Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is making the most of this period of global turmoil to entrench the relentless repression that has been his trademark. His seven-year rule has seen tens of thousands of political detentions in often horrendous conditions, the arrest and abuse of LGBT people, women activists, and social media influencers, systematic torture, and the free use of lethal force. His government’s latest move is to detain the director and key staff of one of the few remaining independent institutions reporting on his crackdown, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). They were released on Thursday, but the criminal charges against them have not been dropped, and EIPR’s assets remain frozen.
The pretext for this persecution was a briefing that EIPR gave European Union diplomats, including from France, at their request about Sisi’s deeply troubling human rights record—the kind of briefing that in most countries would be routine. Yet the Sisi government seized upon it as an excuse to arrest Gasser Abdel-Razek, the group’s executive director; Karim Ennarah, its criminal justice director; and Mohamed Basheer, its human resources director.
Given the concentration of power around Sisi as he crushes any criticism of his repression, generic public statements of concern or quiet messages conveyed to lower-level officials are less important than what heads of state and government say to Sisi directly. French President Emmanuel Macron, who is meeting Sisi in Paris this week, should press him on the need to meet clear human rights benchmarks. Macron should also make clear that Sisi will not receive the legitimizing embrace that he seeks until, at the very least, the charges against the EIPR staff are dropped and other human rights defenders and political detainees are released.
The moves against EIPR came against the backdrop of another brazen Egyptian move toward the EU, which is negotiating a new aid agreement with Egypt. Around the world, these agreements are ordinarily conditioned on the recipient’s respect for human rights, even if these provisions are often honored in the breach. In the past, the Egyptian government had regularly signed such agreements. But over the past couple of years, it has rejected that conditionality.
The Egyptian government was undoubtedly aware that the EU is riven by a political battle with member states Hungary and Poland over similar conditions for EU subsidies to them. President Sisi and his advisers seem to have calculated that the EU is too divided to insist on this condition for Egypt. That calculation was encouraged by such outrages as the German government awarding Egypt’s ambassador the Federal Cross of Merit, Germany's highest award, despite his insistence that universal human rights standards do not apply to Egypt.
Egypt’s stance suggests a radical effort to turn back the clock to a period before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 72 years ago when governments still considered human rights an internal affair rather than a legitimate matter of international concern.
The political transition in the United States probably also played into Sisi calculations in attacking the EIPR leaders. Having enjoyed four years as President Donald Trump’s “favorite dictator,” Sisi may want to silence the few remaining domestic critics of his repression before a less sympathetic US president assumes office. Or he may figure that, having now freed the EIPR staff as a “concession,” he can leave untouched his silencing of virtually every other prominent critical voice—by far the most severe repression in modern Egyptian history.
Western governments share the blame for this dismal state of affairs by supporting the Sisi government politically and financially with little effort to hold it to the most basic human rights standards. For example, when then-General Sisi oversaw the killing of at least 817 sit-in protesters in Rabaa Square over the course of twelve hours in 2013, most governments made no serious effort to press for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Similarly, governments remained largely silent after the Sisi government’s brutal repression of mass protests in September 2019. Those precedents of impunity have only encouraged the Sisi government’s ongoing abuses.
Sisi has skillfully played his hand to appeal to European interests, portraying himself as a bulwark against terrorism and migration, a friend of Israel, and a prolific purchaser of arms. European governments have accepted that dirty deal at the price of the rights and freedoms of the Egyptian people. That has only emboldened Sisi to silence the handful of independent voices left in the country.
It’s time for a new approach. Arms sales to Egypt should stop, given the record of the Egyptian police in arresting and torturing critics and LGBT people across the country, and of the Egyptian military in committing atrocities in the northern Sinai and (alongside Russia and the United Arab Emirates) backing the highly abusive forces of Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar.
Aid should be directed away from the wealthy army and toward civilian institutions, such as Egypt’s decrepit hospitals, that directly serve the Egyptian people. Donors should insist that independent groups and associations affected by development projects are free to comment on the public’s development needs. The International Monetary Fund, which has lent Egypt $20 billion since 2016, should demand transparency and accountability about the military’s vast and opaque civilian business network, including allowing scrutiny by independent civil society to fight corruption.
Targeted sanctions should be imposed on the senior officials who are directing the repression. And the governments on the United Nations Human Rights Council, which France is about to rejoin, should end the shameful silence that they have largely maintained on Egypt’s brutality and finally take collective action to address Egypt’s severe rights violations.
The overriding message should be that “business as usual” is over. Let’s hope that the EIPR arrests have finally awakened the world to the true nature of the Sisi government, and that they have catalyzed the West to curtail its quiet complicity in crushing the dignity and freedom of 100 million Egyptians.