Sisi's latest crackdown proves Egypt is far from stable

Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi

Today marks five years since Egyptians took to the streets to demand Hosni Mubarak stand down as president. Eighteen days later he did just that. In the five years that followed Egypt has been ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), had its first free and fair elections, removed its first elected president through a coup and installed Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, Mubarak’s former head of military intelligence, at the helm. In such uncertain times Al-Sisi’s fans revere him for bringing stability and security back to the country.

Yet in the days that led up to today’s anniversary Al-Sisi embarked on a number of pre-emptive measures to stop Egyptians taking to the streets once again. Police raided 5,000 flats close to Tahrir Square, rifled through phones, laptops and demanded access toFacebook accounts. They arrested suspects believed to be administrators of Facebook pages calling for anti-government protests. An art gallery, a theatre and a seminar café have all been raided and closed down. These are not the actions of a president ruling over a stable country.

Opponents of the government across the board are being rounded up. Last week the Egyptian government ratified a draft law outlawing the distribution of stickers, posters or photographs with the Rabaa symbol, which it claims promotes “terrorist” groups. The four-fingered salute became the symbol of anti-regime protestors who would gather in Rabaa Al-Adiwaya square to protest against the removal of Mohamed Morsi, the location of the 14 August massacre.

In December, members of the now banned April 6 movement were arrested on charges of calling for illegal protests. Mohamed Al-Taher, lawyer for the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, has been arrested as has activist and doctor Taher Mokhtar. Yesterday an American-Arabic student was arrested in a café in Giza after a fellow customer reported him to the police for talking about the January 25 Revolution and inciting others to protest.

This recent wave of arrests is part of a long-term strategy taking place in Egypt today. Over the course of his presidency Al-Sisi has imprisoned thousands of journalists, academics, students, activists, members of the opposition and demonstrators. Many are tried in military courts, sentenced by the judiciary to death and sent to prison where they are detained in inhumane conditions, tortured by police and denied medical care. Journalists attending protests have been targeted – for arrest and by snipers – whilst Egypt’s top presenters generally tow the government line.

Last year Ain Shams and Bani Suef Universities warned that students caught defaming public officials risked expulsion. In 2013 Al-Azhar University invited security services on campus to quash protests against the removal of Mohamed Morsi (which they did violently) in contrary to a law passed in 2010 that banned police from educational institutions. The leader of the Coptic Church and the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar publicly endorsed the military coup.

To the outsider it certainly seems as though all elements that make up the Egyptian state appear to work together to execute this repression. Some observers have questioned how much control Al-Sisi has on the different institutions of the state and report that there are murmurs of dissent from within the military and the judiciary for example, which stems from their desire to be independent. Whether this is true or not the goal and result are the same: quashing the opposition, without any due process or respect for human rights.

Meanwhile, Al-Sisi has done little to mend Egypt’s woes. The economy is doing badly, the poor have not been offered significant opportunities and police brutality is widely documented. That he won with 97 per cent of the vote proves electoral fraud is endemic, as is corruption and political censorship. Despite photo ops with the head of the Coptic Church and Al-Azhar, Al-Sisi’s focus on demonising the Muslim Brotherhood and his attempt to cast them as terrorists has played a huge part in pitting Egyptians against each other. In other words, all the factors that manufactured the despair which drove the 2011 revolution are still very much in place, worse even.

When Egyptians took to the streets five years ago the security forces didn’t know how to react. Pre-2011, protests in the capital certainly drew large numbers of police but in comparison there were few demonstrators. But if they were taken by surprise on 25 January 2011 they have since bounced back with a severe solution – rounding up anyone that criticises them and then torturing them, with the view to terrifying people so much they don’t dare to speak out.

Last Wednesday Students Against the Coup called on all free men, women and children who took part in the January 25 protests to take to the streets. “We must sacrifice, just as our brave brothers and sisters sacrificed,” read the statement. It’s hard to know how many will answer that call today and in the months to come; there are not many Egyptians left to protest, they are all behind bars.

Al-Sisi has abandoned Mubarak’s flexible authoritarianism and left no space at all for dissenting voices. Such a brutal crackdown only proves that there is still significant opposition to his rule. He would only have to open Egypt’s squares and streets for one day for the world to see that.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor