State Terror in Egypt: Is It Time for Accountability?

Arab Center Washington DC published an article by Sahar Khamis on February 20 titled “Egypt’s Puzzling Dilemma: Challenges and Obstructed Mobilization” that addressed Egypt’s current political atmosphere of repression. This follow-up article examines the Egyptian regime’s tools for such repression and the lack of pressure by western governments to hold it accountable for its policies. 

Egyptians have been living under a cruel dictatorship since the summer of 2013. The numbers of political detainees, extrajudicial killings, deaths in prison due to torture and medical negligence, forced disappearances, and mass trials and death sentences are by all accounts unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history. Furthermore, since General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi took office in 2014, Egypt has become a dark and terrifying place for political activists, opposition groups, journalists, civil society and human rights organizations, and even those who once were allied with Sisi after the coup of 2013. More importantly, Sisi’s repression is indiscriminate. It has reached people in all walks of political life including secularists, liberals, Islamists, leftists, and anyone who dares to criticize or oppose the regime. Therefore, it is not a surprise that Egypt’s record of human rights violations over the past seven years is simply horrible.

It Is State Terror in Egypt

How to describe and explain the brutal policies of Sisi’s regime is of paramount importance. Do they constitute an extreme version of authoritarianism, a new form of the state repression experienced under the Mubarak regime, or simply state terror? Conditions in Egypt are indicative of the latter. The level of suppression and cruelty against political prisoners, activists, journalists, and opposition figures is extraordinary. What is happening now in Egypt resembles, to a large extent, what happened under military dictatorships in Latin America and particularly in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and El Salvador during the 1970s and 1980s, which are often described as employing state terror.

A common understanding of terrorism, regardless of who commits it and whether it is by state or non-state actors, refers to the use of violence—or the threat of its use—in order to achieve political objectives. In the introduction to their book Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Practice, Jackson, et al. understand state terrorism “to be the intentional use or threat of violence by state agents or their proxies against individuals or groups who are victimized for the purpose of manipulating or frightening a broader audience.” State terror thus includes three key elements: 1) the use or threat of violence against civilians, either individuals (such as political activists, prisoners, and opposition leaders) or groups (such as political parties or civil society and human rights organizations; 2) the involvement of state agents and institutions such as police forces, the military, and state-backed media, among others; and 3) intimidation of the wider public in order to deter and subjugate it. Clearly, not only has Sisi’s regime met these three criteria, it has actually surpassed them by far. The numbers of victims who have suffered from torture, medical negligence, extrajudicial killings, massacres, and mass trials are unprecedented. They have far exceeded what the late Mubarak regime achieved during his 30-year rule, in numbers as well as in brutality.

The numbers of victims who have suffered from torture, medical negligence, extrajudicial killings, massacres, and mass trials are unprecedented.

Death as a Political Punishment

Death in Egyptian prisons has become a form of political punishment. The number of political prisoners who have died in jails and police detention centers in the past few years is staggering. According to human rights and media reports,1 hundreds of prisoners have died since 2016, many as a result of torture and medical negligence. For example, Moustafa Kassem, an Egyptian-American citizen, died in Egypt’s notorious Tora prison on January 13, 2020. Kassem, a 54-year-old taxi driver from New York, was arrested in August 2013 and remained in jail until he died. Prior to his death, Kassem went on a hunger strike to protest the brutal and inhumane conditions he faced in prison, which resulted in the heart failure that led to his death. Three weeks before Kassem’s tragic death, Maryam Salem, a 32-year-old woman, died inside Egypt’s women’s Al-Qanater prison after her health had deteriorated. She suffered liver failure and was prevented from receiving proper medical care, making her the first woman to die in prison under the Sisi regime. In June 2019, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president whom Sisi toppled from power in July 2013, died in a courtroom while he was standing trial. Morsi’s death came as no surprise: from the time he was removed from office, he was denied access to his doctor and did not receive proper medication, despite his medical condition. Thousands of prisoners are now languishing in unbearable conditions and are facing a “slow death” in Egyptian prisons.

“Shoot to kill”: The Rule for Extrajudicial Killings

The use of disproportionate and brute force against civilians has been a key characteristic of Egypt’s police forces since the coup of 2013. Indeed, the post-coup regime has committed several massacres, killing hundreds of civilians. In the Rabaa massacre, Egypt’s military and security forces gunned down hundreds of peaceful protesters in broad daylight on August 14, 2013. Since then, extrajudicial killings have become a systematic and unrestrained policy for Sisi’s regime with the number of victims soaring over the past five years, with victims usually demonized and dehumanized in the Egyptian media. In fact, the government admitted to killing hundreds of people in what it portrays as “disputed gun battles” with suspected militants, particularly in the Sinai. According to Human Rights Watch, Egypt’s military and police forces are committing serious and widespread abuses against civilians in the Sinai Peninsula, and these could amount to crimes against humanity.

Forced Disappearance

Forced disappearance has become a systematic policy of the Sisi regime. Despite the fact that there are no official or confirmed numbers of cases of forced disappearance, human rights organizations point out that hundreds of individuals have been forcibly disappeared over the past few years. For example, according to the Stop Forced Disappearance Campaign,2 around 1,520 individuals were forcibly disappeared between July 2013 and August 2018. In addition, Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture documented 492 cases of forced disappearance during the first half of 2019 only, and the numbers keep growing. Mostafa al-Naggar, a prominent activist and former member of parliament (MP), has been disappeared since October 2018. While Egyptian authorities insist that al-Naggar is not arrested or forcibly disappeared, they have failed to disclose where he is. To that end, US Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) urged the government to “take all steps to provide his family info & be transparent about his whereabouts.” More disturbingly, women and children are among the forcibly disappeared since 2013. Although the number of forced disappearances in Egypt remains lower than in Latin American countries such as Chile, Argentina, or Guatemala, it is expected to rise dramatically if Sisi remains in power until 2030—according to his plan.

Although the number of forced disappearances in Egypt remains lower than in Latin American countries such as Chile, Argentina, or Guatemala, it is expected to rise dramatically if Sisi remains in power until 2030—according to his plan.

Implicating State Institutions

Over the past six years, Sisi has implicated state institutions such as the army, judiciary, and public prosecution in human rights abuses. He relies heavily on them in order to maintain and expand his authoritarian rule. While it is no secret that Egypt’s military has been ruling the country since 1952, this has become more visible and entrenched under Sisi. In fact, his strategy since taking power has been to show that there is no difference between the presidency and the military and he is always keen to present the two institutions as inseparable. However, Sisi has implicated the military in the economic and social affairs of the country as never before; in order to maintain their loyalty, therefore, he has to appease Egypt’s military leaders. Several reports have underscored the expansive role of Egypt’s military in running the economy.

In addition, the army has become heavily involved in fighting extremism, particularly in Sinai. Since the end of 2013, it has conducted several military operations against the Islamic State-linked movement, Wilayat Sinai. At the same time, however, these operations have also killed many civilians caught in the crossfire between the government and militants, and such stories garner no media coverage. According to statistics obtained by Mada Masr, around 621 civilians were killed and 1,247 injured between July 2013 and mid-2017. Ironically, security experts point out that Egypt’s military is not well-prepared to engage with insurgencies and guerilla warfare, which can affect its reputation in the long term. Furthermore, the intelligence apparatus has been a key player in the media scene in Egypt. It indirectly dominates most TV and satellite channels and controls the content of the main talk show programs, aiming to influence the public and spread the regime’s messages and propaganda.

As for Egypt’s judiciary, whose independence historically has been viewed with pride by Egyptians, under Sisi it has been a tool of repression in his political battle with the opposition. Not only has the judiciary become more politicized and involved in the political game but it has also taken a more subordinate role to the presidency. The constitutional amendments that were passed in 2019 have empowered the executive branch, particularly the president, at the expense of the judiciary. For example, according to these amendments, the president can appoint most of the judges including the heads of the Supreme Constitutional Court, the Court of Cassation, and the Administrative Prosecution Authority. Therefore, the amendments were denounced and criticized by judicial experts and observers who view them as “a flagrant assault on the rule of law and independence of the judiciary in Egypt.”

Moreover, Amnesty International points out that, “Since 2014, more than 1,891 death sentences have been handed down and at least 174 people executed, often following grossly unfair trials.” According to a report issued by the International Commission of Jurists, “judges and prosecutors in Egypt have become [sic] to be seen as at the forefront of a crackdown on human rights, due to the prosecution and conviction of thousands of political opponents, journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders, pro-democracy campaigners and individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly.” Most recently, Amnesty International considered Egypt’s Supreme State Security Prosecution as a “sinister tool of repression.” In fact, thousands of detainees remain in pre-trial detentions for more than two years, the maximum period set by Article 143 of the Code of Crimial Procedure. Ala Abed, an MP and head of the parliament’s Human Rights Committee, admitted that there are 25,000-30,000 detainees in pre-trial detention at present.

Thousands of detainees remain in pre-trial detentions for more than two years, the maximum period set by Article 143 of the Code of Crimial Procedure.

Sisi’s Impunity and the Responsibility of Western Governments

Dictators behave ruthlessly when they feel that they can get away with their crimes and when they are not held accountable either by their own people or the international community. Neither Sisi nor any of his officials have been held accountable for their human rights violations over the past seven years. Since he ascended to power, not only has Sisi enjoyed support from international actors but he also received impunity for his appalling record of human rights abuses. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron do not mind doing business with Sisi’s government despite being fully cognizant of its human rights violations.

Furthermore, President Donald Trump is a key ally to Sisi, once calling him his “favorite dictator” Both men seem to be getting along by implementing similar authoritarian propensities. However, President Trump is committing the same mistake of his predecessors by supporting and embracing dictators and despotic regimes in the Middle East. Previous American administrations supported military dictatorships in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s and that policy proved to be catastrophic to US interests and influence in that region during the following decades. Western governments’ tolerance of Sisi’s regime has encouraged him to commit more human rights violations, and this makes these governments, by different degrees, complicit in his crimes.

Western governments’ tolerance of Sisi’s regime has encouraged him to commit more human rights violations, and this makes these governments, by different degrees, complicit in his crimes.

State terror in Egypt, like elsewhere, aims to maintain control over the population, eliminate threats (real or imagined) coming from individuals and/or groups, and stay in power by coercion. However, it erodes the regime’s legitimacy and creates many problems in the longer term. In fact, ramifications of state terror can be catastrophic as they can lead to social explosions and civil strife, or even to civil war such as in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Therefore, it is crucial to put an end to state terror in Egypt in order to avoid another major disaster in the Middle East.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. To learn more about Khalil al-Anani click here

1 Source is in Arabic.
2 Source is in Arabic.
* Photo Credit: Anadolu Agency