Esraa el-Taweel, 23, went out to dinner with friends on June 1 and has not been seen since. Ms. Taweel, a student and photojournalist who was shot in the spine last year while covering protests on the anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, is said to have difficulty walking. Her family believes she was forcibly “disappeared” along with two young friends, Sohaib Mohamed and Amr Mohamed.
For days now, the hashtag #forceddisappearance has spread across Egyptian social media, as family and friends look for missing loved ones, mostly young people from across the political spectrum. Some are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and others are affiliated with the secular April 6 youth movement, while still others are not attached to any movement or party. All are victims of a war on young people, in a country where more than half the population is under 25.
According to the prisoners’ rights group Freedom for the Brave, 163 people have been forcibly disappeared in Egypt since April. The organization says 64 of the disappeared have been returned to their families, but that at least two have been found dead, including Islam Ateeto, a 23-year-old student, whose broken and bullet-riddled body was released to his mother two days after he was abducted, according to authorities at Ain Shams University in Cairo, from the campus on May 19. And a Sinai-based pro-Brotherhood activist, Sabry al-Ghoul, is reported to have died in military custody on June 2 after a major security sweep of the region (the Ministry of Interior has not confirmed the report).
“Have we become Argentina of the junta days, where they can abduct you and disappear you just like that?” my father asked me. I had just returned to Egypt from a book tour during which I was constantly asked, “Are you safe in Egypt?” My answer was always, “Nobody is safe in Egypt, but I am safer.”
In November 2011, Egyptian riot police officers broke my left arm and right hand and sexually assaulted me; I was detained for 12 hours by officers of the Interior Ministry and military intelligence. But I know that I was freed back then and remain free in Cairo, where I live, partly because being a writer with a platform affords me some protection that is unavailable to many of the young activists who are being disappeared.
The Dirty War-style disappearances are the latest of several atrocities that have marred the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, just starting his second year in office. Mr. Sisi, a former head of military intelligence and defense minister, won nearly 97 percent in last year’s presidential election, in which the turnout was just 47 percent of eligible voters.
Egypt has not had a sitting Parliament since 2012. This has meant that Mr. Sisi, who exercises both executive and legislative powers, has issued more than 147 laws since taking office, without checks or balances and with almost nonexistent opposition. We were supposed to have new parliamentary elections this year, but they were delayed indefinitely after the Supreme Court ruled the elections law unconstitutional.
The television set in my parents’ living room has been off for months; there is nothing to watch. Independent or pro-revolution voices have been hounded out, leaving only the cheerleaders for Mr. Sisi. During the president’s recent visit to Berlin, supporters among the press corps broke into nationalist chants at a news conference with the chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, after a protester called Mr. Sisi a “Nazi” and “fascist.”
Students already have it bad on campus, where little political expression is allowed and the optimism of the 2011 revolution has evaporated. Why would a regime headed by such a powerful man hound young people, a group with little clout?
Because it can, and because Mr. Sisi knows that his Western allies will merely pay lip service to human rights even as the flow of aid to Egypt, the arms deals and business agreements, continues. In February, France sold Egypt 24 Rafale jet fighters, a naval frigate and other military equipment, in a deal worth more than $5.7 billion.
In March, the Obama administration resumed military aid to Egypt, which it had suspended in 2013 after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president, Mohamed Morsi. In a report to Congress in May, the Obama administration criticized Mr. Sisi’s government for restricting free speech, arresting political dissidents and undermining democracy. Yet it recommended that the United States continue to send Egypt $1.5 billion, mostly in military aid.
The Sisi regime has been fighting armed Islamic militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula, but in the name of its “war on terror,” it has added multiple human rights violations to its docket. In May, six men with alleged ties to an armed militant group were hanged in Egypt after being sentenced by a military tribunal. According to Human Rights Watch, three of the men had been arrested before the crimes they were charged with were committed.
Egypt’s Western allies continue to support our despots in return for a mirage of stability. Mr. Sisi understands the resonance in Washington of claiming to be on the right side of the struggle against jihadist terrorism when America is at a loss for how to contain the Islamic State.
For decades, those allies have sold us out in return for the business interests secured by a hand of state that seems reassuringly firm — though, to its people, it is a bloody fist. When pushed, the West justifies its support for Mr. Sisi as realpolitik. In the long run, however, the pragmatic and wise course is to understand that a free population living in dignity, not with despotism and disappearances, is the best guarantor of stability and prosperity.
Mona Eltahawy is the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution and a contributing opinion writer.