Six year after its democratic revolution in January 25, 2011, Egypt’s political realities are back to square one. Once again, a military officer has been installed in the presidential palace after an election that lacked any measure of democratic competition.
Images of citizens waiting in long queues to cast their votes in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011 and 2012 have been replaced with ugly scenes of police units rounding up young Egyptians after attempted peaceful demonstrations and with confirmed reports of torture in places of custody and forced disappearances.
Although this authoritarianism is not the country’s first contemporary encounter with undemocratic rule, the fact that it has emerged after a brief democratic opening and a period of citizens’ activism has meant that the ruling military junta, in their quest for power, has resorted to unprecedented aggressions on human rights and freedoms and on the fragile social fabric. As a result, the state apparatus has lost all the checks and balances between an overly dominant military-security complex and its weakened civilian components.
To this end, Egypt’s new authoritarianism has used various tactics and tools, ranging from outright repression to undemocratic law-making and judicial manipulation.
Soon after the 2013 military coup, daily bouts of violence and human rights abuses sponsored by the state had begun to shake Egyptian society and challenge the generals’ claim that their rule was to save the most populous Middle Eastern country from the outbreak of civil strife.
Repression has allowed the ruling junta to induce fear among citizens, to subdue civil society dissent and to eliminate competitive politics through human rights abuses.
Repression has been the major structuring reality of Egypt since 2013.
But it is not the only tool the new authoritarianism is using.
According to various human rights organisations, the number of those imprisoned between 2013 and 2017 has reached approximately 60,000. To accommodate them, the Egyptian authorities have begun building 10 additional prisons.
Reports of forced disappearances documented by local and international human rights organisations put the rate of disappearance at an average of three to four cases a day. There were mass killings when army and security forces disbanded the sit-ins organised by the Muslim Brotherhood supporters in al-Nahda and Rabaa on August 14, 2013.
Local human rights organisations reported 326 cases of extra judicial killings in 2015, a number which rose to 754 cases in the first half of 2016 alone. In August 2016, the Egyptian Coordination of Rights and Freedoms released a report on prison conditions in Egypt, documenting 1,344 incidents of torture – including direct torture and intentional medical neglect – in detention facilities and prisons between 2015 and 2016.
Several international human rights organisations have confirmed the same shocking findings.
Repression has allowed the ruling junta to induce fear among citizens, to subdue civil society dissent and to eliminate competitive politics.
The eventual goal is to abrogate the freedom of expression and association.
A few years into Egypt’s new authoritarianism, citizens have been herded away from the public space that has been shrinking thanks to government’s crackdown on independent civil society organisations and opposition political parties.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s ruling elite has failed to deliver on the promises made as they stalled the democratic opening and asserted control over state and society.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the army chief during the 2013 coup, initially portrayed his ascendency to power as the only way to end the threat of terrorism blamed on the ousted President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Backed by the military establishment, Sisi presented himself as the ultimate guarantor of restoring stability and improving the living conditions of the majority. It was within this context that wide segments of the population, especially those opposed to the democratic opening, supported the coup and saw in Sisi a saviour in uniform.
Although the generals have continued to repeat these promises over the past years, the situation on the ground has deteriorated drastically. The threat of terrorism, predominantly in Sinai – and to a lesser extent on the mainland – has not diminished.
The continuation of terrorist attacks since 2013, as well as the involvement of the military and security forces in indiscriminate killings and other human rights abuses in Sinai, are forcing many Egyptians to question whether the government’s “war of terror” is being pursued efficiently.
The implementation of forced evacuation policies targeting some local communities in Sinai, along with dramatically deteriorated living conditions, have created an environment informed by grievances and radicalisation.
On the other hand, the country’s economic and social conditions have worsened. The government has been pursuing a reform programme endorsed by the International Monetary Fund. It is designed to address structural issues such as the huge budget deficit, official overspending, state subsidies and currency floatation.
However, this long-term programme is not expected to improve the economic conditions in the near future, nor lessen the social suffering resulting from high poverty rates [27.8 percent] and unemployment rate [12.6 percent] in 2016.
Indeed, the IMF-approved programme has hit the poor and needy segments of the population, as well as the middle classes, hard as inflation rates have soared – reaching 25 percent in December 2016 and January 2017. The currency has been massively devaluated, losing close to 50 percent of its previous value.
Adding to this economic malaise, the financial support which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have extended to the government since the 2013 coup, has been declining since 2015.
Due to such instability in the security and political situation, western investment has not significantly increased.
Many of the government’s economic, social, and developmental policies have proved unsuccessful as well. These policies include investing public resources in funding mega building projects with uncertain returns and without any public scrutiny or oversight.
Also problematic is the fact that projects such as the Second Suez Channel and the New Administrative Capital are managed directly by the economic arm of the military establishment, which is not subjected to effective transparency and accountability measures originating from other official institutions or from civil society.
Only a few programmes implemented to help the poor – most notably the cash payment programme named Takaful wa Karama – Solidarity and Dignity – which the Ministry of Social Solidarity oversees, have been rated successful by independent sources.
Egypt’s new authoritarianism cannot rely on the promise of restoring security and improving the living conditions of the majority to justify to the public its elimination of the democratic opening that preceded it and its heavy-handed ruling techniques.
Therefore, it has depended on a web of alternative narratives to justify its repression through security-controlled media institutions, which include conspiracy theories, defamation campaigns and hate speech against voices of dissent.
Since 2013, the list of public enemies and conspirators has been expanding in the discourse of the security-controlled public and private media outlets. Besides the Muslim Brotherhood and oppositional Salafi movements that were classified as “enemies of the nation” from the outset of the coup, the list also includes human rights activists and pro-democracy civil society leaders who have condemned the government’s repression and refused to remain silent in face of terrifying abuses.
The list has come to include groups of young Egyptians, students, industrial workers and civil servants whose peaceful activism has not diminished despite police brutality and other repressive measures.
These groups, labelled by Sisi as “people of evil”, have been implicated by the government in alleged plots and conspiracies to undermine the nation’s stability, to impose chaos and to fragment the state and the army.
Against a background of growing economic and social crises, rising political tensions and failed policies, the use of both religious and nationalistic populism has become key strategies utilised by the new authoritarianism to maintain its control over Egypt.
Religious populism elevates the ruler to the level of a moral paragon, who has the right to speak in the name of religion. Nationalistic populism, on the other hand, is used to justify the generals’ monopoly on power.
The government’s readiness to utilise conspiracy theories, defamation, hate speech and populism to justify repression, has made it easier for the military establishment to systematically violate citizens’ rights and to disregard the principles of the rule of law without fearing accountability.
It has also enabled the government to widen the scale of repression aimed at silencing the few voices of dissent that have emerged in the public space since the 2013 coup, and at constricting the pro-democracy mobilisation of students, youth, workers and civil servants.
Within the apparatus of the Egyptian state, it has also led to the predominance of the military establishment and the security and intelligence services, that is to the predominance of those institutions that have the power to unleash the use of excessive force on citizens and society.
This has greatly diminished any potential for civilian politics or for the balancing civil-military relations in post-2013 coup Egypt.
Finally, unlike the unfounded accusations levelled against human rights activists and pro-democracy groups that they have been out to impose chaos in Egypt since 2011, it is the new authoritarianism that, due to continuous abuses and violations, undermines stability and security.