Stability in Egypt?

Opinion Articles

Egypt’s President Sisi visited New York to speak at the United Nations General Assembly a few weeks ago, and just this weekend was the host for the donors’ conference on rebuilding Gaza. Much of the world, including the United States government, seems content to believe that all is well in Egypt.

But yesterday police stormed university campuses in Cairo. Here’s the story:

Security officials say police backed by armored vehicles have stormed the campuses of at least two prominent Egyptian universities to quell anti-government protests by students. Sunday’s largest rallies took place at Cairo and the Islamist al-Azhar universities. They were organized by supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi….A security official said at least six people were arrested at al-Azhar, where police fired tear gas….Authorities have intensified security at universities nationwide to prevent the resurgence of student protests.

Armored vehicles and tear gas do not sound like stability; they sound like repression. And indeed there is a great deal of repression in Egypt. It’s no surprise: 51% of the voters supported President Morsi when he ran, and some percentage of them must have opposed his overthrow in the military coup. Many Egyptian liberals and democrats supported that coup out of fear that Morsi was creating a dictatorship, a fear that I shared. Briefly that created an alliance of liberal and democratic forces with the Army. But today Sisi is presiding over repression not only of Islamist forces and the Brotherhood, and instead there is repression of those groups plus the centrist, liberal, and democratic groups that want a far more open Egypt than the Army wishes to permit. Like Morsi, Sisi jails journalists that criticize his government; here is the most recent comment from the Committee to Protect Journalists. There are thousands of political prisoners in Egypt now, and the judiciary has been brought under government control. Sisi appears resolute in crushing not Islamism but dissent, an approach that is of course reminiscent of the Mubarak years. No doubt the Brotherhood scared many Egyptians during its year in power, but did they want another disguised military regime when they first overthrew Mubarak and then applauded the overthrow of Morsi?

I’m a member of the Working Group on Egypt, a non-partisan and informal group of former officials, academics, and NGO experts, and we wrote an open letter to President Obama just before the General Assembly met last month. Here’s the full text, and here is an excerpt:

Whatever assistance al-Sisi may or may not provide in the fight against violent extremism in the region is already outweighed by the radicalism and instability he is cultivating every day in Egypt through his oppressive policies….There is great concern that al-Sisi’s rule is fueling radicalization; violence and terrorism in Egypt have increased markedly since the July 2013 coup, as the regime continues to close off avenues for peaceful political dissent. The post-coup crackdown has left more than 2000 protesters dead—including more than 1000 killed deliberately and systematically on a single day in August 2013, rivaling the Tiananmen massacre. Tens of thousands more are in prison, many detained without charge for extended periods or subject to mass trials in rigged courts, suffering torture and inhumane conditions. There are now more than 70 imprisoned Egyptians on extended hunger strikes protesting this brutality, and several are at death’s door, including American citizen Mohammed Soltan and youth leader Ahmed Douma. Sisi’s government is also exerting increasing pressure on the few remaining Egyptian civil society groups that report on or criticize human rights abuses, particularly if they dare to cooperate with international organizations or accept their support.

No doubt Sisi’s future depends in large part on whether he can produce prosperity, but his Egypt is not stable. There is a real danger of violent extremism, but Sisi’s repressive tactics will alienate more and more Egyptians over time, and will exacerbate not diminish that danger.

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