Last week, security forces in Egypt arrested a man named Hisham Geneina. Geneina, the former head of the national auditing agency, is not a first-rank politician in his own right. But it is clearly not his background as a financial expert that drew the attention of prosecutors. It was his vocal role as an aide to Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, the former Army chief of staff who was himself jailed last month, not long after announcing his intention to run for election against President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
By arresting Anan, Sissi removed his last serious rival in the approaching Egyptian presidential election, which is set to begin March 26. Earlier, former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq withdrew his candidacy just a few weeks after announcing it, apparently under heavy pressure from the regime. Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, a nephew of the former president, and Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer, have also dropped out. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Islamist and a 2012 presidential candidate who now runs the Strong Egypt political party, was arrested earlier this month after returning from a trip to London. Fotouh drew widespread media attention for a series of interviews, during which he argued that the army bears no responsibility for the president’s inept leadership.
Needless to say, the elimination of Sissi’s most serious competitors in the campaign has many Egyptians wondering whether there is even a point to voting. It is small wonder that the most popular GIF in the country on Jan. 25 — the anniversary of the beginning of Egypt’s 2011 revolution — turned out to be a short clip from the Sacha Baron Cohen film “The Dictator,” in which a mythical tyrant wins a 100-meter dash by shooting his opponents (and the judges of the race). There could hardly be a more vivid illustration of the death of genuine politics in Egypt.
Since mid-2013, Egypt under Sissi has become a black hole for human rights, democratic governance and rule of law. But now the president’s campaign of repression is reaching into his own government. The arrest of Anan was viewed by analysts as a striking sign of Sissi’s willingness to challenge the top ranks of his own military establishment. The president’s firing of his top intelligence chief similarly seemed to reveal a growing rift within the ranks of the security apparatus. Some of his own bureaucrats are evidently beginning to wonder whether Sissi’s personal ambitions are beginning to threaten the survival of the state. At the very least, one could argue the country is heading towards a North Korea-style collapse of civilian life.
By shutting down every avenue for peaceful change, Sissi has sent an aggressive message to Egypt and the rest of the world that even the semblance of democracy no longer has a place in his country, and that brute force is the only possible response to any form of opposition or criticism. Even the farce of an election is being cast aside.
Meanwhile, Sissi’s counterterrorism policies, which serve as an important justification of his dictatorship, have created a fertile ground for radicalization. The authors of this article witnessed this firsthand during the collective 60 months we spent in prison between 2013 and 2017. We watched the process of radicalization unfold as recruiters for the Islamic State, while jailed themselves, appealed to innocent young prisoners who were facing unjust detainment, harsh sentences, and inhumane conditions.
Sissi’s heavy-handed crackdown has thus actually contributed to an increased Islamic State presence in Egypt. One of the extremist group’s latest video messages, aimed at young Egyptians, makes this clear: Democracy and non-violence, it said, have only brought you a violent tyrant. As tens of thousands of once-hopeful, now-oppressed youth fall victim to the viciousness of the state, their options become increasingly binary: either wallow in depression or turn to violence.
There is an old saying: “You cannot give that which you do not have.” Sissi cannot help provide peace and stability to a tumultuous region when that is precisely what he has failed to give Egypt. His insecurities and hyper-paranoia have turned Egypt into a giant pressure cooker with no safety valve. When it finally explodes, everyone will be hurt. The death of politics is steadily undermining the stability of the regime.
The revolution that began in 2011 changed Egypt forever, and attempts to return the country to an authoritarian state will not succeed. The 2018 elections will show, among other things, that international support for Sissi’s regime is the only foundation it has left. The United States should use its influence to address the deteriorating human-rights situation, to demand the release of all political prisoners (including presidential candidates), and to urge an opening of the political sphere.
As survivors of Sissi’s crackdown and the world’s most notorious prisons, we believe that we share a responsibility to call for more nuanced policies towards Egypt and the region. Our friendship is based not only on joint history, but on a shared conviction that only a representative democracy and the rule of law can guarantee peace and stability for Egypt and the surrounding region.
Mohamed Soltan is a human rights advocate and founder of The Freedom Initiative. Aya Hijazi is an Egyptian-American social activist and founder of Belady Foundation.