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Egypt still struggles under authoritarian rule

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Picture: Reuters/The Egyptian Presidency – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Under al-Sisi, the Brotherhood, which played a significant role in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and emerged victorious in the elections that followed, is banned as a terrorist organisation and its membership may be punishable by death.

By Abdul Rahman

On July 3, the latest military takeover of power in Egypt completed 10 years. On that day in 2013, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military commander and then-defence minister, led the coup against President Mohammed Morsi.

Since then, the al-Sisi regime has led Egypt with an iron fist with utter contempt towards the wider needs of the common people. Egyptians have tried to resist al-Sisi’s policies although the protests have not reached the scale of the 2011 uprising that ousted long-term authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.

In doing so, they have faced severe repression, with thousands of activists, journalists, and politicians jailed. Despite the widespread popular discontent and its economic failures, the al-Sisi regime remains in power in the Arab world’s largest country only because of its total subservience to imperialist forces like the US and its regional allies.

Oppression of dissent

It is reported that Egypt has more than 60,000 political prisoners in its wide network of jails. Most of these political prisoners are journalists, human rights activists, or political activists belonging to organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Under al-Sisi, the Brotherhood, which played a significant role in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and emerged victorious in the elections that followed, is banned as a terrorist organisation and its membership may be punishable by death.

Al-Sisi started his rule by killing hundreds of demonstrators, supposed to be Brotherhood supporters, at the Rabaa protest site in Cairo on August 14, 2013. The protesters were opposing the coup against the Morsi government. The fate of other political groups, including the left, is not very different.

Most of them are either banned or have been forced to stop their activities. In Egypt, workers cannot strike, and people cannot hold demonstrations without the prior permission of the authorities. Participation in “unauthorised” protests can land one in jail for a life term.

The treatment of political prisoners inside jails is another human rights issue. Morsi died in jail in 2019, reportedly due to the mistreatment that most political prisoners undergo. Alaa Abdel Fattah, a 41-year-old pro-democracy activist who played a significant role in the 2011 uprisings against authoritarianism, has been struggling to keep the world’s attention by carrying out repeated hunger strikes to protest the horrible conditions in Egyptian jails.

Alaa has been repeatedly jailed by the al-Sisi regime and has spent almost all his life since 2014 behind bars for being critical of the government. While the emergency – which allowed al-Sisi to rule by decrees for years and control the media, among other institutions – was finally lifted in 2021, most of the repressive laws and provisions established during emergency days still remain.

One example of the increasing curbs on freedom of speech and expression is the blocking of scores of websites, most of them related to news organisations critical of al-Sisi. Yet another example of political persecution of the opposition is Ahmed Tantawy, a political activist who had announced earlier that he will contest the 2024 presidential elections against al-Sisi. His family members have now been imprisoned.

US proxy in the region?

What sustains this repressive apparatus? It is very well known now that al-Sisi, who was the defence minister under Morsi, took power with the backing of the US and other regional powers aligned with the US such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The pretext of the coup, as presented by al-Sisi, was a popular uprising against the Morsi-led government’s attempts to introduce religious codes in Egypt’s secular polity. There is no denying that Morsi’s Freedom and Justice party was an offshoot of the Brotherhood and was trying to carry out its religious agenda.

However, rather than a concern for secularism, what prompted the Egyptian military to carry out the coup was the US and other regional players who were concerned about their regional interests being compromised by the rise of a popular force with a divergent worldview. The Brotherhood’s regime also threatened imperialist interests in the region given Egypt’s physical proximity to Israel and its political weight in the larger Arab world. It also, therefore, posed possible threats to the authoritarian regimes in the Gulf.

Today, Egypt is an economic mess. About a third of the country’s total population of 105 million is living in poverty. Food inflation is high while wages have been stagnant for years, creating starvation-like conditions. Meanwhile, al-Sisi’s economic mismanagement has pushed Egypt to the brink of bankruptcy. The Egyptian economy has been kept alive by loans provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and crucial economic support from its imperialist and regional backers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The US has provided billions of dollars in aid, both military and otherwise, every year to the Egyptian military since 1979 to keep its peace with Israel. While this aid has come under heavy criticism due to Egypt’s poor human rights record, successive US administrations have continued it, almost always without any conditions. In return, Egypt has kept the peace with Israel and readily implements the inhumane blockade of Gaza by keeping its land borders closed. It also provides crucial assistance in the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen and guards the Gulf states’ interests in war-torn Libya.

The article was first published on Peoples Dispatch :