Egypt

Restive nation

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Cairo on April 25 against the handing over of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Photo: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP

An Egyptian activist holds a poster calling for justice to be done in the case of the recently murdered Italian student, Giulio Regeni, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo on April 15. Photo: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the Africa 2016 forum in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on February 20. Photo: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP

Cairo’s focus on crushing the Muslim Brotherhood has led to a massive crackdown on all forms of civil dissent, whose ramifications can be seen in a dismal economy and a spurt in terrorism.

The protests on the streets of Cairo and other cities on April 15 were the biggest witnessed in Egypt after the military-led takeover three years ago. Draconian laws prohibiting public rallies and protests had come into force soon after. The protests in April were ostensibly triggered by the agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia under which the government in Cairo decided to “transfer” two small Red Sea islands under its control to the latter. Prominent Egyptians took to social media to criticise the government, which had not bothered to take the public into its confidence before announcing the transfer of the islands. Many said that the islands were bartered in exchange for the billions of dollars the Saudis had pledged to Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood said in a statement that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir were given “for a fistful of dollars or in exchange for Saudi government support for policies sanctioning murder, detentions, violations, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings”.

The two islands are strategically located at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba; the Jordanian port of Aqaba and the Israeli port of Eilat are located there. Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon has said that Israel was consulted before the transfer. He told the Israeli media that the transfer of the islands needed the prior approval of Israel and the United States, which had helped broker the Egypt-Israel peace accord.

Yaakov Amidror, a former Director of Israel’s National Security Council, has observed that Israel’s inclusion in the Egypt-Saudi agreement was an important development. “There is no doubt that the relationship between Israel and Egypt is at a higher level than ever before. It is also clear that Saudi Arabia has many interests that are linked to Israeli interests,” he told Israeli army radio.

After former general Abdel Fattah el–Sisi, commonly known as Sisi, seized power, the military-led government inserted a clause in the Egyptian Constitution that explicitly prohibited the ceding of Egyptian territory. One of the charges against former President Mohamed Morsi was that he was planning to cede parts of the Sinai peninsula to the Palestinian Authority.

The Saudi monarch, King Salman, had come to Cairo with promises of more financial aid to the beleaguered Egyptian economy. So far, the Saudis have given around $19 billion to prop up the economy, and much more has been pledged. There was talk of more enhanced military and strategic cooperation, including the construction of a bridge over the Red Sea connecting the two countries. When completed, it will be the first man-made bridge to connect Asia with Africa. The proposed bridge will be around 15 kilometres long and facilitate the speedy movement of people and goods between the two countries.

The construction of the bridge has not evoked any protests from Israel. When Egypt first mooted the idea during the time of Hosni Mubarak, the Israeli authorities objected to the project on the grounds that their security would be adversely impacted. The bridge can be used to transport troops and equipment. Once the bridge is completed, the Egyptian army will be able to respond at short notice if its presence is needed in the kingdom. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are part of a new military alliance which includes most of the Sunni-led Arab states.

After the disastrous Saudi military intervention in Yemen, Riyadh wants closer ties with Cairo. Egypt, besides being the most populous Arab nation, also has the strongest military force. Cairo, while professing support for Riyadh, has consciously refused to follow its diktats on some key Saudi-backed issues, including regime change in Syria.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have emerged as strong backers of the current Egyptian government. Washington, of course, has backed the military-led government in Cairo from the very outset. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, despite the mass killings and incarcerations that marked the military’s takeover in 2013, said that Sisi was actually “restoring democracy” in Egypt. The Obama administration has lifted virtually all restrictions on the flow of military aid to the country. Israel and Egypt are the biggest recipients of U.S. military largesse. The U.S. has provided Egypt with billions of dollars since the removal of the civilian government.

The transfer of sovereignty of the two islands to the Saudis further inflamed Egyptian public opinion. The ongoing mass arrests, disappearances and media censorship seem to have alienated the Egyptian intelligentsia from the Sisi regime. More than 1,200 people were arrested for staging protests against the transfer of the islands in April. The Egyptian street was anyway groaning under the iron-fisted rule of the former general. Spontaneous public protests have been erupting regularly in Egyptian cities in recent months. The public support Sisi enjoyed for the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi has long since vanished after the government banned all dissent, whether it came from the liberals or the Islamists.

Media outlets controlled by the opposition have been shut down. New laws have been passed that include the expansion of the jurisdiction of the military courts, removal of restrictions on pre-trial detention and a ban on the coverage of the military without prior approval. Former military dictators Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were careful in getting the approval of the rubber stamp parliament before getting draconian laws passed. They rarely issued decrees at the rate the present government does.

In the first week of May, a confidential set of guidelines issued by the Egyptian Interior Ministry found its way to the media. Among the guidelines was one about undermining the credibility of the Journalists Union by deploying retired army and police officers on television channels to “explain the ministry’s point of view”. In the same week, plain-clothed policemen entered the Journalists Union building where media persons were conducting a sit-in protest and roughed up some of them. Two journalists covering the government’s attempts to silence the media were arrested in early May.

Some 120 prominent writers and artistes from around the world have signed a letter to Sisi urging him to release Ahmed Naji, an Egyptian author and journalist. He was arrested on charges of violating “public morals”. Naji has been a vocal critic of the government.

Among those who signed the letter are noted literary figures such as Margaret Atwood and Orhan Pamuk.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed by security forces since the military-backed government ousted the short-lived civilian government. In early May, an Egyptian court sentenced six people, including three journalists, for allegedly leaking state secrets to Qatar. Hundreds of civilians, many of them politicians, have been given similar sentences.

In 2014, an Egyptian court gave the death sentence to 529 people for the killing of one policeman. In 2015, six Egyptians were executed by a firing squad for resorting to violence against the police. Human rights activists provided evidence that those executed for the alleged crime were in jail when the incident occurred.

In the beginning of the year, another Egyptian court sentenced a three-year-old to life in prison for a crime he supposedly committed when he was 17 months old. The boy’s father spent some months in jail before a public outcry forced the government to backtrack.

At the same time, the Egyptian courts have dismissed charges against Hosni Mubarak relating to the killing of 239 pro-democracy demonstrators in 2011. The courts also cleared him and his two sons of major corruption charges. It is unlikely that they will serve any more jail time. Critics of the present regime have been saying that the dismissal of the charges against Mubarak symbolises the return of the old authoritarian era in Egypt.

Sisi, while refusing to comment on the judicial verdict, said that it was time for the Egyptian people to look ahead.

“It is just one more piece of evidence that the judiciary is just a political tool the government uses to prosecute its enemies and free the people it wants to be freed,” said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch. In April, the government issued orders to close the Al-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture. It has been one of the few organisations documenting the patterns of abuse used by the security forces.

The lengths to which the Egyptian security apparatus will go to crush all forms of dissent was illustrated by the case of the Italian research scholar Giulio Regeni.

The young PhD student from Cambridge University was found dead outside Cairo bearing telltale marks of torture in January this year. The Egyptian government first claimed that the student was killed by a group of petty criminals when he resisted a robbery attempt.

Witnesses were produced but those named as suspects were all killed in a mysterious police encounter. After the Italian government exerted strong diplomatic pressure, it was reported that Egyptian forensic officials had come to the conclusion that Regeni was brutally tortured for seven days before he was eliminated.

Regini’s research topic was the rise of independent trade unions in Egypt. He was also writing articles for an Italian newspaper under a pseudonym. His killing has become a cause celebre in Italy.

The country’s Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, has said that “immediate and proportional” measures would be taken if the Egyptian authorities do not uncover the truth behind the death.

Since Sisi took over, his main focus has been on crushing the Muslim Brotherhood. There are an estimated 40,000 political prisoners languishing in Egyptian jails. The top leadership has been incarcerated and many of them have been sentenced to death. The massive crackdown on all forms of civil dissent has led to a spurt in terrorism.

The Daesh (Islamic State) has established a strong presence in the Sinai peninsula. Egyptian security forces are being regularly targeted. An ambush in the first week of May killed eight police officers in a Cairo suburb. In November, four policemen were killed at a checkpoint in the Egyptian capital. The Daesh claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger jet in Sinai earlier in the year. That incident dealt another body blow to the tourism industry. The tourism sector, which has traditionally provided the bulk of foreign exchange revenues for the government, is now in tatters. Under Sisi, the economy has been faring dismally. The Egyptian pound has been devalued. Growing unemployment and double-digit inflation have added to the misery of the masses.

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