President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is getting away with tyranny in Egypt thanks to his UK and US allies

Over 3,000 people have been detained in anti-government protests. Yet Trump calls the Egyptian president his favourite dictator, and Britain remains Egypt’s single largest investor

Bel Trew
Sunday 06 October 2019 18:25
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi denies his country holds political prisoners

Some parents in Egypt started banning their children from leaving the house on Fridays, fearing even if they don’t join anti-government rallies, they could be at risk of arrest. Others have confiscated their phones and forced them to delete their social media accounts.

But even these precautions have not saved several from being snatched up in the largest sweep of arrests in the country since president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took office in 2014.

Protesters, prominent activists, journalists and politicians are among more than 3,000 people who have been detained since small rallies against Sisi, repression, corruption and Egypt’s myriad economic woes first kicked off on 20 September, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom (ECRF).

Also, according to rights groups and people I’ve interviewed, among those haphazardly rounded up are children who were out buying school uniform, tourists holidaying in Cairo, human rights lawyers going to court to represent clients, confused bystanders, young men popping out for evening strolls, visiting foreign students and street vendors.

All are now swallowed up in Egypt’s notoriously opaque justice system.

The protests were triggered in part by revelations of state corruption by former military contractor Mohamed Ali on YouTube; but also by a multitude of political and economic grievances in the Arab world’s most populous country, a third of whose citizens live under the poverty line.

Since the protests kicked off, Egyptian riot police have patrolled downtown Cairo and other major cities like storm troopers, closing off the country’s well-worn battlegrounds of dissent and the once-graffitied streets that lead onto them.

Security forces are instigating stop and searches to look through people’s mobiles. And are apparently even using wifi hotspots to force people to re-download deleted apps, like Facebook and Twitter, so they can scroll through their feeds.

Egyptian journalists, rights activists, academics, lawyers and opposition figures have been targeted by sophisticated cyberattacks traced to Egyptian government offices, according to a recent investigation this week by Check Point Software Technologies, one of the biggest cybersecurity companies in the world.

More recently, it appears someone has been hitting the Twitter accounts of well-known Egyptian activists and regime critics.

The latest victim was Ahdaf Soueif, a celebrated Egyptian author, political and cultural commentator and former British Museum trustee, whose Twitter account was temporarily suspended on Sunday morning.

Her nephew Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a prominent rights activist who was one of the faces of the 2011 revolution, was recently re-arrested along with the human rights lawyer sent to defend him.

Abdel-Fattah, who has been arrested under every Egyptian regime in his lifetime, had only recently completed a five-year prison sentence on trumped up charges of protesting without a permit.

The ECRF, which is manning a depressingly long spreadsheet count, said like Abdel-Fattah, more than three-quarters of the 3,000 arrested have appeared in front of a prosecutor.

It could only confirm 57 have been released without charge.

A hundred people are still missing. Testimonies of alleged torture have started flooding in.

And yet, no major western ally of Egypt has breathed a word.

In fact, the UK has done the exact opposite.

Just five days after Sisi launched his massive crackdown, Boris Johnson heaped praise on the Egyptian president at a bilateral meeting in New York and failed to mention the protests, the arrests or the crackdown.

Five days before the rallies erupted, the UK’s Middle East minister arrived in Egypt to discuss “the ever-growing economic partnership”.

Britain is Egypt’s single largest investor.

As Sir Geoffrey Adams, the British ambassador to Egypt, put it, the UK is one of “Egypt’s leading partners across a number of sectors including trade”.

London knows it can wield power to pressure the regime to behave itself.

But time and time again – at least publicly – it chooses not to.

We prefer to turn a blind eye to the behaviour of President Sisi’s administration, fearful that without “moderate” Egypt on board, one of the world’s most unstable regions will somehow disintegrate.

But how stabilising is it to back a former military chief who in 2013, before becoming president, presided over what rights groups have called the single largest massacre of unarmed protesters in modern history? Who has banned protests, the websites of hundreds of news and rights groups and several civil society organisations. Who has overseen the arrest of tens of thousands of people in the past, and who has instigated this current crackdown.

This behaviour is clearly not going to change. And the pressure put on Egypt’s 100 million-strong population will only bubble through the cracks in flare-ups like we just saw.

“There is a misconception that Sisi is a partner in stability which allows governments, particularly in Europe, to turn a blind eye to his behaviour: as long he keeps buying weapons and submarines and power stations,” said Omar Robert Hamilton, a British-Egyptian filmmaker and author whose mother is Soueif and whose cousin is Abdel-Fattah.

Hamilton said before his cousin was rearrested, he was fighting to put “his life back together again” and to rebuild a relationship with his son, who was born while he was in jail in 2011.

The arrest of Abdel-Fattah’s lawyer, Mohamed Baqer, as he showed up to represent the activist, Hamilton believes, is “unprecedented”.

And so Hamilton said it was concerning that for Egypt’s western allies, like the UK, “even empty gestures of condemnation seem to have become a thing of the past”.

President Donald Trump earlier in September infamously asked “where’s my favourite dictator?” as he waited for a meeting with Sisi before saying “I just want to let everyone know, in case there is any doubt, we are very much behind president el-Sisi… we agree on so many things.”

Hamilton added: “Partnering with dictatorships while using the language of rights and legality at home only fuels the forces of reaction and suspicion that are collapsing Euro-American democracies from within. Straight-talking Trump who back-slappingly calls Sisi his ‘favourite dictator’ is all the proof we need.

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“Sisi killed 1,000 people in one day and he is allied with every powerful regime in the world.

“Egypt is not a national problem but a regional one,” he added.

For now, the Egyptian government’s strategy has worked, the rallies have been quashed.

President Sisi has made some economic concessions like reinstating subsidies on food staples for nearly 2 million Egyptians who lost their subsidies for having salaries deemed too high.

Sisi wrote on his Facebook page that he will “personally follow up on these procedures” and that government is committed to “protecting the rights of humble citizens”.

But critics have called these measures cosmetic. And thousands remain behind bars.

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