Egypt’s military led by current president, Abdel Fattah el Sisi, overthrew the country’s only freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013 after little over a year of democracy.
On this day in 2013, Egypt’s brief experiment with democracy came to a calamitous end with a military coup that ousted the late President Mohamed Morsi.
The overthrow was led by Morsi’s defence minister and army chief, Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who promised a swift return to the democratic order.
Within days however, the military strongman had made clear that no such plans were in the offing.
The first of many massacres under Sisi’s rule, the Republican Guard’s club massacre killed scores of pro-democracy protesters, who were demanding the reinstatement of Morsi and his civilian-led government.
Worse was to follow little over a month later, with upwards of a thousand protesters shot in cold blood at Cairo’s Rabaa Square on August 14, where protesters had set up a protest camp condemning the coup. According to Human Rights Watch, it was the worst massacre of civilians in Egypt’s modern history.
For those who survived, Sisi unleashed his repressive state security apparatus, arresting tens of thousands on the day of the massacre and in the months that followed, including children.
Inside the jails, they continue to be subject to torture, medical neglect, and being forced to live in overcrowded cells with poor sanitation.
Initially they included Morsi’s supporters, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood to which the former president belonged.
Later, Sisi’s dragnet drew in civil society activists, even including those who had initially backed the coup.
The numbers are not known exactly but it is thought tens of thousands of Egyptians are being detained in prisons for political reasons.
Many others were lucky enough to find sanctuary abroad, in countries such as the UK, Turkey, Australia, and Qatar. For them, going home represents the real risk of arrest and persecution.
In the seven years since, Sisi has only tightened his grip on power, securing election as Egyptian president in multiple votes, in which turnout has been low and opponents intimidated into not standing.
In his most recent election in 2018, Sisi stood against a candidate, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who was a supporter of the Egyptian autocrat and had endorsed his rival, urging Egyptians to vote for Sisi instead of himself.
Sisi ended up winning that election with a modest 97 percent of ballots.
Restrictions on freedom of speech and the threat of harsh prison sentences for those who speak out means few are willing to criticise the regime.
The Egyptian political researcher, Taqadum Al Khatib of the Egyptian National Association for Change, recently commented: “Seven years since the military coup, Egypt's president has shut down all opposition forces, but the crisis the country faces has deepened. Seven years of exile.”
International reactions then and now
Sisi’s hold on power has not exclusively been down to his ability to maintain a tight grip on dissent locally, but also as a result of his international sponsors.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have bankrolled his regime from day one with tens of billions of dollars worth of deposits into Cairo’s coffers.
Sisi was receiving such large sums from the Gulf that in a leaked recording he was caught mocking his patrons. When an aide responded incredulously to Sisi’s request that Egypt ask Gulf states for billions in help, the Egyptian autocrat said: “"So what? They have money like rice."
But the support does not come from the Gulf alone, the US has also bent its own rules on funding leaders who came to power through coups and continued supplying Cairo with $1.5 billion a year in military aid.
In an infamous comment made shortly after the coup, then US Secretary of State John Kerry, praised Sisi for “restoring democracy.”
“The military did not take over, to the best of our judgement - so far. To run the country, there's a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy," Kerry said on August 1, 2013, despite the fact several massacres had already taken place.
Since, ascendance of the Trump administration, the relationship between Washington and Cairo has gotten even stronger.
At an international conference, the US president is once reported to have described Sisi as his “favourite dictator”.
Similarly the EU has been criticised for not taking action against Sisi for both the coup and subsequent human rights abuses, including several massacres and the torture of political detainees.
The seeds of discontent
The cost of the Egyptian state’s oppression and the international support it receives is the continued misery of millions of ordinary Egyptians.
Despite years of oppression, however, Sisi’s grip on power and consequent ability to muzzle dissent is far from absolute.
For a period over 2019, dissident Egyptian businessman Mohammed Ali rattled Cairo’s centres of power with video blogs detailing corruption involving Sisi and the military elite.
The allegations involved the squandering of cash on vanity projects, the pocketing of public money, and non-payment to contractors.
From his exile, Ali called for mass protests against the regime after receiving an enthusiastic response online.
Thousands did take to the streets, chanting against the Sisi regime but the response from the regime was typically heavy and swift.
The momentum petered out but it was a reminder for Egypt’s dictator that even the autocratic measures he has taken up to now cannot stamp out opposition permanently