The Arab Spring promised a democratic shift in the Middle East region, and many commentators bought into the passion seen in the eyes of many hopeful protestors. Egyptian protestors began demonstrating in January 2011 and successfully ousted then President Hosni Mubarak from office. However, hopeful Egyptians have seen democratic desires dashed, and the populace now lives under the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a man all too similar to Mubarak.
On 8 September, the world received further confirmation of the democracy movement’s failure in Egypt. A court upheld death sentences for 75 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, including some journalists, for their role in August 2013 protests.
The Muslim Brotherhood was banned under Mubarak, but Sisi has gone further by classifying the controversial religious and political movement as a terrorist group, a decision which has pushed some members to become more radical. The Muslim Brotherhood was on a high after Mubarak’s ousting as the first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi came from their newly formed political party.
But, after mass demonstrations against the government within a year of the election, Sisi carried out a military coup and has ruled with an iron fist since becoming the president in 2014. The court’s ruling on Brotherhood protesters reiterates Sisi’s commitment to stifling political opposition.
The August 2013 protests ended bloody with Human Rights Watch estimating Egyptian security forces killed 817 people for their sit-in protest against Sisi’s coup. 75 deaths will be added to that list after the court affirmed the death penalty for the 75 people allegedly behind the sit-in protest.
The crackdown on the Brotherhood is a calculated move by Sisi, and one with potential international ramifications. The United States had previously withheld military assistance money to Egypt, but the Trump administration has released upward of $1 billion in military aid to the Egyptian military since July. The White House has expressed concern about the country’s human rights record, but it sees Egypt as a valuable security partner in the region.
Despite the 8 September ruling, America has doubled down its support for the Egyptian military. On the same weekend as the announcement of the court’s ruling, a visiting U.S. commander observed joint military drills and said “Egypt is one of our most vital partners in the region.”
Unsurprisingly, America is more concerned with regional security and stability than the democratic freedoms of the average Egyptian.
On the other hand, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, condemned the mass sentencing. Other human rights groups have also pointed to the hypocrisy of 75 people being sentenced to death for their role in the protest while no police or security forces have been held accountable for the 817-death toll.
While many in the international human rights community are staunchly against the Egyptian regime, military dollars continue to flow into the country and legitimize Sisi’s rule. Along with the United States, Russia continues to expand their military cooperation with Sisi, and Russia has declared the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. China has also further expanded economic cooperation with Egypt in recent months.
Legitimacy from foreign governments has strengthened Sisi’s position in Egypt and will likely overpower condemnation from the international community in the short-term. With this legitimacy, Sisi is consolidating power and limiting freedom to protect his regime from popular uprisings.
The Egyptian president has signed multiple bills into law to limit Egyptian’s free speech on the internet. According to the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression in Cairo, hundreds of websites have been blocked within the last year, and social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers can be put under supervision. Most of the laws and monitoring are under the guise of counterterrorism, but they also function as a control measure on dissent against Sisi’s rule.
With an inactive international community and support from the world’s biggest international players, the largest threat to Sisi’s regime is clearly from within. And, it is a threat now stifled by draconian laws put in place by a regime wary of the popular discontent which they in part used to ascend to power.
The fate of Egypt and Sisi’s regime largely lies in the economic situation of the country. At the end of Mubarak’s reign, he began to relax stringent economic policy, but the 2008 financial crisis dampened economic growth and led the Egyptian people to call for a new era in Egyptian politics.
Unfortunately for the Egyptian people, Sisi may have learned from Mubarak’s mistakes, but he still has to balance his authoritarian control with some meaningful economic growth. His path to economic stability now requires diversification from oil and decreasing the country’s high level of unemployment and poverty.
If Sisi fails to do so, he will likely use the full force of the repressive tools at his disposal and perhaps force Egypt into a similar position it has found itself in years past.