Summary: Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has created a coercive web of repression, one that is driven by its own logic and dynamic and from which there seems no escape.
We thank Maged Mandour for today’s article. He is a political analyst who writes OpenDemocracy’s “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” column, covering the affairs of the Arab world with a special focus on social change in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. He is also a Sada writer for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a contributor to Middle East Eye.
On the 18th of July, in a surprise move, the Egyptian regime released a number of prominent human rights activists, journalists, and opposition figures, including the blogger Esraa Abdel Fattah and the prisoner rights advocate Mahienour El Masry. This wave of releases has prompted some speculation that the regime might ease its severe repression. However, there are factors that make this difficult, if not impossible, even if the higher echelons of the regime’s security apparatus wanted to. Indeed, an intricate interplay of ideological and structural factors, combined with the structural weakness of international pressure creates substantial barriers to the easing of state violence. The arrest of Abdel Nasser Salama, the previous editor in-chief of Al-Ahram, for an article he wrote calling for Sisi to step down, on the same day of the release of the aforementioned opposition figures, shows that there is no substantial change in policy.
Wide scale state violence requires an ideological justification, to ensure social acceptance, and the cohesion of the coercive arm of the state, tasked with administering this violence. Sisi’s regime is not an exception. Indeed, the regime has created a narrative based on conspiracy theories, combined with a chauvinistic form of nationalism that portrayed the opposition as a fifth column, and an existential threat to the state and nation. This narrative has acted to justify wide-scale repression, which started with the massacres of Rabaa and Nahda squares in the summer of 2013 and continues unabated till today, with tactics that involve torture, forced disappearance, and extra-judicial killings. It has also acted to justify the primacy of the security apparatus and the military within the Egyptian political system as guardians of the state and the nation against the supposed fifth column. Thus, the narrative serves as both an ideological base for the regime and the perpetuation of autocratic rule, with wide social acceptance.
This, however, has a clear downside as it acts as an ideological strait jacket, blocking the easing of repression. If repression is lessened and the opposition is allowed some room to function then the narrative on which the regime is built starts to collapse, and the justification for autocratic rule, including the political and social primacy of the military and the security apparatus, becomes fragile. Hence, repression is necessary for the regime to maintain its stability, the cohesion of the security apparatus and its support amongst the populace. In other words, repression has become an end in itself rather than a policy tool to be wielded as required.
The use of wide scale repression, and the ideological basis for it creates its own dynamics within the security apparatus that would be difficult to control, even if repression is no longer politically expedient. In essence, repression has become both systematic and decentralized, carried out by petty security officials on a regular basis. The systematic nature of repression can be discerned by examining the sheer number of cases involved. For example, in just the first half of 2019, based on media reports, there were 1414 cases of human right violation including 302 cases of killings conducted by the security forces, 30 cases of death in detention centres, and 70 cases of torture. Of the 302 cases of state sanctioned killings, 98 were cases of extra-judicial executions. There are also numerous reports of cases where petty security officials committed acts of torture and killings over minor disputes, which is an integral part of the systematic use of repression and the impunity of those officials and a manifestation of its decentralized nature. For example, in 2016 a minor security officer shot two men, killing one over a dispute regarding a cup of tea. In September 2020, a young man was tortured to death in a police station after being arrested, in Giza. In October of the same year a man in the southern governorate of Luxor was shot in the head during a security raid, after attempting to defend his father who was being beaten by a police officer.
The interplay of the above-mentioned factors is clearest in the tragic case of Giulio Regeni, the Italian PhD student arrested and tortured to death by the Egyptian security forces over the course of 10 days in 2016. Four Egyptian security officials will be tried in absentia by an Italian court, with the trial set to begin in October. Based on the available evidence, Regeni was arrested and tortured by the Egyptian security forces under the presumption that he was a spy. Indeed, Regeni became a victim of the ideological trappings of the regime and its pervasiveness within the security forces, as well as the systematic and decentralized nature of state repression. In essence, the machinery of state violence that has been operating since 2013 claimed another victim, in spite of the diplomatic cost for the regime. It also displayed the impunity of Egyptian security officials, as the Egyptian public prosecutor opted to drop the investigation, rejecting the Italian findings.
Finally comes the weakness of international pressure which creates incentives for the regime to continue its repressive course. The regime has successfully entrenched itself in the global financial system, through a policy of heavy borrowing from abroad and massive arms deals, in a manner that reduces the ability of Western powers to exert pressure on it to cease the worst aspects of repression. In essence, the stability of the regime has become of the utmost importance, not only due to geo-political reasons, but also for financial reasons, otherwise its ability to repay its loans and related interest becomes impaired. This was reflected in Sisi’s December 2020 visit to France where he received the country’s highest award, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. (Between 2013 and 2017 France was the top supplier of arms to the regime and Egypt continues to be an important client.) Also it can be seen in the arms deals approved by Biden in February 2021, of the sale of US$197 million worth of missiles, in spite of ongoing human right concerns.
Hence, repression by the regime is endemic and part and parcel of its modus operandi. It is not a policy that can be simply adjusted. Indeed, considering that the primary goal of the regime is ensuring that the events of 2011 are never repeated and the importance of repression for regime stability, not only in terms of crushing dissent but to maintain wider support, it is difficult to imagine that it would ease. Repression and broader state violence against the citizenry is expected to continue in the foreseeable future, as long as the fundamental dynamic of the Egyptian political system remains unchanged and unchallenged.