The recent Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt brought the country back into the focus of global media. A state of emergency has been declared by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the aftermath of the attack that left 49 people dead. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that Egyptians have been living in a state of emergency for years. The causes? President Sisi’s brutal rule and the consequent rise of Islamic State.
- Egypt is suffering from an economic and social crisis – €300 is the average monthly wage.
- Extremist attacks on the rise in Sinai – from 143 in 2014, to 681 in 2016.
- President Sisi’s priority? Clinging onto power – with Trump’s approval.
At least 49 people died in the Palm Sunday attacks on two Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria in Egypt, in the latest sectarian attacks against the country’s Christian minorities. While it is these deadly attacks on members of the public that draw most media attention, Egyptians have been living through extremely difficult times since Sisi came to power in a military coup in 2013, overthrowing the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The factors contributing to the hardship are numerous. The price of food continues to rise as an inflation rate of 50 percent has been imposed. Literacy rates are down to around 50% as families put their children to work instead of sending them on the potentially dangerous journey to school. To make matters worse, there is a severe lack of teachers to improve the situation and according to the EU diplomat for social development, 20% of schools are “unsuitable for use”.
The country is also under immense strain due to the exponentially increasing population, with some figures quoting an additional 2.5 million people year on year. Refugees from neighbouring countries contribute somewhat to this number, with around five million currently displaced to Egypt – mainly from Sudan, Libya and Somalia. However, it is a lack of understanding of contraception, and a misplaced belief that additional people will provide more resources that lies at the root of a huge baby boom.
With the nation under such pressure in all aspects of everyday life, it is necessary to examine the actions of the government. One would expect there to be a concerted effort to alleviate the pains of the Egyptian people. However, the reality lies in stark contrast to this.
Sisi came to power in the 2013 military coup which ended the reign of the controversial Muslim Brotherhood. He imprisoned members of the party and, benefiting from public support in the coup’s aftermath, claimed a mandate to fight terrorism. Yet at the time, the country was affected by attacks only on military targets near the border with Gaza. It perspired that the real mandate Sisi had won was to crackdown on his opponents throughout the country, in order to tighten his grip on the presidency.
In the years that followed, his forces suppressed the activities of academics, secular activists, peaceful Islamic dissidents and the human rights activists that decried the brutal tactics he put to use. One high profile victim was the former head of Sisi’s human rights committee, Anwar el-Sadat. Mr. Sadat overstepped his bounds in demanding that human rights be respected, and was expelled from his position.
The press has also suffered under Sisi’s rule, and is set to experience more suppression under the new state of emergency. The emergency law includes legislation that gives the president power to “monitor newspapers, publications, editorials, drawings, and all means of expression, by written or oral decree.” He is also able to order the seizure, confiscation and closure of publications and print houses. The Egyptian Speaker of the house Ali Abdel Aal stated that the media must be “cleansed.”
Sisi began his reign by storming pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo, killing at least 817 people in one day. It has been confirmed as the worst peacetime massacre of Egypt’s modern history. Since then Sisi’s forces have suppressed anti-government demonstrations with violence, and forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions have become commonplace. With the country in a downward spiral – who is to benefit from Sisi’s actions?
Islamic State gains a foothold in Egypt
The violent tactics used by the military in its fight against IS in the Sinai Peninsula are wide sweeping and increasingly indiscreet. The result is a local community that is highly susceptible to the propaganda machine of IS that has been honed over the years since the Syrian Civil War began. The indigenous Bedouin community has been especially vulnerable as the group has gone around al-Arish distributing pamphlets which promise revenge.
While Sinai has become a breeding ground for Jihadists, those who would seek to spread secular messages based on human rights have been left to rot in solitary confinement, with no access to media, literature or contact with the outside world. Meanwhile, jihadists are free to roam prisons across Egypt, radicalizing those who have a bone to pick with the regime.
Sisi has been heard to complain of a lack of assistance from international powers, in his fight with IS. The evidence refutes his claims. Members of the Obama administration have complained that he continually ignored their advice on how to approach the conflict with Islamic State. Furthermore, due to fears of a western conspiracy, he rejected the appointment of a counter terrorism attaché to the European Union’s mission in Cairo.
Sisi recently visited the White House for talks with President Trump, and Trump was enthusiastic in his praise for his Egyptian counterpart. “We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt,” Trump told Sisi at the White House. “You have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me.” The disparity between the meeting and the reality of Egyptian life was not lost on some:
“Inviting Sisi for an official visit to Washington as tens of thousands of Egyptians rot in jail and when torture is again the order of the day is a strange way to build a stable strategic relationship,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch.
So it is with Trump’s validation that Sisi will continue his purge of the opposition, with little regard for the economic and social state of his country. The increasing presence of Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula only strengthening his hand, despite his incompetence in dealing with it.
Yet with the population growing at an unprecedented rate and the resources available to them decreasing, the country is increasingly unstable. Perhaps Sisi would do well to look upon recent history as an example – the revolution of 2011 deposed Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s leader for 30 years. It is unclear what the future holds for the people of Egypt, but the current status quo cannot continue.