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Why Washington Turns a Blind Eye to Egypt's Thugocracy

30 Apr 2018

Doug Bandow

Chinese president Xi Jinping discarded term limits and is
preparing to rule for life like an emperor of old. Egyptian
president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is preparing to follow Xi’s example
as his supporters propose similarly amending the constitution and
allowing him to become a modern pharaoh.

Five years ago General el-Sisi staged a coup, arrested the
elected president, Mohamed Morsi, killed hundreds of pro-Morsi
demonstrators, and jailed tens of thousands of opponents, critics
and demonstrators. Having suppressed all serious opposition,
el-Sisi took over as president and in 2014 staged a faux election,
winning more than 97 percent of the vote over minor opposition.

El-Sisi staged an electoral repeat in March. This time several
would-be opponents, including with military backgrounds, sought to
oppose him, but he arrested or intimidated them all. For instance,
Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh, a 2012 presidential candidate, was
detailed along with fifteen party members and placed on the
official terrorism list. Sami Anan, el-Sisi’s predecessor as
army chief of staff, was arrested, and a top member of his
campaign, Hisham Geneina, el-Sisi’s former anti-corruption
chief, was sentenced to five years in prison.

This process winnowed the opposition field to a self-professed
supporter, who said he was “not here to challenge the
president” (and was pushed into the race by el-Sisi’s
minions). Of course, the Egyptian president denied any connection
to the remarkable string of bad luck which afflicted his potential
opponents. His spokesman said that “neither Sisi’s
morals nor his dignity let him prevent any other person from

El-Sisi abandoned the pretense of a free vote not because he
might lose—his officials would be counting the votes, after
all—but to prevent even a small split within the military and
development of any political opposition. Unsurprisingly, el-Sisi
again took an enviable 97 percent of the vote. However, despite the
regime threatening fines, job loss, police raids, and more for
those who failed to vote and promising benefits including bribes,
financial prizes, trips, food, and community grants and projects
for those who did, total turnout was just 41 percent, down six
points from the previous poll. Seven percent of ballots cast were
spoiled. A website republished a New York Times article on
the government’s election machinations, only to be fined and

Washington cannot make
Egypt free, but it should stop enthusiastically embracing and
subsidizing those who hold an entire country in bondage.

Thus have ended the hopes and dreams surrounding the 2011

There was much to criticize about the brief presidency of
Islamist Mohamed Morsi elected in 2012, but he was no tyrant. To
the contrary, he failed to control the bureaucracy, police, or
military. Antagonistic businessmen sought to create economic chaos.
The police refused to protect his party’s headquarters from a
mob. He was ousted after Saudi Arabia funded street protests and
promised aid to el-Sisi if the latter seized control. The
revolutionary regime that was supposed to liberate Egypt morphed
into the dictatorship that it had replaced, just like in George
Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Freedom House rates Egypt as not free, near the bottom on both
political rights and civil liberties. The group’s latest
report explained: “Serious political opposition is virtually
nonexistent, as both liberal and Islamist activists face criminal
prosecution and imprisonment. Terrorism persists unabated in the
Sinai Peninsula and has also struck the Egyptian mainland, despite
the government’s use of aggressive and often abusive tactics
to combat it.”

Egypt’s civil liberties rating dropped “due to the
approval of a restrictive law on nongovernmental organizations and
a crackdown on activity by labor unions that are not recognized by
the government.” Only government-controlled unions were
recognized by the government and last December a new law dissolved
all independent ones. NGOs also “have faced mass closures as
well as harassment in the form of office raids, arrests of members,
lengthy legal cases, and restrictions on travel.”
Unsurprisingly, the “media sector is dominated by
progovernment outlets, as most critical or opposition-oriented
outlets were shut down in the wake of the coup.”

Little is private or protected. Explained Freedom House:
“The security services have reportedly upgraded their
surveillance equipment and techniques in recent years so as to
better monitor social media platforms and mobile phone
applications. Pro-government media figures and state officials
regularly call for national unity and suggest that only enemies of
the state would criticize the authorities. These pressures have led
to more self-censorship and guarded discussion among ordinary

The political system is rigged. Minorities face discrimination
that prevents them from even the limited political participation of
the general population. But as the latest presidential vote
demonstrated, politics is only for show. Freedom House noted that
el-Sisi “has ruled in a style that entrenches military
privilege and shields the armed forces from accountability for
their actions.” At the same time, “corruption is
pervasive at all levels of government.”

There is no system of justice. The government extended its
control over the courts. Moreover, explained Freedom House:
“A series of mass trials in recent years have resulted in
harsh sentences, including life imprisonment or the death penalty,
based on negligible evidence.” Additionally, thousands of
civilians have been sent to military courts for conviction, er,

Amnesty International’s 2017-2018 report is equally
negative. Among the highlights, human-rights NGOs were silenced,
freedom of assembly and expression was denied, arbitrary arrests
and detentions were common, extrajudicial disappearances and
executions were standard operating procedure, trials were unfair,
freedom of labor and religion were denied, and much more.

Reported Amnesty International: “The authorities used
torture and other ill-treatment and enforced disappearance against
hundreds of people, and dozens were extrajudicially executed with
impunity. The crackdown on civil society escalated with NGO staff
being subjected to additional interrogations, travel bans and asset
freezes. Arbitrary arrests and detentions followed by grossly
unfair trials of government critics, peaceful protesters,
journalists and human-rights defenders were routine. Mass unfair
trials continued before civilian and military courts, with dozen
sentenced to death. Women continued to be subjected to sexual and
gender-based violence and were discriminated against in law and
practice. The authorities brought criminal charges for defamation
of religion and ‘habitual debauchery’ on the basis of
people’s real or perceived sexual orientation.”

Human Rights Watch titled its January report “Egypt:
Untamed Repression?” Never mind el-Sisi’s protestations
of fidelity to democracy and human rights. Reported Human Rights
Watch: “Al-Sisi’s government during 2017 observed few
boundaries on its untamed repression of all forms of
dissent.” The regime “introduced a host of repressive
laws, reinstated the abusive state of emergency, and sent thousands
of civilians to military courts that, along with civilian courts,
issued scores of death sentences in flawed trials.”

The list of abuses is long: intolerance toward dissent,
“near-absolute impunity for abuses by security forces,”
mass roundups, arbitrary detention, torture, property seizures, and
use of military tribunals against civilians, stifling the
independent sector, and “disappearing” critics, almost
four hundred in the space of a year. In the latter case people are
arrested and then simply vanish, sometimes later resurfacing in
government custody.

Zubeida Ibrahim spoke to BBC about the disappearance of her
daughter. Early in March she was arrested and her lawyer, Ezzat
Ghonim, disappeared. Ghonim was Amnesty International’s North
Africa campaigns director. AI also cited three democracy/opposition
activists similarly kidnapped by the el-Sisi regime in

Last fall Human Rights Watch published a detailed report on the
government’s use of torture: “Since July 2013, when
Egypt’s military overthrew the country’s first freely
elected president, torture has returned as the calling card of the
security services, and the lack of punishment for its routine
practice has helped define the authoritarianism of President Abdel
Fattah el-Sisi’s administration.” The document included
accounts from numerous detainees who had been tortured by Egyptian
security forces.

Even the State Department, despite President Trump’s
bromance with his Egyptian counterpart, painted a grim picture.
According to the State Department’s human-rights report last
year, which spanned fifty-nine pages, “the most significant
human-rights problems were excessive use of force by security
forces, deficiencies in due process, and the suppression of civil
liberties.” Among the specifics: Use of preventive custody
and military courts, unlawful killings, torture,
“restrictions on freedoms of expression and the media, as
well as on the freedoms of assembly and association,”
disappearances, “harsh prison conditions,” politicized
court verdicts, “restrictions on academic freedom” and
civil society, corruption, infringement of religious liberty, and
“impunity for security forces.”

The State Department released its latest iteration of the report
in mid-April, which critics complained watered down some criticisms
of some U.S. allies. However, the Egypt section, though three pages
shorter, appeared to be no less negative. State cited pervasive
“arbitrary arrest and detention,” usually in awful
conditions. The report also pointed to “numerous reports the
government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings,
including incidents that occurred while making arrests or holding
persons in custody, during disputes with civilians, or while
dispersing demonstrations.”

El-Sisi surpassed Mubarak by destroying the independent sector.
Last year the regime implemented legislation criminalizing the
operations of NGOs focused on human rights and micromanaging the
work of all others. Even mundane administrative decisions require
regime approval. Among the groups killed by el-Sisi: the Al-Nadeem
Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture,
which both exposed the government’s reliance on torture and
helped those tortured by the state. I visited the center four years
ago, which is when staffers told me that the abuses were worse than
under Mubarak.

Egypt has become a prison state. Reported HRW in September 2016,
“between Morsi’s overthrow and May 2014, Egyptian
authorities arrested or charged at least 41,000 people, according
to one documented count, and 26,000 more may have been arrested
since the beginning of 2015, lawyers and human rights researchers
say. The government itself has admitted to making nearly 34,000
arrests.” That was as of two years ago.

In February, author Mona Eltahawy compared el-Sisi to Vladimir
Putin and cited more recent estimates by the Arab Network for Human
Rights Information estimated: 2,332 death sentences, sixty thousand
political prisoners, seventeen new prisons, 7,513 civilians tried
by the military, five hundred Egyptians banned from international
travel, fifty-four journalists imprisoned, and 465 internet sites
blocked (which has since surpassed five hundred).

Cairo was ill-prepared for the flood of prisoners. New prisons
could not be constructed fast enough and living conditions remain
awful. In Tora Maximum Security Prison, wrote HRW:
“Authorities have banned inmates from contacting their
families or lawyers for months at a time, held them in degrading
conditions without beds, mattresses, or basic hygienic items,
humiliated, beaten, and confined them for weeks in crammed
‘discipline’ cells—treatment that probably
amounted to torture in some cases—and interfered with their
medical care in ways that may have contributed some of their

El-Sisi justifies every arrest, abuse and suppression of basic
liberties as necessary to fight terrorism, which, however, has
expanded as his brutality has increased. Outlawing the Muslim
Brotherhood decapitated the more moderate leadership, fractured the
organization, and left some members believing that nonviolence no
longer was an option. As ever more Egyptian families see loved ones
and friends unjustly imprisoned and mistreated, resistance and
instability are likely to grow.

Indeed, knowledgeable observers worry about the long-term
consequences of repression. Washington Post reporter
Sudarsan Raghavan in early April wrote that el-Sisi’s
“outsize economic and political ambitions are at the same
time breeding resentment within large segments of the general
population and, some analysts say, inside Egypt’s highly
influential military.” The armed forces once were beyond
public suspicion. But now, noted George Mason University’s
Abdallah Hendawy, “hundreds of journalists, activists,
bloggers, and even some politicians, both in and outside the
country, have become increasingly critical of the military
overreach.” H. A. Hellyer of the Atlantic Council worried
that “by closing the space for expressing dissent openly, the
possibility is that something far more chaotic than 2011 becomes
more likely.” Similarly, Philip Crowley, who served in the
Obama State Department, warned that “the seeds of the
revolution are budding in Egypt right now.”

Alas, the United States and other Western governments have gone
soft on Egyptian repression because they value stability more than
liberty. They assume that only obsequious support can preserve
Egypt as an ally. However, Cairo is not going to war upon Israel,
whether or not Washington subsidizes el-Sisi’s dictatorship.
Interdicting traffic through the Suez Canal would be self-defeating
for any Egyptian government. And the regime would retain
significant incentive—access to spare parts and training for
U.S.-supplied weapons, for instance—to maintain positive
contacts with the West.

However, New York University’s Alon Ben-Meir dismissed the
possibility of democracy succeeding in Egypt and reported that
“Egyptian officials prefer that concerns over human rights
violations be addressed behind the scenes in order to not embarrass
and weaken el-Sisi’s position in the eyes of the
public.” No doubt. From their perspective, the less said the

However, pious private complaints, of which there have been
many, evidently have had no impact. El-Sisi is the primary
architect of what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid
Ra’ad al-Hussein, has called a “pervasive climate of
intimidation.” Egyptian officials reflexively dismiss all
concerns as lies, misinformation, or “fake
news”—even as the human-rights climate has rapidly

In March Raghavan reported that “over the past year,
al-Sisi has intensified an assault on basic freedoms.”
Hendawy noted how repression accelerated before the presidential
vote, destroying the democratic façade within which
“political parties, social movements, and political
dissidents were all allowed to play a limited role within certain
bounds” even under Mubarak. In March el-Sisi called criticism
of the military and police treason. Before the election the
government’s chief prosecutor, Nabil Sadek, threatened to
punish journalists for any criticism of the regime which allegedly
hurt the nation’s “reputation.” As the election
approached he targeted foreign journalists, who he said were
“forces of evil” for their negative stories.

America’s leverage is limited. Last year the United States
held up nearly $300 million in economic and military assistance,
but to no effect. Washington could stop the additional $1.3 billion
going to the Egyptian military annually, but that would not change
Cairo’s policy, since el-Sisi is receiving large-scale
transfers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Still, by
doing so Washington would stop underwriting regime repression.

However, the Trump administration prefers to embrace
dictatorship. On election day U.S. charge d’affaires Thomas
Goldberger sounded like he was employed by el-Sisi: “As
Americans we are very impressed by the enthusiasm and patriotism of
Egyptian voters.” Vice President Mike Pence visited Cairo and
offered embarrassingly obsequious comments, opining that el-Sisi
“said to me again that his dedication is to all of the people
of Egypt.”

Ben-Meir argued for dropping human rights and focusing on
economic development: “Every country that has contributed
financial aid to Egypt, including the United States, EU, and Gulf
states, should substantially increase their aid” to assist
Cairo. He presumed the regime would use the money well, which
represents the triumph of hope over experience. El-Sisi has pushed
a cavalcade of dubious expensive “investments,”
including a second capital, nuclear power plant, and greatly
expanded “New Suez Canal.”

Worse, additional aid would strengthen Cairo’s repressive
rule. Today no action is too small for the regime to punish:
posting a cartoon of el-Sisi with Mickey Mouse ears on Facebook
earned one man a three-year prison term. A pop star recently was
sentenced to six months in prison for calling the Nile River
“dirty,” which was taken as an insult to the
state—even though the river is, well, dirty, as I have seen
from personal observation.

Foreign policy inevitably involves occasional tough moral
compromises. However, the end of the Cold War has reduced pressure
on Washington to ignore the cruel brutality of client regimes. In
cases like Egypt, America is complicit in grotesque and widespread
violations of human rights. That repression makes future violence
more likely when political change inevitably occurs, and ensures
that the United States will be targeted by those who suffered under
what Vice President Pence lauded as a “strategic
partnership” of “great importance to the American
people.” Washington cannot make Egypt free, but it should
stop enthusiastically embracing and subsidizing those who hold an
entire country in bondage.

Doug Bandow is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special
assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal