IT IS hard to gauge the popularity of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, but most Egyptians seem to approve of their president. The turbulence of recent years, starting with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and through the chaotic presidency of Muhammad Morsi, who was himself toppled in 2013, has left many longing for order and stability. Mr Sisi, a former general, has provided both. The sense of relief is captured in a catchphrase of pro-government types: “At least we are not Iraq or Syria.”
But at what price? As Mr Sisi has kept Egypt from descending into mayhem, he has unremittingly repressed critics. Several thousand dissidents, both secular and Islamist, have been jailed; at least a thousand were killed. “We don’t have the luxury to fight and feud,” says the president. But his authoritarian habits leave Egypt looking a lot as it did before the Arab spring, when Mr Mubarak, another military man, ruled with an iron first. The repression is even worse now, say many.
The Muslim Brotherhood of Mr Morsi has borne the brunt of the crackdown. Mr Sisi, the power behind the coup, has stripped the Islamist group of power and crushed it, labelling it a terrorist organisation. Hundreds of its supporters have been killed by state-security forces during protests. The politicised judiciary has handed down death sentences (many since commuted) to hundreds more. Mr Morsi got off relatively lightly on April 21st when he received a 20-year sentence for, ironically, inciting the killing of demonstrators in 2012. But he still faces two more capital charges.
Bemoaning the dismal political climate, several opposition parties decided to boycott parliamentary elections that had been scheduled for March. These would have been held in an “environment full of oppression, hatred and vendetta”, said the Building and Development Party, which is Islamist. The liberal Constitution Party criticised the government’s “grave human-rights violations”. The vote was postponed after the law governing it was found to be unconstitutional. Critics say that it was designed to create a parliament in thrall to the president, who continues to rule unchecked. But few think the new law, expected by the end of the year, will be fairer.
Mr Sisi has urged all parties to form “one inclusive coalition” that he could back—and, presumably, would back him. This is a favourite tactic. The president often appeals for unity. Last year he asked the press to “be gentle with the Egyptian people” and “take care of what you’re saying.” But in portraying himself as Egypt’s protector, he has turned his critics into enemies of the state. And his government’s less public appeals for solidarity sound rather more like demands.
During Mr Sisi’s run for the presidency in 2014, his aides allegedly instructed television presenters on how to promote his candidacy, according to leaked audio recordings. (Mr Sisi was to be portrayed as a modest man.) Pro-Brotherhood media outlets have been closed down. Most of the private media, controlled by a small elite, have refrained from criticising the government, while parroting its views. Noting the self-censorship, Kholoud Saber of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression says “the general atmosphere of the media is the worst ever now.”
That said, some outlets have grown more assertive, and they have also come under the cosh. Several papers, both private- and state-owned, have recently criticised abuses by the police and the interior ministry. The ministry has responded with arrests and intimidation. Foreign reporters have been targeted, too. Three journalists for Al Jazeera, the Qatari satellite television network that is sympathetic to the Brotherhood, spent 400 days in jail for allegedly harming national security. Their trial was a sham, say human-rights groups.
Civil society has fared no better. Under Mr Mubarak NGOs were tolerated, so long as they trod lightly; under Mr Morsi they were largely ignored. But under Mr Sisi “there is no hope,” says Muhammad Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. His group has moved most of its staff to Tunisia after receiving threats. Other groups, such as Human Rights Watch and the Carter Centre, both based in America, have left.
Those that remain have been obliged to register with the aptly named ministry of social solidarity under an old but rarely enforced law that gives the government broad authority over their activities and funding. Vaguely worded bans on protests and terrorist groups have been used to harass NGOs and imprison staff. A terrorism law decreed in December could ensnare more activists: those who seek to “harm the national interest”, “compromise national unity” or “breach security or public peace” face life in prison if they are financed by foreigners. Most big civil-society groups in Egypt get money from abroad because it is hard to raise at home.
The government has aroused ordinary people’s fear of foreign meddling—supposedly by America, Europe and Israel—to rally Egyptians behind its crackdown, even as it asks many of the same foreigners to invest in Egypt’s economy. In fact, activists complain of a lack of pressure on Mr Sisi from abroad. Many foreign governments see him as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in the region. America, which could influence the government by withholding military aid, is still sending arms.
Mr Sisi thinks he is misunderstood. Wooing foreign investors at an economic conference in March, he emphasised the stability that his rule has brought. Security and prosperity, he argues, are necessary precursors to greater liberty. But often he appears more interested in enhancing his own power, and his actions may be self-defeating. Egyptians now have few outlets for their grievances. Faced with such oppression in the past, some have found other, often violent, ways to express their opinions. Bombings by radical groups are becoming more frequent—giving Mr Sisi even more reasons to tighten his grip.