By failing to withdraw support for the oppressive Egyptian regime, Trump is fostering the very radical environment he says he is trying to prevent.
A History of Egypt’s Government
In 2013, Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown by a military coup, according to BBC News. At the same time, the Egyptian Constitution of 2012 was also suspended, according to NPR.
Shortly after in 2014, former military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected as President in a landslide victory and since then, Sisi has ruled over Egypt in a dictatorship that is arguably one of the most oppressive Egyptian regimes to date.
According to data collected from the Arab Network for Human Rights, there has been a threefold rise in the number of death sentences handed down by Egyptian courts, rising from 800 death sentences over six years prior to 2014 to more than 3,000 sentenced since Sisi rose to power.
Moreover, Reuters reports that “at least 33 civilians were executed following trials in military courts from 2015” compared to none from 2008 to 2014. President Sisi has thrown countless journalists into jail and intensely limited freedom of speech as almost all websites that are believed to be critical of the government have been blocked since 2017.
In addition, one of Sisi’s first actions as president in 2014 was to dramatically slash subsidies for fuel and food. According to the Atlantic Council, this led to a 78% price increase on gasoline and a 175% price increase on natural gas — a big hit for a country where 33% of the population was classified as poor in 2018, up from 28% in 2015.
Over the course of Sisi’s regime, the government has effectively quelled the scope of protestors and successfully limited almost all outbursts against the government. However, on Sept. 20, 2019, Egypt saw its first major protests since 2013 when Morsi was first overtaken.
They began when Mohamed Ali, a 45-year-old Egyptian actor and building contractor, posted videos on social media criticizing corruption in the government. In his videos, Ali called for Egyptians to protest in the streets and for the removal of President Sisi, according to The Washington Post. Though these videos were blocked within hours of posting, Ali’s message spread like wildfire throughout Egypt.
As a result of Ali’s call for action, protests broke out in eight different cities. Citizens from all walks of life, but mainly young advocates, took to the streets and chanted “Down with Sisi” and “the people demand the regime’s fall.”
Hundreds of residents, mainly from working-class backgrounds, also stormed a popular soccer match, according to the NY Times. Following the first major protests on Sept. 20, another major protest took place near Cairo on Sept. 27.
Sisi military responded aggressively with rubber bullets and tear gas to stop the protestors, according to BBC News. They established a heavy presence around Tahrir Square, the city center of Cairo. This location is significant as it is where the famous 2011 revolution took place where citizens’ protests overthrew a former autocratic ruler, according to BBC News.
By having a strong military presence in Tahrir Square, the government established its dominance and sent a strong message to the people of Egypt: a similar overthrowal of the government would not occur like it did in 2011.
Following these protests, more than 3,120 people were arrested, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. Those that were detained ranged from extremists to lawyers to journalists, and even children.
In fact, based on data from Amnesty International, “at least 111 children” were arrested, “some as young as 11, with several detained on their way home from school.”
Government officials on the streets also searched protestors’ phones and social media extensively to search for anything they considered implicating evidence that could be used against them, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. These actions taken by the government have been heavily criticized by rights groups as they believe that the lengths that the government went to to try to stop these protestors were unconstitutional.
Long-Term Results and COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has only furthered Sisi’s authoritarian grasp as the regime ratified 18 new amendments to Egypt’s emergency laws. Some of these new amendments make sense given the current context of the situation as they give President Sisi the right to close schools and universities, to mandate hospitals to work together with the government to resolve the crisis and also to control scientific laboratory work, according to HRW News.
In addition, these new developments allow the president to ban public gatherings and processions, which makes sense given that the transmission of COVID-19 at large public events is extremely dangerous.
However, while these laws may be beneficial in the short term, they also pose extremely concerning questions for Egypt’s future.
For example, while the ban on gatherings makes sense amidst a global pandemic, Article 13 of this amendment allows the president to “restrict public and private meetings, processions, and any other forms of gatherings” regardless of if there is any actual health crisis.
Furthermore, these changes give Sisi more leverage over the economy as he can regulate prices of various goods and “determine methods of collecting monetary and in-kind donation.” By ratifying these amendments as part of the emergency legislation, authorities will be able to strictly enforce these measures whenever they wish.
Egypt’s relationship with the United States
Given the ever-increasing power of the Sisi regime and the government’s disregard for freedom of speech and basic human rights, the seemingly easiest option for Washington would be to sever its relationship with Cairo and withdraw economic and political support.
However, the relationship between Egypt and the United States is increasingly becoming more important for both nations, who have historic ties dating back to the Cold War. Egypt’s geographical positioning gives a unique influence in the region, inviting more than $40 billion in military and $30 billion in economic assistance from the US since 1980.
The United States and Egypt have common interests in limiting Iran’s influence in the Middle East as well as to curtail the spread of radical movements in volatile states like Iraq and Syria. Both the US and Egypt have a strong relationship with Israel. In addition, though Egypt has been struggling economically, it is still the most populous Arab country, according to the World Population Review, and its control of the Suez Canal is vital for international commerce, while transportation routes through Egypt are beneficial for the US.
And yet while the connection between these two nations is undoubtedly one that must be preserved, the U.S. could slowly begin to withdraw some of their support and show less outwards “affection” that has become more apparent during President Trump’s administration. In remarks on President Trump’s Twitter, he has referred to Egypt’s leader as his “favorite dictator” who is a “great leader” that is “highly respected.”
While both nations are benefiting from the relationship, the Egyptian military is heavily dependent on weapons and contractors from the United States. Washington could use this to leverage pressure against Cairo on its human rights record.
Finally, if the U.S. continues to permit a cruel and oppressive leader to tyrannize his citizens under an oppressive regime, it is likely to spark radical movements among repressed Egyptians to overthrow the government. In seeking to stop extremist Islamists by maintaining a relationship with Egypt, instead, it may have the complete opposite effect and cause Egyptians to seek out violent forms of rebellion.