By: Yasmin Faruki, Columnist
Photo by: The Telegraph
Last week’s presidential elections in Egypt were a democratic sham. In the two-person contest, incumbent President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, as expected, won an overwhelming victory capturing 92% of the vote cast.[i] He faced only one challenger, Moustapha Moussa, an alleged government supporter who has stated that his candidacy was not intended to present a real alternative for the Egyptian people, but simply to prevent the election from turning into a referendum.[ii] Every other presidential candidate was arrested, forced to withdraw, or dropped out of the race under pressure. Sisi will continue to undermine the country’s stability and create a larger burden for the United States. As such, the US should denounce the election as undemocratic and withdraw its support for Sisi.
The status of freedom in Egypt is arguably worse today than it was under Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, who was ousted in a 2013 military coup. Through presidential decrees and parliamentary legislation, Sisi’s government has banned forms of youth assembly, increased the number of pretrial detentions, blocked internet access, targeted civil society workers, criminalized independent journalism, and intensified its policy of forced disappearances.[iii] According to human rights groups, an estimated 60,000 Egyptians have been imprisoned since the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule in 2011.[iv]
Sisi and his supporters claim the crackdown has brought greater security to the country. But by all measures, Egypt is less stable today than it was in 2014. The number of reported terrorist attacks in Egypt, for example, has doubled during Sisi’s tenure, rising to 61 per month.[v] Egypt’s religious minorities, including Sufis and Christians, have faced the deadliest attacks in recent years, including the November 2017 assault on a Sufi mosque that killed 305 people and the April 2017 Palm Sunday bombings of two churches that killed 45 Christians.[vi] These trends are tied to the growth of ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sinai, formerly known as Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis (ABM), an insurgent group that has been fighting the Egyptian government since 2011.[vii]
Egypt is not just becoming one of the US allies’ worst human rights violators, but also one of its most ineffective counterterrorism partners. In a likely effort to boost his military credentials ahead of the election, President Sisi launched a nationwide counterterrorism campaign in February, dubbed “Operation Sinai 2018.” The campaign’s mission is to oust militants in north and central Sinai and other areas of the Delta, and in the desert west of the Nile Valley.[viii] As of March 8th, the military claims that it has killed 105 militants (it is difficult, however, to assess the military’s actual performance because the government has criminalized any reporting that contradicts their own statistics).[ix] The Egyptian government has also reportedly closed down schools, razed buildings, and displaced people during the operation.[x] Sinai’s residents are sure to suffer as a result, making jihadist groups, such as Wilayat Sinai, more attractive to recruits. As the U.S. knows all too well from its own history fighting counterinsurgencies, Sisi’s scorched earth strategy will not succeed in the long-term unless he addresses the core factors driving extremism in Sinai, including the nation’s long history of repression and weak governance.
Overall, Egypt has become more of a burden than a reliable ally for the US. Though the United States government denied Egypt $95.7 million in aid last August, and later withheld an additional $195 million, the Trump administration must do more to hold Egypt, one of the largest recipients of US foreign aid, accountable.[xi] This means more public criticism of Sisi’s policies and suspension of military aid. The US State Department said in a report last year that “the overall human rights climate in Egypt continues to deteriorate.”[xii] Yet Rex Tillerson, the former U.S. Secretary of State, failed to criticize Sisi’s human rights record during his visit to Egypt earlier last month. Instead, he publicly expressed his support for Egypt’s counterterrorism campaign.[xiii] This kind of praise is wholly unjustified. Absent a serious change in Sisi’s policies, the U.S. must put greater pressure on Egypt to reform, rather than continue to write enormous checks to a modern day pharaoh.
[i] “Egypt election: Voters to elect president,” BBC News, Mar 26 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43536172.
[ii] Declan Walsh, “Egypt’s Election Should Be a Lock. So Why Is President Sisi Worried?” The New York Times, March 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/23/world/middleeast/egypt-election-sisi.html.
[iii] Patrick Kinglsey and Manu Abdo, “Egypt journalists face jail for reporting non-government terrorism statistics,” The Guardian, July 5th 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/05/egypt-journalists-face-jail-for-reporting-non-government-terrorism-statistics; Mohamed Hamama, “Parliament approves secretly drafted NGO law,” Mada Masr, Nov 16, 2016, https://www.madamasr.com/en/2016/11/16/feature/politics/parliament-approves-secretly-drafted-ngo-law/. See also, Raising the Stakes: Implications of a Second Sisi Term, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), March 21 2018, https://timep.org/special-reports/raising-the-stakes-implications-of-a-second-sisi-term/, 22-24.
[iv] Joshua Hammer, “How Egypt’s Activists
Became ‘Generation Jail,’” The New York Times, March 14 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/magazine/how-egypts-activists-became-generation-jail.html.
[v] Raising the Stakes: Implications of a Second Sisi Term, 8.
[vi] Declan Walsh, “Attacks Show ISIS’ New Plan: Divide Egypt by Killing Christians,” The New York Times, April 10, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/10/world/middleeast/egypt-christians-isis-palm-sunday-attacks-sisi.html; Declan Walsh and Nour Youssef, “Militants Kill 305 at Sufi Mosque in Egypt’s Deadliest Terrorist Attack,” The New York Times, November 24 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/24/world/middleeast/mosque-attack-egypt.html.
[vii] “Sinai Province: Egypt’s most dangerous group,” BBC News, May 12, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25882504.
[viii] “Egypt launches military operation in Sinai, Nile Delta,” Al Jazeera, February 9, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/02/egypt-launches-military-operation-sinai-nile-delta-180209064926285.html.
[ix] “105 takfiris killed during ‘Sinai 2018’: Army,” Egypt Today, March 8, 2018, https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/1/44759/105-takfiris-killed-during-%E2%80%98Sinai-2018%E2%80%99-Army; See also Patrick Kinglsey and Manu Abdo, “Egypt journalists face jail for reporting non-government terrorism statistics.”
[x] “Egypt bulldozes zone by Sinai airport, displacing thousands,” The Daily Star Lebanon, February 2, 2018, https://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2018/Feb-02/436621-egypt-bulldozes-zone-by-sinai-airport-displacing-thousands.ashx.
[xi] Carol Morello, “Tillerson calls for free and transparent vote in Egypt, raises concerns about human rights,“ The Washington Post, February, 12 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/tillerson-calls-for-free-and-fair-elections-in-egypt-raises-concerns-about-human-rights/2018/02/12/a1114416-101c-11e8-9065-e55346f6de81_story.html?utm_term=.d9b0b47c7dff.
[xii] “Memorandum of Justification for Waiver Under Section 7041(a)(3)(b) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs’ Appropriations Act, 2016,” US State Department, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4057274-Egypt-Memorandum-of-Justification.html.