A look at two different eras of state repression and how the worst has come true for Egyptians.
Seven years ago, Egypt’s putschist president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, organised a military coup against Mohamed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president. Since then, Egypt's social and economic conditions have deteriorated to the point that it is no longer considered to be a free country, according to the latest ratings of Freedom House.
Many regional observers consider today's Egypt worse than the one ruled by its authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, who ran the country for 30 years.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Mubarak regime used its fight against terrorism as an excuse to restrict freedom of speech and control public spaces. The arrests of journalists and activists became one of the main hallmarks of Mubarak's iron-fisted approach.
But today, under Sisi's control, Egypt's human rights conditions are at their lowest. The state repression aided and abetted by the country's powerful military, has stifled not only the people, but also their economic opportunities. Many experts say that another popular revolt is brewing and once it explodes, it will morph into a people’s movement which will prove much bigger than the 2011 Arab Spring protests - this resulted in Mubarak’s resignation.
President Sisi has been building a pro-regime narrative, and he has done this largely by obtaining a near-total control of the media. Recently, the country’s Council for Media Regulation concluded that news outlets and social media users will not be allowed to cover or discuss ‘sensitive’ issues such as Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam, the coronavirus and the conflicts in Libya and the Sinai Peninsula.
According to the council’s decision, only the information obtained from official authorities could be reported, and legal action will be taken against the violators.
“The country is going through a dangerous and sensitive period which requires the concentrated efforts of all national powers to maintain the country’s national security," the council said in a statement.
This was not the first step towards stifling press freedom. Since 2013, several reports have suggested that thousands of journalists, activists and even children and some foreigners have been arrested on whimsical grounds. Human Rights Watch last year documented that over 60,000 people had been arrested on 'political grounds' in Egypt.
Sisi's regime has been using laws to silence critics. The regime was also quick to block thousands of websites that were set up to spread opposition to the government’s constitutional amendments, ones that would allow Sisi to extend his rule through 2030.
The latest offensive last month saw journalist Mohamed Mounir arrested because of his coverage of the Covid-19 crisis, and so were the relatives of a prominent human rights defender Mohamed Soltan, a US resident and a critic of the Sisi regime. The other case was Nora Younis. She is the editor of al-Manassa news website and was arrested by regime police following the raid of the website's offices.
On the other hand, in terms of economics, the regime has failed to realise its promised plans, such as a new capital city and Suez Canal expansion project. Despite Sisi claiming that such a move would double annual revenues by 2023, the number stayed far below his big projections.
Currently, the Egyptian pound against the US dollar stands at 16.1. It was 7.1 in 2013. According to the World Bank, 60 percent of Egypt’s population can be classified as poor or vulnerable. The Sisi regime has borrowed billions of dollars from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, China and allies in the Persian Gulf, among other sources.
Following his toppling of Morsi, Egypt’s Sisi provided financial support of $30 billion in aid to his regime between 2013 and 2016 by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, through placing deposits with the Central Bank of Egypt and supplying petroleum products as grants. Recently, The International Monetary Fund approved a new 12-month $5.2 billion loan for Egypt to help it cope with challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and to help finance its budget deficit payment shortfalls.
As a result of Sisi’s policies, Egypt’s national debt has increased from $112 billion to circa $321 billion in the last 6 years. 40 percent of the country’s annual budget is devoted to paying off interest fees because of the loans.
Relying on the financial support of ambitious rogue states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the country has paid a massive price. The two nations, after all, have almost asked Egypt to do their biddings in Cairo’s foreign policy. On top of that, Egypt handed over the control of its two islands to Saudi Arabia.
With the loans enabling the Sisi regime to boost its foreign reserves, domestic economics of the country and its citizens have been struggling to survive since the price of basic needs have increased significantly. The poverty rate rose 7 percent just between 2013 and 2018.
Was Mubarak better than Sisi?
Despite the repression policies of the Mubarak era, even he seemed softer on some issues when compared to Sisi. At least Mubarak delegated certain decisions, and allowed a bit of space for civilian institutions and independent civil society groups, He built a somewhat diverse constituency for his regime.
In contrast, it seems that the current regime has been creating a model with a more dictatorial, oppressive and more fragile framework when it comes to human rights, economics and freedom of speech. Sisi has put civilian bodies, such as the parliament and universities, under the full control of security agencies that have filled them with pliant loyalists.
Almost crushing all kinds of political activities in the country, eviscerating the rule of law and punishing all his challengers and opposition, Sisi rules Egypt through a limited coterie of military and intelligence staff consisting of oathsworn sycophants which reportedly include his sons.
Strange but true, Sisi even issued a decree which stipulated new ‘dusky’ paint colors for Cairo’s buildings. Some Egyptians might really start to miss Mubarak.