Five years after the military coup of July 2013, Egypt’s domestic conditions appear to be heading toward increased authoritarianism, state repression, and regime dominance over society and politics. This state of affairs arguably represents many steps backward from even the controlled political atmosphere that governed Egypt for close to 30 years under Hosni Mubarak’s rule. To be sure, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has succeeded in establishing a new form of authoritarianism that puts him on a par with the most autocratic leaders in the Arab world—and the world at large—and allows him to remain as a president for life.
Since early 2018, the Egyptian regime has instituted a series of policy choices that intensified the calamitous rights situation in the country. According to the latest report by Human Rights Watch, Egyptian authorities are using the fight against terrorism as an excuse for restricting freedom of speech, controlling public space, and arresting activists. Such cynical exploitation of counterterrorism policy is not necessarily novel since it has been—and continues to be—employed by repressive regimes to fight political, social, and economic protests. But in the Egyptian case, where the government is imposing harsh economic measures to help implement International Monetary Fund demands, such a tactic will very likely lead to a popular explosion that may make the 2011 protests, which resulted in Mubarak’s resignation, seem like a mere public disturbance.
What is noteworthy––indeed, expected, in Egypt’s current political atmosphere––is that the regime is mostly relying on a pliant House of Representatives to pass the increasingly undemocratic measures in addition to a loyal military institution and security services. On July 16, the parliament approved by a two-thirds majority (of a total of 596 members) a law that would consider a “personal social media account, blog or website with more than 5,000 followers” to be a regular “media outlet” under the supervision of the government’s Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media. As such, any activity on any platform that could reach that many people will be subject to the regime’s restrictions and guidelines regarding various types of information and opinion.
On the same day, and in a clear attempt to protect the regime’s security services and the armed forces, parliament also overwhelmingly passed a measure, with only eight members in opposition, granting immunity from prosecution to military officers involved in the bloody events from July 2013 to June 2014, when Sisi began his first term as president. Haitham al-Hariri, a member of the minority opposition voting against the legislation, rhetorically asked, “Why should they need immunity if they did not commit any wrongdoing?” Indeed, the Sisi regime has never acknowledged what activists and observers had documented during that period. One day in particular, August 14, 2013, stands out; it was when security forces cleared two Cairo public squares of squatters demonstrating against the July coup, in the process killing some 800 protesters. In essence, parliament’s action made it possible for the regime to exonerate its forces from past atrocities and gave it license to commit new ones, as the need arises.
With the sweeping and empowering legislation and authority secured since 2013, the Egyptian regime is most likely on its way to consolidating Sisi’s long-term tenure, aided by a dominant Egyptian military. Claiming his continued rule as president would help ensure stability, Sisi’s supporters began preparing for doing away with presidential term limits as soon as he was reelected for four more years in March. Such a constitutional change would not be difficult considering parliament’s pro-Sisi composition, the regime’s elimination of all credible opposition, and the challenge to national security posed by a stubborn extremist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
The control of parliament grants an institutional veneer for entrenched authoritarianism; this is facilitated by a permissive regional environment and international nonchalance, especially on the part of the Trump Administration, which has eschewed any pretense of supporting democratic development and protecting human rights. Moreover, the jailing of Sisi’s credible challengers has left a political vacuum to be filled by him and his enablers. One challenger is Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Futouh, leader of the moderate and Islamist Strong Egypt Party, who was imprisoned in February prior to the presidential election. Another is retired General Sami Anan, former chief of staff of the armed forces, who was jailed supposedly because he did not get permission from the army to run for president. Anan is now in an intensive care unit in a military hospital after suffering a debilitating stroke. Yet another is former General Ahmad Shafiq, who announced his candidacy but had to withdraw for not being “the ideal person to lead the state’s affairs during the coming period.”
Finally, the Sinai insurgency provides the regime with an excuse to increase its repression and constrict political and social space. Developments in Sinai could also help pave the way for Sisi’s continuation as president, as foreign wars and domestic instability have been used by authoritarian regimes as convenient boons to consolidate power. To that end, Sisi could exploit the insurgency to advance a solid stand against critics and potential challengers and harness state powers to present a united front and preserve law and order.
Five years after Sisi led the military institution in a putsch against duly elected President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian regime appears to have succeeded in becoming more authoritarian than the one that ended with Mubarak’s departure. The new authoritarianism still relies on the power of the military institution, the security services, and a pliant parliament, but it has the added advantage of having practically eliminated any vestiges of open political space or social breathing room. With attempts afoot to ensconce Sisi as president for life amid serious economic trouble, Egypt is surely on its way to an uncertain future governed by oppressive policies and the ever-present prospect of a new uprising.