If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, Egypt most certainly has its share of well-intentioned individuals. Time and again, Egyptian authorities have asserted that President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster on July 3 “was not a coup.” They have told diplomats, journalists, and human rights defenders the same thing: the military responded to the popular will to get Egypt’s democratic transition back on track.
No matter how one views Morsi’s removal or the undoubtedly dismal failures of his administration, the military-backed interim government has done precious little to right the transition’s course. A palpable shift toward policies of “repressive stability” now dominates the security forces’ actions—and Islamists are not the only target. Secular activists, journalists, and human rights defenders have all suffered the consequences of Egypt’s ubiquitous “war on terror.” The consequences of this approach are increasingly turning the country toward a reality even worse than that under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted from power on February 11, 2011.
When Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued his ultimatum to then-president Mohamed Morsi on July 1, 2013, many of those same young revolutionaries who called for Mubarak to relinquish his throne turned out in support of the military’s intervention in the protests against Morsi’s government, which began on June 30. Activists rejected Morsi’s inept, self-serving rule, which had brought about a rise in identity politics, increased the use of religion as a tool to vilify political opponents, and involved an attempt to coopt (rather than reform) the security apparatus to suit the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda. Only a slim subsection of Egyptian revolutionaries supported neither camp and refused to give General Sisi a mandate to take the country forward. They worried about the probable securitization of the political sphere, remembering past crimes committed against protesters by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF)—for which only three police officers ever faced conviction—in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster. Sadly, their concerns proved to be well-founded.
Despite pleas from some human rights organizations and a concerted diplomatic effort, the clearing of pro-Morsi supporters from Cairo’s streets on August 14, 2013 resulted in the death of more than six hundred protesters. The crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders and supporters crippled the organization’s coordinating strength; those prominent members who were not killed by security forces were quickly imprisoned. The dispersal marked the end of reason and the beginning of a war on both sides of the political divide.
The crackdown against Islamists mobilized extremists to conduct their own armed assaults on government personnel and installations. But overwhelming public and media support for the military and police allowed the security sector to reassert its pre-2011 dominance over the streets. This newfound status gave those officers responsible for numerous civilian deaths—whether directly or through command responsibility—the cover to resume business as usual and quash political dissent.
It remains unclear whether the orders came from General Sisi, the interim government, or from the interior ministry, but by December 2013 dissent had been effectively outlawed. Whatever the source of this policy, at the very least, General Sisi has appeared to condone the tactic. As the security services have become increasingly impatient with any critique of government or police performance, their targets have expanded beyond Islamists. Journalists, academics, and human rights and political activists soon became subjected to this repression as well.
Repressing Activists and the Media
Journalists fell into the crosshairs first, as general intelligence officers reclaimed the sources of public information and shut down Islamist media. The prominent (and unfounded) case against 20 Al Jazeera correspondents, known as the “Marriott Cell,” framed their reporting activities as those of a terrorist operation against the state, conflating journalistic integrity with Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Local journalists report a return of their security minders keeping watch over their reporting. A Committee for the Protection of Journalists report released in February documents the detention of at least sixty journalists since Morsi’s removal, with more reports of additional arrests and harassment since then. With the state reasserting its control over the media in the interest of “national security,” the impact on freedom of expression can be felt across the board.
It did not take long for political activists to fall victim to the same coercive policies. In November and December 2013, police arrested Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, prominent founding members of the April 6 Youth Movement, and Ahmed Douma, another high-profile activist. They were charged with violating a protest law that effectively bans demonstrations without government consent. The three men were sentenced to three years of imprisonment and are currently jailed in Tora prison. The persecution of April 6 activists came as no surprise given the smear campaign in the Egyptian media, which criticized the group for negotiating with the Muslim Brotherhood a handful of times since Mubarak’s ouster.
Academics have faced similar persecution. A travel ban has been issued against prominent liberal politician Amr Hamzawy, who has been openly critical of Egypt’s various governments, including the current interim regime, while charges of espionage have been brought against Emad Shahin, an academic who studies the Muslim Brotherhood.
Lastly, but most disturbingly, the human rights community has felt the pinch of repressive stability. Backed by a fearful and insecure general public, the police have used their immense power and discretion to pressure uncooperative human rights organizations. Although many human rights defenders see intimidation from domestic intelligence officers as part and parcel of the job, several practitioners have reported particularly hostile attitudes from security officials toward the nonprofit sector. Intimidating calls, unannounced visits, and even threats of physical force have forced many international groups, including Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Oxfam, and others to temporarily close their offices in Egypt until the political climate improves and they can resume their normal activities. Although Egypt never provided a friendly atmosphere for international organizations—as reflected in restrictions contained in various drafts of the country’s NGO law as well as the June 2013 trial against employees of various international NGOs working on democracy promotion in the country—current public attitudes have made it increasingly difficult to operate.
Local Egyptian human rights organizations have experienced much of the same harassment, but also carry the additional burden of divisions within the domestic NGO community itself. After the violent August 2013 dispersal of pro-Morsi protesters, a number of Egyptian human rights organizations came out in support of the government’s actions. Only ten organizations categorically condemned the dispersal, including groups such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. Ad hominim attacks against human rights activists increased among groups. Others simply remained silent. According to those in the field, many human rights groups that have retained their professional integrity have shifted tactics—focusing on legal advocacy, relying increasingly on initiatives that identify allies in government, and avoiding politics to the extent possible. Given the current climate, however, human rights advocates will be hard-pressed to find any real allies in government.
Conclusion: Retrying Past Failures
The impact the government’s repressive stability policies have had on the human rights community will surely have negative knock-on effects on Egypt as a whole. Some Egyptian officials may believe human rights to be an important component for the country’s future, but not at the expense of national security. The problem with this rationale is that it did not work before, during Mubarak’s regime.
Intensifying repression will only increase public resentment and international pressure over time, particularly when used against nonpartisan actors. Against Islamists, it has only bred the type of extremism that leads to the death of police, military, and now civilians, as seen in the attack on Korean tourists on February 16. Denied an opportunity to seek justice, victims’ families seek revenge that fuels violent repercussions that negatively impact the Egyptian economy.
When Egyptians decided to reclaim their dignity on January 25, 2011, they brought about the downfall of a president. The repressive stability policy violates those cries for bread, freedom, and human dignity. One should hope the incoming government does not perpetuate coercive tactics lest it bring about the downfall of the state.