In Egypt, avenues of political dissent are closing steadily

A slew of ruling by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have turned the clock back to the Mubarak era. On Friday, at least 31 Egyptian soldiers died in Sinai attacks blamed on militants.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi waits for a meeting with US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew at the presidential palace in Cairo on Monday.

In January 2011 a stunning uprising swept Egypt. At the time, almost everyone involved in the tumult or in merely observing it was convinced that nothing would ever be the same again.

Yet over three years on from President Hosni Mubarak's stunning fall almost everyone has been proven wrong. After a democratic election brought the Islamist Mohamed Morsi to power, a coup upended him and saw his Muslim Brotherhood outlawed, paving the way for popular Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to become president. 

Since the coup, the clock of political change has been relentlessly turned back, with almost every avenue for political dissent shut down and the heroes of what many Egyptians called a revolution in jail, in exile, or simply keeping their heads down. Twitter and Facebook aren't mobilizing tools for social protest – they are places where activists can be tripped up by sharing political views. Journalists have not been spared – the Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy (Mr. Fahmy's nationality was corrected after first posting) and the Egyptian Baher Mohamed marked their 300th day in prison last Friday on trumped-up charges of endangering national security while reporting for Al Jazeera English.

Another American citizen, the Egyptian-American Muslim Brotherhood activist Mohamed Soltan, also remains in prison despite US requests for his release, with his health deteriorating because of a hunger strike. And on Sunday, Egypt sentenced 23 activists to three-year prison terms for protesting against a law that outlawed protests of the kind that ousted Mubarak. 

"It’s back to business as usual in Egypt, with the Egyptian government brazenly trampling on the rights of its citizens and Western governments supporting it,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The Sisi government will clearly go to any length to crush domestic opposition, whether secular or Islamist.”

That was followed today by the re-arrest of 21 other activists, including prominent dissident Alaa Abdel Fattah, on similar charges. Alaa was one of the young, Internet savvy activists that began organizing for political change in Egypt in the middle of the last decade and was at the center of the activism around Tahrir Square in 2011. His sister Sanaa was among those sentenced to three years in prison yesterday.

One of the key demands of the democracy protesters in 2011 was an end to the practice of trying civilians in military courts, which have reliably sent anyone who stood up to the state to long prison terms. Today, President Sisi issued a decree expanding the use of military trials. Though a government spokesman promised that military courts would only be used against "terrorism," Egypt's military authorities have a flexible and expansive definition of that term.

The press, which experienced a rare window of greater freedom after Mubarak's fall, is now effectively muzzled. On Sunday, 23 Egyptian newspaper editors issued what amounts to a loyalty pledge to Sisi's government. The New York Times reports

A group of Egyptian newspaper editors pledged Sunday to limit their criticism of state institutions, a day after Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, warned of a “conspiracy” behind a militant attack last week that killed at least 31 soldiers.

... The statement raised the likelihood of growing limits on dissent, and appeared to be an attempt to please Mr. Sisi, who drastically sharpened his own tone on Saturday in dealing with the simmering Islamist insurgency centered in the Sinai Peninsula that escalated after the military takeover in July 2013.

... Over the last few days, Egypt’s state institutions and the government’s loyalists have banded together, condemning terrorism but also moving against any kind of dissent against the government. On Saturday, the owner of a major private satellite network replaced a talk-show host, Mahmoud Saad, who had been mildly critical of the government. In a statement, Al Nahar Television did not refer to a specific incident, but said that “freedom of expression cannot ever justify ridicule of the Egyptian Army’s morale.”

After the attack in the restive Sinai peninsula Sisi spoke of foreign plots and "big conspiracies" afoot in Egypt. So it's very likely that the government is going to target anyone who complains about his handling of security problems.

Was the Oct. 24 attack really a foreign plot? Well, there's a history of militancy in the Sinai over the past decade, and general resentment among local people towards the central government. And the government acknowledges the local component to possible violence: An official said on Saturday that the military was considered evacuating Sinai villages deemed centers of support for militants.

Today is also the 39th anniversary of the first official visit of an Egyptian head of state to the US. President Anwar Sadat steered Egypt out of the Soviet orbit into America's, and after his historic peacemaking with Israel a few years later, long-standing military and economic aid ties were established between the US and the country's military establishment that persists to this day.

While that was largely presented as the price of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt – with US money and military backing acting as a guarantee of the new relationship – in the decades since it has often tied up America's fitful democracy promotion efforts in the country into knots. In practice, if not in law, US military aid to Egypt has become sacrosanct. Efforts to use it as leverage to pressure Egypt towards improving human rights or allowing real political competition have been rare, limited, and ultimately unsuccessful. Remember the temporary cut to some military aid a year ago?

Writing in September after Sisi's address to the United Nations, in which he spoke of a new "democratic" Egypt that "respects and enforces the rule of law, guarantees freedom of opinion for all, and ensures freedom of belief and worship to its people," Amy Hawthorne and Tarek Radwan held those claims up to recent reality:

This description clashes with the terrible political reality of the country.  Since last July, Egypt has experienced an unprecedented wave of repression targeting secular and Islamist opponents. Tens of thousands of Egyptians have been imprisoned, and many held without charge in overcrowded cells, with reports of widespread abuse and torture.  The security forces, according to Human Rights Watch, killed 904 protestors in one day.  Civil liberties and rights have been rolled back. The courts preside over highly politicized trials lacking the most basic elements of due process.  A hyper-nationalist media demonizes alternative voices. Just last week, Sisi amended the penal code to punish anyone accepting foreign funding that “harms the nation” with a sentence of life in prison or a fine of EGP 500,000. With the state stifling participation once again, and many Egyptians giving up on politics, the “New Egypt” is worse than the old one.

What's left of Egyptian civil society is getting the message – or paying the price – as the events of the past few days show. Meanwhile, US economic and military aid, worth about $1.5 billion this year, continues to flow.

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