Amidst chaos and disorder across the region from the brutality of Assad in Syria and ISIS in Iraq and the levant, Saudi-Yemeni led coalition, oil crisis in the GCC and the enduring issue of Palestine-Israel, Egypt may stand tall as a symbol of relative stability in the Middle-East.
The absence of newsworthy outbreaks does not reflect a transparent and democratic state but is instead the result of an authoritarian regime that curtails freedom of expression through regressive policies. The controversial ‘Protest law’ in Egypt has prompted widespread criticism from organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Implemented in 2013 (shortly after Sisi assumed power through a military coup) the ‘protest law’ outlined regulations on public demonstration, according to Human Rights Watch it “effectively gives the Interior Ministry discretion to ban any protest on vague grounds and allows police to forcibly disperse protests at the slightest indication of disorder.”This ‘disorder’ refers not to disruption of national security but to criticism of the Sisi government.
This is inferred by the imprisonment of protestors that criticise and draw attention to human rights abuses committed by the state.
The extent of the threat of the government is illustrated by the deaths of civilians at the hands of the police, most notably Shaima Al-Sabbagh who was killed by police officers in 2015 while demonstrating against the Sisi regime.
Additionally, the disproportionate imprisonment of male youths has also raised legitimate concerns about the threat to human rights and civil liberties.The criminalisation of protestors is directly connected to the governmental crackdown on public space and attempts from Sisi’s office to curtail freedom of expression.
Policing of public space manifests in Egypt both in the physical, through the protest laws regulation of street activism and the spatial that involves extensive censorship of the media.
The pernicious impact of Sisi’s government on civil liberties is not limited to the protest law and extends across state-society interactions. The range of national apparatuses deployed by Sisi and raise concerns include the civilian trials in military courts, mass imprisonment of oppositional and Muslim brotherhood supporters and reports of torture in prison.
Sisi has recently suggested that the protest law will be revised however and this indicates potential progress to be made in moving away from a dictatorship style regime, one that is comparable to the autocracy of Mubarak who was ousted by national protests in 2011 during the ‘Arab Spring.’Mubarak’s thirty-year presidency was defined by a lack of democratic rule, rampant state corruption and police brutality.
From Mubarak, Sadam Hussain, Gaddafi and Assad, we know that cronyism ruled by harsh violence and state repression will always lead to national disorder.
While the downfalls of Hussain and Gaddafi can be attributed to US led interventions the pattern remains that authoritarian regimes restrict the prospects for stability. Sisi’s ‘97%’ percent electoral defeat in 2014 has been followed by a series of questionable political endeavours and if history is anything to go by, this will only exacerbate unless transformative action is taken to repeal laws legislation as the protest law.Sisi like those before him will, for now, evade the international scrutiny that bestows his fellow tyrants in the region, in part because of his complicity with the U.S. government and because of the veneer of order that his draconian rule provides.
It is only a matter of time however until Sisi’s attack on human rights and civil liberties leads to unrest across Egypt.
We know that undemocratic rulers who fear public disorder from threats to their power tend to respond with an increasing iron first rule.
The current dystopia of the Syrian political landscape offers an important lesson for Sisi, if he does not revise the current legislation and continues toward trajectory of oppression he will ensure further devastation both himself and his country.
The question will simply remain; how long will it be until the photograph of Shaima Al Sabbagh or others like her instigate a similar reaction to the public outcry of the video footage of Khalid Mohamed Said beaten to death by police in 2011?