Over the past nine months, certain developments in Egypt have given some observers reason to hope that the stifling authoritarianism that has enveloped the country since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's coup in 2013 is beginning to lift. The first was the decision in October 2021 by Sisi not to renew the state of emergency, which he had declared in 2017 after a series of suicide bombings killed scores of Christian worshippers on Palm Sunday in the cities of Alexandria and Tanta. Although Egyptian law supposedly limits a state of emergency to three months, Sisi routinely renewed it thereafter without any meaningful resistance from Egypt's rubber-stamp parliament.
The second development was his announcement during Ramadan, in late April, to begin a "national dialogue," which Sisi later described as a way "to listen to each other and find common ground that brings us together. You can criticize and say what comes to your mind, and I will respond to you."
These would indeed be welcome signs that Egypt has decided to chart a new course for itself if they were indicative of a sincere desire on the part of Sisi's regime to respect the rights of the Egyptian people, subject the state to the rule of law and respect the norms of democracy. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that these announcements are intended in any meaningful fashion to signal a renewed commitment to any of that.
With respect to the end of emergency rule, it is true that several opposition figures and human rights activists welcomed the move. At the same time, however, they rightly noted the limited nature of the decision—that it had no effect on the tens of thousands of Egyptians held as political prisoners in Egyptian jails, and it did nothing to protect the rights of the Egyptian people, since Egypt's legal system includes numerous laws that essentially give the state the right to arrest individuals for simply engaging in peaceful political activities. These draconian laws, in the aggregate, have the effect of creating a permanent state of emergency in Egypt, regardless of anything Sisi lifted.
Egypt's formal legal system, which now bears the authoritarian imprint of Sisi, has established on a permanent, de jure basis, all the substantive elements of an emergency legal order.
- Mohammad Fadel
These laws include the 2013 anti-protest law, which bans virtually all forms of peaceful gatherings. Egyptian prosecutors have used it to jail thousands of Egyptians, including prominent activist Alaa Abd al-Fattah, an icon of the 2011 revolution who has been one of the most prominent political prisoners under Sisi. Law 93 of 2015 on "confronting terrorism," which Sisi implemented by decree, provides a sweeping definition of terrorism that reaches even acts of civil disobedience. It imposes brutal punishments that include the death penalty, something Egyptian courts in the years since 2013 have shown no reticence in applying. Law 94 also authorizes the state to engage in broad surveillance of civil society without judicial supervision and to detain suspects without a judicial hearing.
The 2019 NGO law, despite representations by the government to the contrary, is in fact intended to stifle the development of Egyptian civil society, not to enable it to flourish. Among other things, the law prohibits Egyptians from engaging in civic activities without first registering their organization with the government and submitting to governmental surveillance of their activities. Failure to adhere to registration requirements can result not only in confiscation of a group's assets; it can also lead to criminal penalties against the individuals involved in these "unauthorized" activities.
Finally, the media law of 2018 targets independent journalism and social media, requiring any blogger or individual with 5,000 or more followers on social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter to register with the state. In addition to imposing a "registration" requirement as a media outlet, the law potentially criminalizes a broad range of garden variety political speech, if the published or broadcast content is determined to violate "the Egyptian Constitution, professional ethics, and public order or morals," if it is deemed to include "calls for breaking the law," or "incites discrimination, violence, racism, hatred or extremism." Unsurprisingly, this law has been used to punish scores of innocent Egyptians for merely engaging in peaceful political expression, now often cast by the regime as "fake news." Although Sisi has purportedly signed a decree in the last few days releasing some Egyptians who had been convicted for publishing "fake news," freedom is absent if it depends on the grace of the ruler rather than being upheld by the law.
Given that the formal Egyptian legal order creates an ecology of authoritarianism, it is unsurprising that Sisi can choose to let the state of emergency lapse: Egypt's formal legal system, which now bears the authoritarian imprint of Sisi, has established on a permanent, de jure basis, all the substantive elements of an emergency legal order. At this point, it would be irrational to maintain a technical state of emergency insofar as that would imply that a suspension of rights is exceptional. To the contrary, Sisi's willingness to lift the state of emergency is not a reflection of a decision to resume a rights-respecting legal order. Rather, it is better understood as official recognition that the state of emergency is now the norm, and therefore Sisi's decision is evidence of the deepening entrenchment of the authoritarian order that Sisi's coup produced.
Just as lifting the state of emergency while leaving in place a raft of authoritarian laws that codify emergency powers is nothing more than a head fake, a "national dialogue" within such narrow confines outlined by the state is a farce.
- Mohammad Fadel
But what about Sisi's call for a national dialogue, which held its first "coordinating session" in early July? Surely that must be more than window dressing. After all, Sisi had previously stated on more than one occasion that the reason for Hosni Mubarak's downfall was that he had given too much space to civil society. From this perspective, then, Sisi's call for a national dialogue might be viewed as a positive step, even if it excludes the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet it would take a great leap of faith to credit Sisi's call for a national dialogue to any genuine aspiration to turn away from authoritarianism in favor of democratic norms. Leaving aside the absurdity of claiming to promote democracy while excluding the largest civic political organization in the country, the structure of the proposed "dialogue" confirms that it is just another attempt to put up a veneer of political openness to deflect Western criticisms of Sisi's regime and its human rights record. The dialogue is organized and directed by representatives of the state, such as Diaa Rashwan, Sisi's appointed chairman of the State Information Service, the government's media and PR arm. These Sisi loyalists will determine the agenda and control who gets to speak—and who isn't welcome. In the opening session, Rashwan described the Muslim Brotherhood and "anyone who does not accept the 2014 constitution as the basis of governance in the country," who will also be excluded from the sessions, as "putschists who wish to overturn the state." So much for "dialogue."
Just as lifting the state of emergency while leaving in place a raft of authoritarian laws that codify emergency powers is nothing more than a head fake, a "national dialogue" within such narrow confines outlined by the state is a farce. It is intended to give a participatory fig leaf to an essentially authoritarian order that has no intent to share power with the Egyptian public. Instead, it wishes to buttress its international image in the context of an increasingly deteriorating international climate, in which the Egyptian economy is likely to require another round of loans from the International Monetary Fund in the near future. While these external shocks are partially the result of crises outside the control of the regime, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine, their impact has been exacerbated by the Sisi regime's own disastrous economic policies.
For both domestic and international reasons, Sisi desperately needs at least the appearance of presiding over an inclusive regime. Egypt stands at the precipice of another set of demands for austerity from the IMF, which will result in more pain to the Egyptian populace. It will be easier for Sisi to sell these so-called reforms if he can claim that even the so-called "opposition" agreed to the IMF plan. But he would only risk seeking the approval of the "opposition" if it is a Potemkin-village of an "opposition," one that appears in front of the international media and then returns to the shadows when international attention recedes. Internationally, Sisi will need greater support from the West to prop up the Egyptian economy, something that will be easier to obtain if he can show some kind of progress toward a more inclusive regime.
Issues of domestic governance might also become increasingly important in Egypt's external relations as the Israel-Palestine conflict fades in importance, and with it, Egypt's perceived importance in the region. At the same time, by excluding the Muslim Brotherhood, the "national dialogue" comes at a very low cost to the regime, which knows that the "opposition" is in no position to oppose the government, and in fact, may be willing to go to great lengths to give Sisi the international legitimacy he craves in exchange for releases of their political prisoners.
As with the lifting of the state of emergency, Sisi's call for a national dialogue doesn't represent a reversal for his regime, or even a softening of its positions. It represents his confidence in the durability of his authoritarian system and its ability to tolerate a thoroughly domesticated opposition. This faux dialogue has nothing to do with establishing a genuinely democratic Egyptian state, let alone listening to Egyptians and finding "common ground."