When uprisings took place throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, it seemed like Egypt would be the big success story. But in the last few months, civil rights activists say it has become a nightmare.
In October, the government more than doubled its pace of executions, putting nearly 60 people to death. In November, Egyptian state security arrested three prominent human rights leaders with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR. Executive director Gasser Abdel-Razek and colleagues Kareem Ennarah and Mohamed Basheer were held on terrorism charges after they met with Western diplomats.
“The EIPR is kind of Egypt’s ACLU or the NAACP,” said Ramy Yaacoub, founder and executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC. “It's that revolutionary and it's that important.”
Yaacoub said the arrests hit a raw nerve. It seems like the country is at its lowest point, he said, 10 years after such a hopeful moment during the so-called Arab Spring. A protest movement led by young Egyptians did the unthinkable in February 2011 — deposing military dictator Hosni Mubarak.
“And I can tell you ... initially there was so much freedom of speech and freedom of expression, assembly, I didn't believe it,” Yaacoub said.
But by April 2011, he remembers thinking that the different revolutionary factions were struggling to work together.
“We were successful in creating a political vacuum,” Yaacoub said. “The only people that were around to offer ... a viable option or an alternative were the Muslim Brotherhood and their affiliates. They were prepared and ready.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president. That was something the Egyptian military would not let stand. Yaacoub said by June 2013, he realized the military was going to win the power struggle.
“I remember writing on Twitter multiple times then, like, ‘Folks, this is no longer our fight. This is completely out of our hands. Other people are going to take over now, unfortunately,’” he said.
Morsi was driven out of power by massive protests. Former military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi took over and was elected president in 2014. Then, in a series of new laws and executive orders, Sisi solidified his rule. He restricted due process and the freedom of expression. The military used force to end anti-government demonstrations. Human rights groups say political opponents were detained, tortured and killed.
Sisi’s government imposed new restrictions on nongovernmental organizations and international charities. Many NGOs were forced to close.
“It's been a really steadily escalating campaign of targeting and repression, using lots of different tools, using lots of different laws."
“It's been a really steadily escalating campaign of targeting and repression, using lots of different tools, using lots of different laws,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a group that had helped train some activists and protest leaders during the uprising. “And of course there are, you know, very difficult circumstances on the ground for anyone who wants to engage politically.”
At this point, he said most democracy activists have fled Egypt. Those remaining have gone underground. McInerney’s organization uses encrypted communications to talk to them. Meanwhile, McInerney said, Western countries have done little to support pro-democracy efforts inside Egypt.
“We've been disappointed to see other democratic countries overlook democratic values in order to profit by selling weapons,” he said.
Like the US and most recently, France. During a visit with Sisi earlier this month, President Emmanuel Macron said France would continue to sell weapons to Egypt, despite its human rights record. The Trump administration has made the same decision, allowing military assistance to flow. And Donald Trump even called Sisi his “favorite dictator.”
At that meeting in France, Sisi dismissed criticisms about human rights.
"You cannot present the state of Egypt, with all that it has done for its people and for stability in the region, with it being a dictatorship,” he said.
That message of stability still appeals to many Egyptians, and to leaders in the West, said Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“European leaders have looked the other way when it comes to human rights violations throughout the region, but particularly in Egypt, because they are concerned about instability in North Africa affecting politics in Europe."
“European leaders have looked the other way when it comes to human rights violations throughout the region, but particularly in Egypt, because they are concerned about instability in North Africa affecting politics in Europe,” he said.
Sisi has also defended his actions by saying they’re necessary to fight terrorism.
“One of the things that the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, has said over and over again is that ‘it's unfair to criticize Egypt because this is human rights as formulated by Egypt's Western critics,’” Cook said. “‘It's really just a form of colonialism.’”
But Cook said the recent arrests of prominent human rights activists in Egypt set off an unprecedented international outcry. The UN, the European Union, and members of the EU parliament called for their release. Also, US President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, and celebrities such as Scarlett Johansen.
“I think the Egyptians understood after the outcry that they perhaps had gone too far,” Cook said. “But it’s very hard to tell what's going on.”
Earlier this month, the three staffers with the EIPR were abruptly released. But they still face charges. And thousands of other less-famous prisoners remain behind bars. Still, their release gives Ramy Yaacoub of the Tahrir Institute some hope.
“Social political change takes time — a long time. And as humans, we want prosperity right now. One hundred years from now it will be a footnote. ... But for us humans living through it, it's a long time.”
“Social political change takes time — a long time. And as humans, we want prosperity right now. One hundred years from now it will be a footnote,” he said. “But for us humans living through it, it's a long time.”