There are some tiny signals coming from Egypt that President Sissi and his government are looking to ease a few of the many severe repressive measures enacted since the ousting of previous President Mohamed Morsi. Indeed, the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood has severely affected the image of the Egyptian regime as an intolerant one. A spate of death sentences and militant killings brought Sissi’s image domestically and abroad to its lowest. To make things worse, a recently introduced strategy to appease the Islamists who accuse him of being anti-Islam involving the cracking down on secularists, journalists, gays and others, turned Egypt into a country where anyone with independent thinking is guilty of something worthy of imprisonment or a death sentence.
But recent events suggest that some efforts are underway to bring some sanity to the Egyptian all-repressive approach. The recent appearance of Sissi in a Christian Coptic Church for a religious celebration was one of the first indicators of a possible appeasement phase. A court order to release two dozen gay men accused of “debauchery” is another indication of a possible new Sissi approach. But are these steps isolated events or a message that the world should not fear Sissi?
Egypt’s descend to chaos accelerated ever since Sissi took over the Presidency. In an effort to restore security, the Egyptian government headed by the military has taken desperate measures to contain the insurgency. Although such measures may lead to a certain degree of stability on the short term, they promise, however, to maintain the country in a state of crisis for a long time. Such assessment comes in light of Egypt adopting an all-enforcement strategy, while neglecting the political angle.
After the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated President Mohamed Morsi, the new Sissi regime focused its attention on precisely destroying the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations. Tens of thousands of people were sent to prison and thousands more were given death sentences. No one in Islamist circles is being spared, except the Clerics that are part of the government-endorsed religious system. Men, women and even teenagers have been and continue to be arrested without being charged, many sent to military courts for expedited sentencing, including hard labor.
The population has been subjected to abuses and collective punishment in the name of State Security. The town of Rafah in North Sinai, along the border with Palestine’s Gaza is perhaps the best example of a regime disregarding the rule of law and all its international legal obligations. It is there that the government is forcibly evacuated almost 1,500 houses to turn the region into a military zone. The military authorities decided to destroy entire communities to fulfill their own agenda, and that is to fight against Islamist militants and smugglers. Although it is understandable that the military would want to go after those who killed its soldiers, destroying long-established communities is not the answer.
In addition to punishing its own population, the military have deported Palestinians who lived legally on the Egyptian side of the border, confiscating their homes and real estate. Such actions undoubtedly create resentment and establish the basis of future terrorism.
As the crackdown against Islamists and the punishing of populations in North Sinai continue, the Sissi regime has refocused its attention on those who are on the opposite side of conservative ideology. A manhunt has been underway for some time to crackdown on those considered to be atheists. Many patrons who frequented the Passiles Café in Cairo were arrested and accused of being devil worshipers, even though atheists do not believe in the devil. The police attitude has been so unprofessional that they raided the café even though the police chief stated “there was no sign reading ‘atheists’ café.” Adding “however, it was popularly known as a place for Satan worship, rituals and dances,” and for him, that was enough to arrest people in a country that legally does not ban atheism. It is such attitude that dominates Egypt today.
The police chief’s position has been made possible and enhanced by the government’s deliberate effort to eliminate any pocket of political resistance, and indeed free thinking, largely to appease the conservatives. The government’s fatwa branch, Dar al Ifta, which issues religious edicts to justify government repression, went all the way to announce that Egypt was home of 866 atheists, in a country that counts more than 82 million people. It is clear that Sissi wants to appease the conservative Islamists in an effort to reduce their dislike of him. He seeks to neutralize their views that he is combating Islam while allowing anti-religious behavior to propagate in Egyptian society. But it is unlikely that such manhunt of so-called atheists will actually appease tension with the Islamists, considering the amount of damage the anti-Muslim Brotherhood offensive has caused.
Continuing on its morality crusade, the Egyptian regime has also focused its attention on the gay community, once again to show the conservatives that they are on their side. In early December 2014, 33 men were arrested in a public bath, accused of taking part in homosexual acts. Currently more than two dozen of them are being tried over accusations of debauchery. Meanwhile, another group of eight men were sentenced to three years in prison with hard labor simply for being shown in a video allegedly celebrating a gay marriage on the Nile River.
Journalists have also been the target of repression from the Sissi regime. The Committee to Protect Journalists identified at least 12 journalists in Egyptian prisons, including those working for Al Jazeera. In 2014, Egypt more than doubled its number of journalists behind bars.
Egypt is on the wrong track. An all-out-repressive campaign from the regime is further compounded by a collapsed economy, high unemployment, high inflation, and a poor economic performance that is hitting hard. Unless a more comprehensive approach to crisis management is adopted, Egypt will remain a hot spot for the wrong reasons. The recent signs of appeasement may signal that the situation is changing, but these events alone are not enough to confirm any new trend.