Egypt Is Marching Steadily Back to the Mubarak Era

The Egyptian president has made two key appointments, including that of a woman, but critics are wary; meanwhile, Sissi’s war on terror is becoming a fight against his rivals.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, October 25, 2014.
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, October 25, 2014.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Egypt is immersed in a war on terror on three fronts – in Sinai, in Cairo and on the western border with Libya. Officials have no time to deal with the Palestinian issue; even the events on the Temple Mount don’t make big headlines in Cairo.

In recent days Egypt has suffered terror attacks in places including El-Arish in Sinai and near the presidential palace in Cairo. Almost every day military spokesmen talk about the arrest of militants, the destruction of tunnels between Gaza and Sinai and the evacuation and demolition of houses along the border.

Egypt has closed the Rafah crossing indefinitely; the Palestinian Authority’s request to have it opened at least once a week has yet to be answered. Talks on rebuilding Gaza after Israel’s summer offensive have been postponed; officials in Gaza don’t know when they’ll be resumed.

Egypt’s war on terror involves more than just the army. The regime deals harshly with demonstrations at Al-Azhar and other universities. A presidential order permits action against any student or teacher who takes part in demonstrations or disrupts public order (as long as it’s not a demonstration supporting the government).

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is widely supported on social networks, but Egyptian human rights organizations fear that the war on terror will turn into a campaign against them and opposition groups. While they understand the all-out war on the Muslim Brotherhood, they’re alarmed by the imprisonment of secular bloggers and civil society activists.

With a court order having suspended the activity of the April 6 movement, a pillar of the revolution against the Mubarak regime, and with dozens of bloggers and activists having been sent to prison, the president has authorized the army to protect public institutions such as universities. This order turns these places into official military sites, and anyone making trouble there will be prosecuted. Thus the war on terror is becoming a fight against his political rivals.

This week Sissi appointed Faiza Abou el-Naga national security adviser. Egypt hasn’t had a national security adviser for more than 40 years, let alone a woman in that position. This looks encouraging, but Abou el-Naga, dubbed Egypt’s Iron Lady, has stood behind the efforts against human rights groups.

Abou el-Naga, a senior diplomat, “exposed” the international money pipeline that has helped these groups, including the April 6 movement; some activists have been imprisoned for the illegal receipt of foreign funds. Abou el-Naga has also headed the opposition to U.S. involvement in Egypt’s internal affairs; on Thursday, Egyptian commentators interpreted her appointment as Sissi’s latest warning to both the protest movements and the U.S. administration.

Sissi also named Ahmed Gamal el-Din, a former interior minister, his adviser for anti-terror affairs. Pro-government media said this appointment would bring “calm and security to Egypt.”

Both officials served in the Mubarak era; the protest movements see their appointment as part of a creeping return by members of that regime.

“One or two people, talented as they may be, can’t rid Egypt of terror on all fronts,” a senior Egyptian journalist told Haaretz. “The way to overcome at least some of the attacks is to reconcile with the Muslim Brotherhood and tighten cooperation with the Bedouin tribes in Sinai.”

This journalist knows that anyone suggesting reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood will be branded a traitor, but reconciliation attempts still happen. Every now and then Brotherhood members issue statements about reconciliation talks with officials.

The Brotherhood is split between its older generation, most of whose leaders are in prison, and the younger generation, which isn’t recognized by the movement’s leadership and wants to forge a new relationship with the regime.

But Sissi is in no hurry. His promises to develop Sinai’s economy to generate income for the Bedouin remain promises. The Bedouin leaders who met with him this week asked him to build a “new Rafah,” now that hundreds of buildings are being torn down along the Gaza border. Sissi listened and smiled but made no new promises.

It seems Sissi is more inclined to deal with pan-Arab policy than with finding political solutions for the terror threat in Egypt. Domestically, gerrymandering plans are raising fears about further attempts to keep the regime’s supporters in power.

Meanwhile, the new election bill being drafted is designed to prevent the setting up of opposition coalitions after a vote. Egypt seems to be steadily marching back to the Mubarak era.

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