For Americans, Thanksgiving week is a time of gratitude and celebration. But in Egypt, the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is using the holiday — and the fact that Washington is in transition — as a smokescreen to crack down on the opposition and civil society.
Gasser Abdel Razek, the recently detained executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), is currently sitting in a cold cell with no winter clothing after having his head forcibly shaved. This is how the military regime in Egypt is treating one of the country’s foremost human rights defenders. This treatment took place despite international condemnation of his arrest along with two senior staff last week on trumped up charges related to aiding a terrorist group.
The Egyptian government also recently announced that it would add to its terrorist list more than two dozen prisoners of conscience, including prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah and former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abou Fotouh. At exactly the same time last year, security forces arrested the editor in chief of the online newspaper Mada Masr, Lina Attalah, and two of her colleagues. Fattah has been in prison since his arrest in November 2013. It was also around this time of the year that I was first taken in for interrogations in the sham trial Egypt launched against 43 non-governmental organization workers in 2011.
The lack of serious action from the international community has provided Egypt’s military rulers much leeway to commit numerous atrocities and crimes against citizens expressing dissenting views.
Since the 2011 uprisings, the military establishment has viewed Egyptian civil society as its enemy and a threat to its dominance over the country’s politics and economy. It has crushed civil society organizations under an overbearing legal framework, not to mention politically motivated imprisonments and prosecutions.
Following the military coup of 2013 and the massacre of more than 1,000 supporters of Egypt’s ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, in public squares, the Sissi regime faced no serious consequences from its Western allies. Why? Sissi played his cards quite well. He played on three issues that were of utmost concern to the West. The first was the so-called war on terror and fears that if autocrats such as Sissi were pushed too hard on human rights, radical forces, such as the Islamic State, would take control of the region. That Sissi labeled his opponents as terrorists made his frequent crackdowns against them an easier pill to swallow for Western capitals.
The second is concerns over the security of Israel amid regional turmoil, the conflict in Syria, and the threat of Tehran and its allies. As one of the few Arab countries that enjoyed peaceful relations with Israel, Sissi presented himself as an indispensable ally to Washington — even if he is turning Egypt into one large political prison.
The third is the refugee crisis. The Sissi regime played on European countries’ fear of the inflow of refugees from his own country, which has a population of more than 100 million. Thus, they were long willing to tolerate his human rights transgressions against his opponents in the name of stability.
But, today, Sissi’s regime is terrified that the three long-standing cards it played to its favor in past years are now losing value. With the military defeat of ISIS, terrorism is no longer a priority for the United States. With the spectacle of refugees fleeing to Europe abating, the crisis is viewed with less urgency even though it has not disappeared. Egypt’s friendly posture to Israel is losing its novelty as more Arab countries normalize relations, including the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain and Sudan. Add to that chatter that Saudi Arabia might soon follow, in light of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s secret meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the presence of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. To top it all, President Trump, who famously called Sissi his “favorite dictator,” lost his reelection bid. President-elect Joe Biden has already signaled that his policies toward the Middle East would diverge considerably from those of the Trump administration.
The attack against the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights came after they held a meeting requested by senior diplomats from European countries and Canada to discuss the status of human rights in Egypt, just as the U.S. election results were coming out. Perhaps the Sissi regime is attempting to use these arrests and human rights abuses as new bargaining chips to secure a strategic meeting at the Oval Office next year, in exchange for halting the crackdown and releasing innocent civilians.
As the regime advances its vindictive crackdown, these actions must not be met with silence or condemnation statements from the international community. The time for expressing concerns and hoping for the best has passed. Crushing progressive voices and silencing dissent in this unprecedented way are not signs of a strong government capable of maintaining stability. Quite the opposite, these actions reflect a vulnerable regime with irresponsible leadership, which represents a huge risk given the volatility of the dynamics in the Middle East. There needs to be a strong stand against the conduct of the Sissi regime.
Nancy Okail is a visiting scholar at Stanford University and former executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.