Wave of arrests in Egypt ahead of President Sisi's second term

A Cairo street sign showing Egypt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Mar 25, 2018.
A Cairo street sign showing Egypt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Mar 25, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

CAIRO (AFP) - As Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi prepares to be sworn in for a second four-year term on Saturday (June 2), a wave of arrests signals his government's fear of social dissent, analysts say.

Personalities involved in the January 2011 popular uprising that brought down president Hosni Mubarak are among those to have been detained, amid a crackdown that began after March elections gave President Sisi an official 97 per cent of the vote.

Two of those arrested are blogger and journalist Wael Abbas and Shadi Ghazali Harb, one of the youth leaders during the 2011 revolution.

They also include Hazim Abdelazim, who has described his decision to head the youth committee of Mr Sisi's successful 2014 presidential bid as his "biggest mistake".

"The arrests are in line with the repressive policies of recent years, which aim to subdue" all potential checks on power, said researcher Karim Bitar at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

A month ahead of the elections, the public prosecutor's office warned the media it would act against the dissemination of false information deemed detrimental to the country's safety and security.

The latest arrests show "nothing has changed in the security-focused policies of the regime" in Egypt, said Dr Mostafa Kamel el-Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University.

"There is still worry of a repeat of what happened in January 2011, which the president has expressed more than once."

Economic hardship may also be making the authorities jittery, analysts say.

The government has brought in a value-added tax, cut fuel subsidies and hiked electricity prices, as it seeks to keep to the terms of a US$12 billion (S$16 billion) loan deal with the International Monetary Fund.

The authorities may also fear activists will "use these circumstances to mobilise citizens against Sisi's regime", with figures who made their names in 2011 a particular source of potential concern, Dr Sayed said.

A collapse in the value of the currency in late 2016 and resultant inflation, which peaked at 33 per cent last July, has also left consumers feeling the pinch.

Another electricity price hike and cut to fuel subsidies are planned for the summer.

To prepare the public for this unpopular medicine, state-run media has cited the government's massive 104 billion Egyptian pound (S$8 billion) petroleum subsidy bill and the squeeze caused by oil prices rising back above US$75 per barrel.

Advocacy groups have condemned the arrests, calling on authorities to release the activists, with Human Rights Watch on Thursday denouncing a "state of oppression".

The European Union's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has also condemned the wave of arrests.

"Sustainable stability and security can only go hand in hand with the full respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms," her spokesman Maja Kocijancic said.

"The increasing number of arrests of human rights defenders, political activists and bloggers in the latest weeks in Egypt is therefore a worrying development," said Ms Kocijancic.

Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid rejected the criticisms, saying the EU's track record in human rights can also be condemned.

Mr Abu Zeid pointed to "the immense difficulty and degrading treatment suffered by many of the immigrants and refugees, as well as the violations committed by law enforcement authorities" in the EU.

"That is in addition to the growing effect of the rise of extremist, right-wing parties and movements, with the ensuing manifestations of racism, discrimination, violence and hate speech," Mr Abu Zeid said in a statement.

Also last month, an Egyptian military court sentenced prominent journalist Ismail Alexandrani, who is also an expert on militant movements in the Sinai Peninsula, to 10 years in prison.

The court has yet to issue its reasoning, but Alexandrani's lawyer said he had been accused of publishing military secrets and belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

For Paris-based Dr Bitar, Egypt's policy direction is at least in part the consequence of the West's own policies.

"The Western preference for Arab authoritarianism provides rulers in the Middle East blank cheques that make them feel they have no limits in regards to oppression," he said.