Egypt: Sisi consolidating, civil society struggling

egypt sisiAt home and abroad, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi  has capitalized on fears of the chaos that has engulfed surrounding countries, the New York Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick reports:

If not for his takeover last year, he said in a recent interview with Time magazine, Egypt would be “caught in a vicious cycle of extremism” and “the U.S. would have felt the need to destroy Egypt.”

A catchphrase has become popular here: “At least we are not Syria or Iraq.” It is earnestly encouraged by pro-government television commentators and half-jokingly repeated by average Egyptians to shrug off bad news.

“No one in recent Egyptian history has been so firmly in control,” said Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo. “What we are witnessing now breaks all previous precedents, and I don’t think we have seen the end of it.”

Presenting himself as the bulwark against disorder, Mr. Sisi has surpassed even President Gamal Abdel Nasser in his ability to command the loyalty of the many fractious and quasi-independent institutions of the modern Egyptian state, Professor Fahmy said, including the military, the internal security forces, the intelligence agencies, the judiciary and the rest of the bureaucracy.

Washington’s new war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, has forced a reappraisal of its regional alliances that is working to the advantage of Mr Sisi and his anti-Islamist regime, the FT’s Heba Saleh reports .

“The new Egyptian regime has the advantage of being on the political scene when Isis has become far more prominent in American eyes than anything that analysts might find problematic anywhere else in the region,” said H.A Hellyer, associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“Criticisms of the Egyptian government continue, but they are far more muted than they would be otherwise.”

 Civil society struggling 

“Civil society in Egypt has been struggling for a long time with the laws governing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and, over the last few years, this struggle has become iconic in a conflict with the government,” Amira Mikhail of Washington College of Law American University writes for Open Democracy:

Egypt is a nation where historically any political expression was limited to football chants and to charitable volunteer opportunities. It is a country where a revolution was fueled by people’s desire to become involved and see positive change. It is a society that survives off civil society, a vast network of organizations that fill the voids where the government is unable or unwilling to do its duty….

With over 80 million citizens and around 40,000 registered local NGOs, despite a history of highly restrictive NGO laws, Egypt is described as having “one of the largest and most vibrant civil society sectors in the developing world”. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (“ICNL”) explains that the Egyptian government never used an outright ban on civil society; it conveniently provided “enormous discretionary powers to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.”

But Mr. Sisi’s success at starting the rollback of fuel subsidies without a public backlash may be the most striking evidence of his standing, Kirkpatrick adds:

Egyptian rulers have acknowledged for decades that the subsidies were increasingly unsustainable, but always avoided the cuts for fear of unrest.

“That is the one that surprises me,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and a former United States deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, noting that the desperate economic conditions of most Egyptians have only grown worse since the ouster of Mr. Mubarak.

Egypt leaves democracy advocate in legal limbo

egypt ngo trial fhIn Egypt last month, three journalists were found guilty of doing their jobs and given seven- and 10-year jail terms. Apparently, little has changed, notes a prominent democracy assistance official.

A little more than a year earlier, I and 42 other employees of international human rights groups were similarly convicted at a Cairo trial that the U.S. and European governments have condemned as politically motivated,” says Sam LaHood, the director for the International Republican Institute in Egypt from 2010 to 2012 and currently a program officer with the organization.

“I was sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor after being found guilty in absentia of a trumped-up felony,” he writes for the Washington Post:  

In my case, appointees held over from the regime of Hosni Mubarak used repressive laws to target our groups for providing democracy assistance, manipulating the bureaucratic machinery for their own ends. Many more of these officials, who constitute Egypt’s entrenched security apparatus and bureaucracy, or “deep state,” have since returned to power after being out in the cold during the truncated presidential term of Mohamed Morsi. This deep state, led by individuals at the Ministry of Interior, state security and other large bureaucratic entities, is intent on exerting control over civil society, politics and the media through intimidation and repression.


Egypt’s media in the midst of revolution

Rasha-Final-ImageMore than three years after the January 25 revolution toppled then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt continues to struggle with an authoritarian media sector and constraints on freedom of expression, notes Carnegie analyst Rasha Abdulla.

Post-revolution regimes have not capitalized on opportunities to reform state and private media, and critical voices have been harassed and marginalized by state and non-state actors. As long as Egypt continues to be governed by rulers who believe controlling the media is in their best interest, reform will only come about through the few dissident voices in the media backed up by support from civil society and the masses.

Egyptian Media Since the January 25 Revolution

  • Successive Egyptian regimes following the revolution have taken steps to limit freedom of expression and control the narrative in Egyptian media coverage.
  • Hopes for a more professional media sector have been dashed by a state media apparatus that has for all intents and purposes supported whatever regime is in power, private media outlets influenced by wealthy owners with ties to the Mubarak regime, and severe polarization between Islamist and non-Islamist media outlets.
  • Social media played a key role in the January 25 revolution, and this platform has provided new avenues for expressing critical views, challenging established media entities, and organizing against the government.

The Future of Egyptian Media

Finding a place for critical voices in established media outlets has become increasingly difficult. Much of Egypt’s media has strongly supported the regime’s narrative since the Muslim Brotherhood–backed president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted from power in July 2013. Dissenting voices are almost absent from newspapers and television shows, and Islamist-affiliated outlets have been shut down by the government.

Social media outlets continue to offer a platform for otherwise marginalized views. Though also polarized, social media platforms provide one of the few forums in which activists pursuing the middle ground can voice their opinions and document human rights violations.

Reform of state media is needed more than ever before, but political will is lacking. The current regime, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has so far shown little interest in making state media more open and democratic. For now, these outlets remain in the service of the regime, not the people.

Many hope that the current regime will reduce repression of the media, but early signs have not been encouraging. These include the termination of popular political satire show Al Bernameg and a request for proposals from the Ministry of Interior for software to monitor online social networks.


Civil society draft law would ‘throttle’ Egypt’s NGOs


NGOs on trial

NGOs on trial

A new civil society draft law will “throttle” Egyptian Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and “rob them of their independence”, said Human Rights Watch.

In a Monday statement, the international watchdog condemned the draft law and called for it to be discarded and replaced. The group’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director warned that the draft law would “extinguish a crucial element of democracy in Egypt”.

The Ministry of Social Solidarity presented the draft legislation to Egyptian groups on 26 June. It has garnered criticism since then for restricting the activities of the already struggling civil society organizations in Egypt.

The draft gives the government veto power over all activities of civil society organizations, Human Rights Watch said. Under the new legislation, the government has the power to dissolve organizations without a court order; it can also refuse to license new organizations under the pretext that their activities could “threaten national unity”….

The draft law furthermore restricts the activities of international organizations within Egypt and their cooperation with domestic organizations, as well as imposing “crippling restrictions” on civil society organizations seeking foreign funding….The current law under which civil society organizations operate obliges them to seek government permission before domestically raising funds, which pushes organizations to seek foreign funding.

Twenty-nine NGOs rejected the draft in a joint statement on Wednesday.

Review of post-coup Egypt confirms retreat from democracy

egypt fh infographic

In the year since the July 2013 coup, the interim government has been guilty of an “abysmal failure to restore democracy,” according to the latest Egypt Democracy Compass from Freedom House.

“Although the authorities have taken basic procedural steps such as adopting a constitution and holding a presidential election, Egypt is now much farther from genuine democracy than it was immediately after the coup,” said the group’s Vanessa Tucker, vice president for analysis.

“Political pluralism has all but vanished following the bloody suppression and mass criminalization of the Muslim Brotherhood and parallel crackdowns on leftist and liberal activists. Access to unbiased information has been quashed as critical or independent media are shut down and the surviving outlets obediently toe the government line. And all of this has taken place in a shockingly arbitrary legal environment, with more than 16,000 political prisoners arrested, thousands tried in military courts, and detainees denied the most basic elements of due process. Sadly, given that Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been the de facto ruler for the past year, it is unlikely that the recent election will lead to a change in course.”