Debates in Washington and London about the desirability and compatibility of democracy in the Arab world were shushed in the spring of 2011 by the Egyptian people themselves. The courage and determination of their 18-day uprising in which 900 gave their lives to bring down the Western-backed tyrant Hosni Mubarak inspired supporters of democracy everywhere. Millions of ordinary men and women dared to demand the dignity of citizenship, the sovereign power of an electorate to shape a country’s destiny and to hold its leaders democratically accountable. And, as if finally relieved of the burden of being tethered to Mubarak’s dysfunctional autocracy, his erstwhile Western backers applauded.
Four years later, however, in an amnesiac about-face, Western elites now applaud a new Egyptian despot who has unleashed state violence more intense than anything Mubarak did with the same goal of smashing his citizens’ democratic spirit. Now, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the latest iteration of the Egyptian strongman, is the toast of Davos, where conventional wisdom holds that the Arab Spring is dead. But if Western elites have changed their minds about Arab democracy, Egyptians have not — and Sisi’s authoritarianism offers no solution to the grievances that brought millions to the streets to oust Mubarak.
Egypt remains a corrupt, repressive police state riddled with mass unemployment and the grinding burden of poverty and despair. It was that volatile combination that brought people onto the streets to oust Mubarak, and some of the same issues were used to mobilize opposition to the first democratically elected government of President Mohammed Morsi. Nothing that Sisi has done since ending the democratic interlude in 2013 has changed those basic facts, which will surely, sooner or later, ignite a new phase of revolution.
The hopes of the rebellion of 2011 remain in limbo, bloodied but neither defeated nor assuaged, as the old regime – with new faces – has been restored in Cairo. Mubarak has been freed from prison by Sisi, a general-turned-politician like himself. Instead, Sisi has imprisoned Egypt’s first freely elected president Morsi, and launched a crackdown on all political opposition so vicious that Mubarak’s regime looks tame by comparison.
Almost 40 000 people have been detained in prison camps without trial (or put on farcical show trials), tortured, raped and murdered. The Muslim Brotherhood, which easily won Egypt’s first ever democratic elections, has simply been outlawed and labeled “terrorist.” Every opponent or critic of the regime, secular and Islamist alike, have seen its supporters massacred and leaders imprisoned or forced into exile. Journalists weren’t spared, international human rights monitors are denied access to the country, and protest and dissent outlawed and violently suppressed.
Sisi, like Mubarak, attained power by virtue of his position in the military, the backbone of the old regime and of the one that overthrew the new.
The military establishment had shunted Mubarak aside when his persona became a liability, but it never entirely ceded power. Instead, it played competing political elements against one another, while protecting its own institutional and economic prerogatives. Civilian government authority over a military rewarded with an annual U.S. stipend remains unthinkable in Cairo, as does any notion that the generals might relinquish a business empire that controls up to 40 percent of Egypt’s economy.
Meanwhile, by measure of every grievance that brought them to Tahrir Square four years ago, ordinary Egyptians are worse off today than they were under Mubarak. The state is unable to feed its population, and hunger threatens to spur ordinary people to rebellion. Sisi’s police state finds itself having to work harder than Mubarak’s did to suppress demands for change. But there are growing signs that the new regime’s repression strategy will not work to enforce quiescence in a population, Egyptians are likely to rise again, having had freedom, As a pan Arab activist Iyad EL-Baghdadi put it, “if they won’t let us dream we won’t let them sleep
The great danger, of course, is that the lesson some will take from the violent suppression of democracy in Egypt is that the path of peaceful political participation is a naïve one, and that state violence should be answered with terrorist violence — and by doing so, create a rationale for more state violence and repression. To the extent that Sisi succeeds in eliminating non-violent channels of political opposition, he makes a self-fulfilling prophesy of his narrative of an Egypt besieged by terrorism. Having closed down one of the most promising democratic openings in the Middle East in decades, Sisi is nurturing the next generation of extremists, whose motivations come from their lived reality long before it is reinforced by text books
Western policymakers have known since 9/11 that Arab authoritarianism breeds Arab extremism; yet the same Western elites who rightly turned their backs on Mubarak now hail Sisi as a pillar of liberty and hope.
Welcoming Sisi to Davos — or his foreign minister to the Charlie Hebdo march in Paris — simply highlights Western double standards in supporting regimes while calling for free speech. Charlie Hebdo attack was shocking, as was everyone flocking to King Abdullah’s funeral last week. Those ostensibly sacrosanct principles are simply ignored by the West when they are systematically violated by friendly Arab autocrats. Nothing symbolized this betrayal as much as the fate of Shaimaa al-Sabagh, the 32-year-old Egyptian socialist who was shot dead while trying to lay roses in Tahrir Square a day after Sisi’s speech at Davos.
Sisi, like Mubarak before him, demands Western sympathy and support because he faces terrorism. The irony is that Sisi is more repressive compared to Morsi, who everyone feared would be the repressive regime. While there are certainly extremist groups operating on the fringes of Egyptian society, particularly in Sinai, Sisi’s definition of “terrorists” extends to the country’s most popular political party. Sisi, by autocratic edict, has turned as much as half of the citizenry into terrorists. That’s a dangerous strategy. While the Muslim Brotherhood maintains a firm rejection of violence. the leadership that languishes in jail may lose control of younger, angrier followers.
The stability promised by President Sisi may be short-lived. And it’s a reckless bet for a Western leadership that knows better.