Egypt’s Sisi finds freedom to repress in the era of Trump
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During his visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this week, US President Donald Trump said many things that the leaders of Middle East nations wanted to hear. But there were key things he didn’t say — and those omissions make all the difference.
In his speech in Saudi Arabia to the leaders of more than 50 Muslim nations, Trump told the gathered luminaries that his goal is “a coalition of nations who share the aim of stamping out extremism and providing our children a hopeful future that does honor to God". He assured the crowd that the US wants to form “closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce". He talked about job creation and military investment.
What he did not say, in a notable divergence from his predecessor and others before him, was anything about human rights in the region.
Some observers weren’t surprised. “Given Trump’s tenuous relationship with freedom of the press and free expression in general, we have no expectation that Trump would raise these issues during his visit,” Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
“In general, Trump has given most authoritarians the indication that he’s not really interested in condemning human rights violations or civil rights violations,” said Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC. “To whatever extent authoritarians used to think twice… before taking action that would violate civil rights, that condition no longer exists.”
Perhaps no leader has benefited from that change as much as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
While Obama had frozen military aid to Egypt for two years in the wake of Sisi’s 2013 seizure of power and brutal wave of repression that left more than 1,000 dead, Trump has made warm overtures to the former army chief. Trump hosted Sisi at the White House in April an invitation that was never extended by Obama and when the two met in Saudi Arabia this week, Trump told the Egyptian leader: “You have done a tremendous job under trying circumstances."
Sisi has clearly got the message that stability and the fight against terrorism supersede all else for his US sponsors, who fund the Egyptian military to the tune of $1.3 billion a year. He has acted accordingly, smothering any signs of dissent or opposition.
On Thursday, the Egyptian government blocked access to 21 news sites, ranging from Qatari-funded al Jazeera, which it has always held supported the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, to Mada Masr, Egypt’s pre-eminent independent voice, which has been aggressive in its reporting and vocal in calling out corruption.
Authorities said the blocked sites supported terrorism. And while some of them did explicitly support the Muslim Brotherhood, such as its Ikhwan Online, others such as Mada Masr and the Huffington Post Arabic site were simply caught up in the sweep.
“Nothing explains this blockade more than a very clear intention from the authorities to crack down on critical media in ways that bypass the law,” Lina Attalah, Mada Masr’s editor-in-chief, told Reuters.
“This is their MO,” Kaldas said, explaining that it is routine for the government, while rounding up people with alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, to snatch up troublesome activists and student leaders as part of the effort.
The Sisi administration has been working on silencing the media for some time. An anti-terrorism law adopted in August 2015 imposes stiff penalties for publishing “false information” about attacks in Egypt, and foreign journalists have been explicitly warned about publishing any information that differs from that supplied by official channels.
The situation for journalists has deteriorated so badly in Egypt that Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 161st in its 2017 press freedom index, out of 180.
The oppression extends far beyond the media. Muslim Brotherhood supporters and opposition leaders have been routinely rounded up and imprisoned since Sisi seized power. Now the Egyptian leader seems to have an eye on the presidential elections scheduled for 2018. On Tuesday, a detention order was issued for Khaled Ali, a prominent human rights lawyer who ran for president in 2012 and who said he was considering opposing Sisi in 2018.
Ali’s alleged crime? “Offending public decency” by making an obscene hand gesture on the steps of a Cairo courthouse. The suit is being brought by a private citizen who claims to have a photograph showing the alleged incident. The gesture in question is considered vulgar, but being prosecuted for it is virtually unheard of.
Ali disputes the photo’s authenticity.
Ali has become more prominent since his 2012 run thanks to his involvement in a high-profile court case opposing a controversial government plan to transfer two uninhabited islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. Even if he could not best Sisi at the polls, his campaign would likely raise issues that the leader would prefer not to air.
Amnesty International called the charges against Ali “absurd", and said his arrest and prosecution were politically motivated. “The presidential elections are not scheduled to take place until 2018, yet the Egyptian authorities seem intent on pre-emptively crushing any potential rivals to maintain their grip on power,” said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s campaigns director for North Africa.
After spending a night in jail, Ali was released on bail, but has been referred to trial. If convicted, he faces a fine or up to six months in prison. A conviction could leave him ineligible to run for the presidency.
“This is a way to cut off his feet before he starts running,” Kaldas said, noting that once Ali starts a public presidential campaign it would be much more difficult to repress him.
The government could take its repressive tactics too far, Kaldas warned. While there are currently no viable alternatives to Sisi’s regime and the Egyptian people have seen that demonstrations and revolution have generally left them less well off, the highest inflation rates in decades, a currency that is plummeting in value, new taxes and food shortages have rendered the population increasingly critical of its leadership. “Egyptian political opinion is capable of swinging further than people think,” Kaldas said.