When Vice President Mike Pence visits Egypt on Dec. 20, he is likely to echo President Trump’s effusive praise for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as doing a “fantastic job.” Such rhetoric, however, contradicts the ugly reality unfolding on the ground. Brutal repression and mass human rights abuses are fueling violence and radicalization, undermining Egypt’s important fight against terrorism.
Since July 2013, when al-Sisi led the army’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt has descended into a cruel military autocracy. The generals who rule behind a thin civilian facade have stripped away rights and freedoms, including many supposedly guaranteed by Egypt’s constitution. They say they are protecting the state from “national security threats” that include human rights work and independent politics. Tens of thousands of citizens have been arrested, forcibly disappeared, tortured, imprisoned after grossly unfair trials, and even killed for the “crime” of peaceful dissent. Victims of this unrelenting crackdown include some 50,000 political prisoners — Muslim Brotherhood supporters and secular activists, Muslims and Christians alike. Human rights defenders and independent journalists are under siege. Egypt today is governed by fear, instead of the rule of law.
Nevertheless, laws are very important in this authoritarian system. Al-Sisi has constructed an extraordinarily repressive legal framework that even exceeds that of Hosni Mubarak’s in its disdain for democratic values. His rubber-stamp parliament — formed through a 2015 vote manipulated by security agencies to ensure that only regime loyalists would win — has played a central role in this process. Unlike under Mubarak, this parliament lacks even a token opposition presence. When a few brave legislators have complained about security interference in their work, or about the excessively harsh legislation being rammed through, parliament’s leadership has punished, or even expelled, them for falling out of line.
The repressive laws approved by parliament are too numerous to enumerate here, but four are illustrative of al-Sisi’s severe authoritarianism. The Demonstrations Law makes authorized protest against the government effectively impossible. It has sent thousands of young Egyptians to jail. The Anti-Terrorism Law defines “terrorism” so broadly that it includes speech, writing, and other peaceful dissent, and has been wielded to lock up nonviolent pro-democracy activists. The NGO Law criminalizes legitimate civil society work, curtails funding and imposes prison and heavy fines. Reportedly, concern over this law was a motivation for the Trump administration’s August suspension of $195 million of military aid. And the Youth Entities Law bans all political activity— in Orwellian fashion, even conversations about politics — in sports clubs and other recreation centers.
In recent weeks, additional repressive legislation has been proposed, including an anti-homosexuality bill that would explicitly criminalize same-sex relations for the first time in Egypt. It would allow the imprisonment of anyone convicted of “homosexual acts” and anyone who simply advocates for LGBTQ rights. And amendments to the Nationality Law would allow the state to revoke citizenship from peaceful opponents. Dissidents inside Egypt and in exile would be at risk.
The regime justifies this raft of draconian legislation as required to fight terrorism. But while the parliament is rapidly approving yet more repressive laws, jihadist attacks are becoming bloodier and more brazen, leaving the security forces struggling to respond. Last month, a horrific terrorist assault on a North Sinai mosque took the lives of some 300 Egyptians, with the military, which effectively runs the Sinai Peninsula, reportedly nowhere to be seen during the massacre. The regime’s determination to crush all nonviolent opposition diverts attention and resources from the fight against actual terrorists. Repression also breeds despair and anger, creating more disaffected Egyptians from which extremist groups can draw support.
Egypt sorely needs real representative institutions to craft sound policy responses to the country’s challenges and give different parts of society a voice. Its tens of millions of young people, suffocating under autocracy and economic hardship, desperately need avenues for participation and to live with dignity. As we saw under Mubarak, an eventual eruption of popular unrest is possible when such political safety valves, and the rule of law and justice, are absent.
Thus, instead of heaping more undeserved praise on al-Sisi, Vice President Pence should speak out about Egypt’s human rights crisis and the authoritarian laws enabling it. Pence should press for the release of political prisoners, for an end to the crackdown on civil society, and for the repeal or revision of egregious legislation that blocks the exercise of fundamental rights essential for a peaceful, tolerant, and stable country. Keeping silent about Egypt’s troubling trajectory ultimately serves neither Egyptian nor U.S. interests.
Amy Hawthorne is the deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy. She recently testified before Congress’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission about Egypt’s authoritarian laws.
This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill on December 15, 2017. It is reprinted with permission.