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What's Behind Egyptian President Sissi's Sudden Burst of Generosity?

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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, after meeting with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the 73rd United Nations General Assembly, New York, Sept. 24, 2018
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. His freeing of a few prisoners is a diplomatic bargaining chip, not a political one since his regime will win again in Egypt's current elections.Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

“In your opinion, are there aliens on Earth?” Shady Abu Zeid asked an Egyptian woman wearing a head covering. “Of course, there are,” she answered. “Have you seen them?” the Egyptian satirist and activist asked her. “No, not here in Egypt, but they are in America, in Europe.” "And in your opinion, could they destroy the country?” “Of course.”

Abu Zeid's next interlocutor is convinced that no aliens have landed in Egypt: “No way, after all Egypt is mentioned in the Koran,” the man says, triumphantly. Abu Zeid then goes back to the woman and asks: “Is it possible that such aliens can harm people? Young people?” “Certainly, they can tempt them with money and gifts, and in the end they will take them away to some star.”

Since 2015, Abu Zeid has been using his imagination and comic talent to aim barbs at the social, political and economic problems plaguing Egypt. Most of his satirical career has developed by means of posts on his YouTube channel, “The Rich Content,” which feature a cartoon character that examines current events in the country.

In the video clips Abu Zeid typically appears as a “journalist,” sent to cover and comment on current events and controversial subjects, displaying a serious approach heavily laced with ridicule. He had generally avoided dealing directly with political issues out of a fear that he might be arrested, but by using satire he managed to hold up a distorted mirror in the face of the regime – becoming a serious YouTube influencer (and Facebook star), with millions of addicted followers.

On January 25, 2011 – National Police Day in Egypt, the day identified with the outbreak of the Arab Spring demonstrations in the country – Abu Zeid crossed the line of what's permitted when he, along with a few friends, passed out condoms blown up as balloons with “Young people love the police” written on them. Over 1.4 people watched the clip on the day it was posted. Complaints against him quickly ensued: Even though Abu Zeid was never put on trial for what he did, he agreed to apologize.

But his apology did not settle accounts between him and the police department, in particular – or the regime, in general. In May 2018, he was arrested and secretly taken to a police station near Cairo for a long interrogation. He then spent over two years in jail, without a trial, after being charged with belonging to a hostile organization and publishing false information – common accusations that serve the regime against its critics, and have indeed been cited as the basis for the arrests and trials of tens of thousands.

Human rights organizations estimate that over 60,000 such people are incarcerated in detention facilities or jails in Egypt – a number Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi's regime denies with explanations that these detainees are either common criminals or terrorists.

Finally Abu Zeid was freed last week, but it is still not clear if he will be put on trial. His release was a surprise, because the law allows the arrest of a person without a trial for two years, but the detention may be extended “as needed.”

Because the government does not explain its decisions, especially when they concern people it has jailed, the release of the popular comedian/vlogger immediately sparked a wave of rumors – according to which President Sissi may now be caving into international pressure on Cairo to release prisoners and moderate its persecution of political rivals and critics.

Last week, 200 European parliamentarians sent the Egyptian president a letter demanding the release of prisoners of conscience. A similar letter was sent by 56 members of Congress (55 Democrats and one Independent: Bernie Sanders) Petitions and letters from international human rights organizations and Egyptian activists are usually relegated to the trash, but when American lawmakers raise their voices, the story may be different.

Sissi, who is waiting anxiously for the results of next week's U.S. presidential election, realizes that his close friend Donald Trump – who has described the Egyptian leader as his “favorite dictator” – may well lose the White House. To prepare for the possible triumph of Joe Biden, the thinking goes, it would perhaps be best if Sissi were to show a little kindness toward prisoners in his country who are troubling the American and European “bleeding-heart liberals.”

If this is really the reason behind Cairo's recent displays of generosity toward political prisoners – two journalists suspected of anti-government activity for criticism they posted on Facebook and Twitter were recently released, too – then there is a reason for cautious optimism.

Another possibility – according to which Sissi’s magnanimity toward prisoners stems from a desire to placate voters in the parliamentary elections in Egypt, which began last weekend and will continue through early November – does not come up at all. This is despite the fact that well over 4,000 candidates are running for 568 seats in parliament's lower house – out of a total of 596. The rest of the members are appointed by the president himself.

But these elections are seen as a rubber stamp, a joke whose results are known in advance. In the 2012 vote, the first held after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed and the Arab Spring revolution, the turnout was about 52 percent of registered voters. Three years later the turnout dropped to only 10 percent to 12 percent – though the official figure was 28 percent. This year the numbers are expected to drop even lower.

The Egyptian public’s trust in its parliament is insignificant, the ruling party will continue to serve as a showcase for a dubious democratic process – which in reality will provide the regime with constitutional backing for its decisions. The opposition movements have decided to run in these elections, and not boycott them, only so they can continue to exist.

Sissi is not threatened by the voting public. If he is fearful at all it is due to the protest movements – which know how to rile up the street – and the “hostile media,” which operates by means of the social media.

Freeing prisoners is thus a diplomatic bargaining chip, not a political one.

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