Since July 2013, Egyptian authorities have undertaken a campaign of repression against dissidents. Over the past two years, the scope and severity of this campaign has surpassed any that Egypt saw under Hosni Mubarak. Most notably, security forces attacked mostly peaceful Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque and al-Nahda Square in 2013, killing at least 817 people; initiated a campaign of mass arrests of over 40,000 political prisoners (compared to 5,000-10,000 political prisoners near the end of Mubarak’s rule); and issued 509 mass execution sentences in 2014, an increase of 400 sentences compared to 2013. In addition, the nature of repression shifted from a measured, calculated approach under Mubarak to an unrestricted and systematic campaign under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The authorities have killed unarmed civilians; used sexual violence against women, men, and children with greater impunity; and conducted forced disappearances at unprecedented levels.
Although repression was widespread during Mubarak’s tenure, it was more subtle and was used relatively sparingly as a politically expedient tool to stabilize the regime. The Mubarak regime was careful to maintain a liberal veneer through the National Democratic Party (NDP), which Mubarak and his allies used to project a democratic image to domestic and international audiences. For example, in 2005 the NDP presided over constitutional amendments that allowed for the first multi-candidate presidential elections in the country’s history. But further amendments in 2007, which seemed to strengthen the power of the elected parliament, offered little substantive reform. By contrast, after more than four years of upheaval, the Sisi regime seems far less able or willing to curtail its repression and violent tactics. A few exceptions include President Sisi’s June 2015 apology for police brutality—which could be interpreted as a rare display of disunity with the security forces—and Al-Ahram newspaper’s April 2015 report, also condemning ongoing police brutality.
The shift toward more repression is likely a result of the change in the composition of the ruling elite, particularly the dominance of the military over the NDP-backed business elite that had been their partner during the Mubarak era. The regime’s ideological base has changed from liberalization and economic progress to political stability, containing the Muslim Brotherhood, and fighting terrorism.
Unlike the Sisi regime, the ruling NDP had formally condemned torture, limited the use of state violence, and sought to maintain a semblance of judicial independence. But the Sisi regime has crossed a number of previous red lines, offending the sensibilities of some of the urban middle classes. For example, the use of sexual violence, although present during Mubarak’s rule, has taken new, more severe and systematic forms, and the rape of men in police custody has become a widespread and an ongoing tactic. The regime also crossed a line in killing poet Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, who was shot while laying flowers in Tahrir square on the fourth anniversary of the January 25 Revolution. Finally, the regime continues to detain Mahmoud Mohamed Hussein, a 19-year-old arrested on the third anniversary of the revolution for wearing an anti-torture t-shirt.
Some argue that Sisi’s tactics simply reflect the reality of Egyptian politics after four years of upheaval, but this ignores other alternatives to the current campaign of repression. For instance, directly after the coup, the Muslim Brotherhood had expressed the desire—whether genuine or not—to find a peaceful solution before negotiations ended and the military moved to disperse the sit-ins. But the military elites chose to eliminate the Brotherhood as a possible contender, thereby allowing the officer corps to consolidate its control over the political scene.
While the Sisi regime has used physical repression as its primary tactic to deal with both secular activists and Brotherhood members, as attested by the draconian sentences against members of both groups, it has primarily used economic and political marginalization to deal with the business elite. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, business tycoons were imprisoned on corruption charges. Ahmed Ezz, a steel tycoon and the right hand man of Gamal Mubarak, although eventually released from prison in August 2014, was barred from running for parliament in 2015. On the macro level, the military has asserted its dominance by aggressively expanding its economic empire at the expense of the business elite, awarding large government contracts to military-controlled businesses rather than the private sector. The key role that the military played in the new Suez Canal project attests to this increased influence.
As its economic influence grows, and with the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood eliminated, most checks on the army’s power have been removed. The judiciary in particular has fallen in line with the military’s politics and no longer exhibits the independence that it had during the Mubarak era, when reformist judges participated in opposing the regime during the 2005 elections. Similarly, the verdicts meted out against Brotherhood members for “insulting the court” show a high level of animosity toward the Brotherhood within the judiciary itself. As part of this vendetta, they also infamously sentenced fourteen peacefully protesting teenage girls to eleven years in jail—later commuted to a one-year suspended sentence after domestic pressure.
Repression in Egypt is likely to remain the preferred tactic of Egyptian authorities. There are signs of this already becoming the norm. The new terrorism law approved by the cabinet in June 2015 contains many draconian articles, including ones that criminalize news reporting that contradicts the government’s official accounts. In addition, a proposed amendment to the judicial law could open up a legal path to carry out the hundreds of mass execution sentences. But unlike during the Mubarak era, repression is no longer centrally directed or easily controlled. The military might be attempting to centralize power in its own hands, but competition persists among different security agencies to maintain their institutional autonomy and privileges. The military’s efforts to consolidate power in its own hands—without the use of a civilian facade like the NDP—will subject it to greater public scrutiny and criticism, jeopardizing its long-term stability. The military’s accumulation of wealth and contradictions within the system can provide a powerful rallying cry against it, opening up the way for another uprising.
Maged Mandour is a political analyst and writes the “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” column for Open Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @MagedMandour