Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abdel Fatah al-Sisi

Egypt’s War on Dissent

The revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak is now three years old, and Egypt’s future seems less promising than ever.

General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the military commander, is preparing to run for president—and if he runs he will certainly win, becoming, in essence, a new Mubarak. The army has not only driven the Muslim Brotherhood from power, it has also declared war on all critics of the regime, whether Islamist or liberal. As the Guardian notes:

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace prize winner once billed as a potential president, is in exile. So too is Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose Facebook campaign against police thuggery brought many to Tahrir Square. Ahmed Maher, the activist whose 6 April movement helped drive anti-Mubarak dissent, is in jail along with the group’s co-founders, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel.

In the cell next door is Alaa Abd El Fattah, a renowned activist first jailed under Mubarak. Abd El Fattah returned from exile during the 2011 revolution to help build a new Egypt. Instead he was detained, first under the military dictatorship that followed Mubarak, then under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, and now under the de facto leadership of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

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The revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak is now three years old, and Egypt’s future seems less promising than ever.

General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the military commander, is preparing to run for president—and if he runs he will certainly win, becoming, in essence, a new Mubarak. The army has not only driven the Muslim Brotherhood from power, it has also declared war on all critics of the regime, whether Islamist or liberal. As the Guardian notes:

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace prize winner once billed as a potential president, is in exile. So too is Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose Facebook campaign against police thuggery brought many to Tahrir Square. Ahmed Maher, the activist whose 6 April movement helped drive anti-Mubarak dissent, is in jail along with the group’s co-founders, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel.

In the cell next door is Alaa Abd El Fattah, a renowned activist first jailed under Mubarak. Abd El Fattah returned from exile during the 2011 revolution to help build a new Egypt. Instead he was detained, first under the military dictatorship that followed Mubarak, then under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, and now under the de facto leadership of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

What happens when it’s impossible to express dissent peacefully? That becomes an open invitation for radicals to take matters into their own hands, and that is precisely what is happening in Egypt today. The latest news on this front is ominous, namely that militants in the Sinai shot down an Egyptian military helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, killing all five soldiers aboard. Such missiles, in the wrong hands, can be a threat not just to helicopters but to civilian aircraft, including those flying in and out of Israel. Meanwhile, on Friday, four bombs went off in Cairo, killing six people.

These are worrisome signs of what some of us have feared all along: By declaring war on dissent, Sisi risks driving his country into a full-blown civil war. At the very least the terrorist threat is increasing, and it is unlikely to stay confined to Egypt—not when there are such close links among jihadists operating in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. The situation got bad enough under the Muslim Brotherhood government, but there is little sign of improvement under the emerging military dictatorship whose ascension many Israelis understandably cheered. Sisi’s heavy-handed crackdown—undertaken by a corrupt and ineffective regime—unfortunately has the potential to spark a full-blown insurgency that will make current troubles seem benign by comparison.

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Egypt’s Return to Military Rule

Governments, understandably, have a history of not tolerating large sit-ins occupying a substantial area in the middle of their capital. But attempts to end such sit-ins have a way of turning out badly. It was not just the Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing in 1989 that ended in a bloodbath. On a lesser level there was Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s heavy-handed dispersal of the Bonus Army, made up of World War I veterans, in Washington in 1932, which forever sullied his image.

Now comes the Egyptian army’s dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo, an attack which has left at least 95 dead (a toll that is certain to grow) and led Mohamed ElBaradei, one of Egypt’s vice presidents, to resign in protest. ElBaradei’s departure from the government, to which he was providing a fig leaf of civil legitimacy, may prove especially significant because it is making the regime in Cairo look increasingly not like a transitional military regime but a permanent military regime.

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Governments, understandably, have a history of not tolerating large sit-ins occupying a substantial area in the middle of their capital. But attempts to end such sit-ins have a way of turning out badly. It was not just the Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing in 1989 that ended in a bloodbath. On a lesser level there was Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s heavy-handed dispersal of the Bonus Army, made up of World War I veterans, in Washington in 1932, which forever sullied his image.

Now comes the Egyptian army’s dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo, an attack which has left at least 95 dead (a toll that is certain to grow) and led Mohamed ElBaradei, one of Egypt’s vice presidents, to resign in protest. ElBaradei’s departure from the government, to which he was providing a fig leaf of civil legitimacy, may prove especially significant because it is making the regime in Cairo look increasingly not like a transitional military regime but a permanent military regime.

This impression is heightened by the fact that 19 out of 25 of the provincial governors just named to office yesterday are generals. Moreover, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who led the military coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi (now being held at a secret site and likely to be tried on treason charges), has not ruled out running for president himself.

It is looking increasingly as if very little has changed since Hosni Mubarak was toppled–except the name of the general in charge. Egypt appears to be returning to military rule, in ways both good (increased cooperation with Israel in rooting out security threats) and bad (increased repression and the heightened risk of a civil war). If this is the way Egypt’s military goes about restoring “democracy,” I would hate to see how it imposes dictatorship.

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