In October, Alaa Abed, a former police investigator, became the chairman of the human rights committee in Egypt’s Parliament. The majority bloc that supports President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to which Mr. Abed belongs, ensured his victory by flooding the committee with loyalist members, a show of strength that led Mr. Abed’s rivals to drop out.
His victory, technically within the Parliament’s rules, demonstrated Egypt’s take on “managed democracy,” a term experts often use to describe Russia under President Vladimir V. Putin and other countries ruled by strongmen. It’s a system in which elections and other formal trappings of democracy persist but lose their meaning; in reality, authority is centralized, often in the hands of security agencies.
In Egypt, managed democracy appears to be the Sisi administration’s solution to a delicate problem: how, after removing his predecessor in a coup, Mr. Sisi can claim to oversee a democratic country without having to subject his government to any real opposition.
Mr. Abed’s personal history has moved in parallel with the culture of police abuse and political corruption that rose to define Egyptian public life in the era that preceded the 2011 uprising, and which has made a comeback under Mr. Sisi.
In 2005, a detainee named Fakhry Azer alleged that a police captain and Mr. Abed had cuffed his hands behind his back, hung him from his feet, beaten him with a baton — including on his face — and tried to stuff a shoe into his mouth, according to a report that year by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. It was the kind of abuse routinely reported by Egyptian detainees, and Mr. Azer’s family filed a complaint with prosecutors, who ordered him examined by forensic doctors.
The doctors, according to the report, stated that Mr. Azer’s injuries had been caused by the impact of a solid object, but as with thousands of similar allegations made against the police in Egypt over the past decades, prosecutors never took the case to court.
Mr. Abed has not been convicted of any crime and has denied his involvement in torture. In public, he has characterized the allegations against him as “discrimination” and a “cold war” by those who don’t want a former police officer leading the human rights committee. (He did not return several calls seeking comment for this article.)
Like many police officers in the era of former President Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Abed entered politics after retiring from service and joined Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. In December 2010, he won a seat representing a working-class district of southern Cairo.
The violence and flagrant fraud that characterized that election and delivered Mr. Mubarak’s party 83 percent of Parliament helped incite the uprising the following January, and after Mr. Mubarak fell, the council of generals that replaced him swiftly dissolved the Legislature.
In a recent interview with an Egyptian newspaper, Mr. Abed said that the vote had not represented “the will of the Egyptian people,” and that many candidates had “won in a way we all know.” He claimed he had been happy with Parliament’s dissolution. Before the uprising, he allowed, there was a “degree of oppression” and “excesses of state security” — the fault of inexperienced officials who turned Egypt into “a police state.”
But the aftermath of the uprising failed to transform the institutions of Mr. Mubarak’s regime.
In 2015, Mr. Abed returned to Parliament following an election that marked the final stop on a “road map” promised by Mr. Sisi two years earlier.
After Mr. Sisi took over the country, the West at first hesitated to offer him a full embrace. But his road map promised a new constitution, political leaders and Parliament. The United States, content to ignore abuses like torture and enforced disappearances and eager to endorse elections as the sine qua non of democracy, seemed ready to play along.
The Sisi administration needed to satisfy Western enchantment with electoral democracy without investing elected officials with real power to contest the president’s authority. Nor were the president and the rest of the security state in any mood for dissent. Protests had been banned and human rights groups put under investigation. The secret police had detained tens of thousands of critics and crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Sisi’s largest opposition.
According to reporting by Hossam Bahgat, one of Egypt’s foremost investigative journalists, the country’s powerful intelligence agencies — including military intelligence, which Mr. Sisi once led — constructed the new Parliament down to individual candidates.
Their essential task was to ensure a bloc of loyalists who could secure any decision requiring a two-thirds majority, such as extending a state of emergency or introducing a constitutional amendment. In essence, they would recreate the dissolved Parliament of 2010.
In this new Legislature, critics like Mohamed Anwar Esmat al-Sadat had no place.
“It is no secret to anyone that the state of human rights in Egypt requires considerable reassessment,” Mr. Sadat, a member of Parliament and a nephew of President Anwar el-Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981, told a reporter as Parliament convened for the first time in January.
Mr. Sadat became the first chairman of the new Parliament’s human rights committee, but it wasn’t long before he began to spar with loyalist Parliament members, including the speaker, a member of the pro-Sisi bloc so protective of the state that he shouted down Mr. Sadat’s critiques of the military and reportedly once told members of Parliament that “in tough times,” the legislative and executive branches should work together “as a single authority.”
When Mr. Sadat led a delegation to a human rights conference in Geneva in August, it prompted a wave of complaints from fellow members of Parliament who saw the act as disloyal, and he faced the prospect of a parliamentary investigation. Later that month, he resigned his leadership position.
The pro-Sisi coalition seized the opportunity. Mr. Abed declared his candidacy to replace Mr. Sadat, and his supporters exploited parliamentary bylaws to flood the committee, swelling it from 38 members to 64, larger than any committee in parliamentary history.
It was a move inspired by the old ruling party’s playbook: In the 2000s, Mr. Mubarak had let the Muslim Brotherhood shout itself hoarse in Parliament but never gave it the chance to introduce laws or head a committee. With the Brotherhood crushed, the door has now closed on critics of all stripes.
Today, Mr. Sadat remains on the committee, but the experience has convinced him that championing human rights in Egypt’s Parliament is a fool’s errand. The security apparatus is stronger than ever, he told me. “They want to make sure that no one else will have a chance,” he said.
Mr. Abed’s era is back.
Evan Hill is a writer and researcher in the Middle East.