Egypt’s War On Civil Society Is Self-Defeating
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After a major international outcry, Egyptian authorities have released three prominent human-rights activists. They were arrested last month after meeting with a group of Western diplomats to discuss civil liberties in the Arab world’s most populous country.
It’s not clear what President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is hoping to gain from the crackdown, but it seems to have backfired. The latest detentions have drawn much-needed attention to a broad campaign of repression against civil society in Egypt.
The three rights campaigners, Gasser Abdel-Razek, Mohamed Basheer and Karim Ennarah, are members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the few civil-liberties groups still functional in the country. While the arrests weren’t unusual in Sissi’s Egypt, the relatively quick release was. An international campaign involving activists, politicians and celebrities plainly had its intended effect.
The timing of the arrests was curious. Jess Kelly, Ennarah’s wife, has suggested that they were a deliberate test of the incoming Joe Biden administration, which is expected to be more demanding on human rights from American allies than President Donald Trump has been. That argument was bound to gain traction for the case in Washington, but it’s unlikely that Sisi’s government was deliberately trying to bait the next administration.
The likelihood, arguably more depressing, is that this was essentially a case of more of the same.
The crackdown has gone far beyond the three rights campaigners. The government has recently added over 25 detained critics to its list of terrorism suspects, including the noted political activist Alaa Abdel Fattah and a former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abou Fotouh. These charges range from the implausible to the absurd depending on the individuals in question, but none of them are convincing.
The government has also executed 57 prisoners in the past two months, a rate of capital punishment unheard-of in recent Egyptian history.
It is hard to understand what all of this is supposed to accomplish. Since coming to power in July 2013, the Sisi regime has gone from repressing its critics, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, to attacking all opposition, including liberals and rights campaigners. It now appears in open war against Egyptian civil society at large.
Sisi may feel that he can still draw on a reservoir of nationalistic support and lingering horror at the prospect of Islamist rule. But the former general is undermining the case that he is a better alternative.
If the government feels so insecure that it cannot tolerate any criticism or cultural dynamism, those fears are likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Egyptians have already demonstrated twice — rising up against the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in 2011 and against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohammed Morsi in 2013 — that their patience with unbridled suppression is, ultimately, limited.
It’s not only Egyptian popular goodwill that’s being squandered; so too is international tolerance for repression. It can’t be lost on the government that Joe Biden and the Democrats are unlikely to be as indulgent as Trump, who referred to Sisi as “my favorite dictator.”
The glass-half-full view is that the release of the three rights campaigners shows Cairo is still susceptible to pressure, even if it comes from international civil society rather than the American president.
That’s good news, because Egypt needs continued American goodwill. And Washington, too, needs a robust and responsible Egypt to continue on its path of economic revival — limited and overleveraged, but surprisingly robust — and regional leadership. The stability of the Middle East depends on Egypt playing an engaged and responsible role. Cairo hasn’t been able to do that in many years because of ongoing domestic turmoil.
Heavy-handed repression and assaults on civil society are not a formula for Egyptian political stability, economic revitalization and regional resurgence. That’s a message Egypt’s friends should send, loudly and clearly, to its leader.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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