Since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi won reelection in March with a record 97.08 percent of the vote—and particularly since his inauguration ceremony on June 2—the Egyptian regime has embarked on a renewed campaign of repression against prominent activists and opposition figures. This is a continuation of a policy of strangling the already fragmented and ineffective legal opposition regardless of how little threat it represents.
The most prominent example of this is the continued detention of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the head of the Strong Egypt Party, an Islamist Party with liberal leanings that split off from the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011. His arrest on February 16 came as part of an earlier wave of repression in the run-up to the presidential elections and was triggered by his public criticism of the regime during this period. More recently, 28 members of the Egyptian Council for Change, an opposition group with the proclaimed aim of ending military rule in Egypt, were referred to the State Security Emergency Criminal Court on June 11 on charges of aiming to topple the regime through protests and false news. Additional clear intimidation tactics have targeted groups such as the Civil Democratic Movement, a loose coalition of the official opposition, whom unidentified assailants shouting pro-government slogans attacked during a Ramadan iftar on June 6, resulting in a few minor injuries. Hazem Abdel Azim, Sisi’s former presidential campaign manager during his 2014 presidential run, who later became a prominent opposition figure exposing the role of the security apparatus in manipulating the parliamentary elections, was arrested on May 27. He is charged with spreading false news and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed group. Wael Abbas, a prominent blogger arrested on May 23, was charged with involvement in an outlawed organization and with spreading false news; satirist Shady Abu Zeid was arrested on May 20 and accused of spreading false news; and Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a youth activist arrested on May 15, is facing similar charges.
The regime has been implementing a number of measures that are bound to increase public discontent among the lower and the middle classes, and the preemptive wave of arrests reflects this fear. On June 2, the Egyptian government increased the price of water used for domestic consumption between 33.3 and 46.5 percent, depending on the level of consumption, to take effect immediately. This was followed on June 5 by an attempt to increase government revenues by imposing additional fees to issue various permits and certificates, increasing the proposed fees 200-fold in the case of obtaining Egyptian citizenship. This is also coupled with proposed deep cuts to energy and electricity subsidies, by 26.3 percent for the former and 47 percent for the latter. The cost of household electricity is expected to increase by as much as 69.2 percent for the lowest consumption bracket. In addition, on June 16 the Egyptian government announced an increase in the price of fuel of up to 66.7 percent. This subsidy cut might be offset by a proposed slight increase in the level of food subsidies.
These policies directly affect the lower and middle classes and will likely increase the level of public discontent with the regime. Even though there has been no organized opposition to these measures, the opposition could exploit potential outbursts of anger such as the spontaneous protests that erupted in the Cairo metro on May 12 against the increase in the price of metro tickets. Authorities arrested at least 20 people at the protests, and on May 15 charged labor lawyer Haytham Mohamadeen with “aiding a terrorist organization” by inciting the metro protests, even though he did not take part in them. After the latest increase in the price of fuel prices, the parliamentary opposition, represented by the Civil Democratic Movement, issued a statement publicly criticizing the regime’s economic policy, warning that this could lead to bursts of spontaneous anger.
Even though the regime is continuing its economic policy of austerity, the severity and intensity of the measures have increased since the start of Sisi’s second term. The deep cut in water subsides, as well as the quick succession of the additional cuts to electricity and fuel subsidies, are bound to build up tension. These measures also come after core inflation reached 31.95 percent as of June 2017, which has significantly eroded the purchasing power of the average Egyptian and lowered the average standard of living. These measures stand in stark contrast to Sisi’s promises to improve Egyptian’s living conditions.
Furthermore the regime is squeezing out private sector elites, as military-linked enterprises encroach on civilian enterprises. In the most recent example, the military spent $1 billion on the construction of the largest cement factory in the country, which plans to reach an output of 12.6 million tons per year. The new cement factory exacerbates the overcapacity of the industry, which already produced 79 million tons of cement per year for a domestic market that consumes only 52 million tons. A range of Egyptian and foreign private sector leaders complained of heavy losses and openly disagreed with the military’s projection that market growth in the cement industry will fill the gap. The IMF also warned of the negative impact on the development of the private sector.
The regime has also offered a large number of tax exemptions to military commercial enterprises. This includes not just existing military exemptions from income taxes and import tariffs, based on laws issued in 2005 and 1986, but also a new law in 2015 exempting the military from real estate taxes. Furthermore, the military was exempted from the June 12 increase in electricity prices on industrial producers by 43 percent.
The military’s economic expansion is also undermining small- and medium-sized companies. Over the years, the military has expended its footprint in all aspects of the private sector, from bakeries to baby formula to air conditioning. The diversity of these examples shows the pressure that the regime is exerting on the private sector, which is bound to increase opposition, not only among civilian elites but also among the middle class owners of small businesses. The military’s expansion might cause losses to larger companies, but it can also drive smaller enterprises completely out of business, increasing the level of public anger among the middle class.
Political motivations may also be at the root of the growing repression. Since Sisi was reelected, he has sought to amend the constitution to extend his tenure. Based on article 140 of the Egyptian constitution, the president can only be elected to serve two terms of four years. In addition, article 226 stipulates that the articles related to the election of the president can only be amended to provide additional democratic checks on executive power, not to take them away. Thus, the two articles have to be amended in order to allow Sisi to continue in office after 2022, which will entail approval by the parliament and then a referendum. There are already reports from the legislature’s General Secretariat on ongoing preparations to amend the constitution to remove the restrictions in article 226.
The constitutional requirement for a public referendum on the amendments is likely to be a problem for the regime, since it will allow the opposition an opportunity to mobilize, possibly to organize protests or boycotts. And even though Sisi won the latest elections with a record 97 percent of the vote, the regime embarked on a wave of repression beforehand against other candidates, and in the end had to scramble to find a virtually unknown candidate to stand against Sisi to give a semblance of democratic process. Thus, the process of elections and referendums is still capable of pressuring the regime—especially considering the increased economic hardship the average citizen faces.
Maged Mandour is a political analyst and writes the “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” column for Open Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @MagedMandour.