civil society at large,” said Zaraa, who like many activists has been slapped with a travel ban.

The Trump effect

Analysts say that this new phase in the repression is because Sisi is looking to consolidate his position ahead of next year’s presidential elections. It’s widely believed to have also been timed to remove critics ahead of a controversial parliamentary vote in June on Sisi’s decision to cede control of two Red Sea islands to its powerful ally Saudi Arabia. The widely unpopular pact — even deemed treacherous by some — sparked rare street protests against the regime last year when it was announced.

Some observers suggest the President, who appears sensitive to criticism, has also been left feeling insecure about public criticism over cuts in food and fuel subsidies, and rising inflation, after last year’s IMF loan agreement. He has also faced criticism over his security strategy after four deadly attacks by the Islamic State group on Egypt’s Copts since December.

Sisi faces little pressure from Western leaders on human rights, as European powers like France, Germany, the UK and the EU itself have moved to strengthen ties with Egypt in recent years, deeming it a vital strategic partner.

The presidency of Donald Trump, who appeared to have quickly developed a close bond with Sisi, evidenced by Trump complimenting Sisi on his “nice shoes”, has also given him confidence at home, says Amro Ali, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.

“It all boils down, in large part, to the Trump effect. When Trump told Sisi ‘nice shoes’, it was a signal to Sisi, metaphorically, to use them to further trample on human rights,” Ali said.

“There is something banal about the Trump small talk and avoidance of serious issues (not that we have high expectations of Trump anyway) that has emboldened Egypt’s usual widespread crackdowns to shift gear into destroying potential, rather than actual, threats. From arresting dormant activists to blocking websites, among other things.”

But in a surprise move last week the US cut or delayed close around $300 million in aid to Egypt. The US State Department said that this was because of the NGO law and deterioration in human rights in Egypt, though the New York Times reported this could also be down to Egypt’s ties to North Korea.

This may yet provide a glimmer of hope for exhausted opponents of the Sisi regime, like activist Zaraa who says international pressure is key to alleviating their plight or at least preventing it from getting even worse. “If there is no [international] pressure” he said, “then definitely the crackdown will continue.”

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