Analysis

In Sissi's Egypt, a Tweet Can Make You Public Enemy Number One

Egyptian activists are trying to invigorate the public in the face of the president's sweeping constitutional changes, but he doesn't intend to allow this to threaten his rule

File photo: Egyptian policemen at the site of a bombing that killed Egypt's top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, in Cairo, June 29, 2015.
Eman Helal/AP

Egyptian actor Amr Waked became unfortunately involved in what must seem like a bad movie. The handsome, blue-eyed young man who played the role of Mohammed Sheik Agiza in George Clooney's "Syriana" became public enemy number one, after tweeting against the execution of nine Egyptian men for the 2015 assassination of Egypt's Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat.

Waked's thousands of followers on social media quickly joined his protest, human rights groups in Egypt and abroad condemned the death penalty and only Western governments, ever so concerned for human rights, squirmed out of direct condemnation of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

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Egyptian resort town Sharm el-Sheikh hosted last month under Sissi's auspices delegations from the European Union, including European Council President Donald Tusk, for a conference entitled "Investing in Stability." The speeches were fine, the hospitality impeccable and the handshakes a symbol of the brotherhood of nations. The meeting's closing statement spoke strongly of the need for constructive dialogue for development and progress and for cooperation in the war against terror and in dealing with refugees.

But when the celebration was over and Sissi was asked by a journalist about the executions and the harsh blow to human rights in Egypt, the president answered in abrupt anger: "You are not going to teach us about humanity," adding that Europeans "have your own idea of humanity and ethics, and we respect it. Respect our values and ethics, as we do yours. Europe's priority is to achieve and preserve prosperity, but our priority is to preserve our country and prevent it from collapsing."

Egyptian journalists in the media gallery responded with a thunderous round of applause. Tusk, who insisted on including in the statement a feeble paragraph on the need to protect human rights, couldn't hold back. On hearing the applause, he cynically said: "I really appreciate how enthusiastic your media are. It's impossible in Europe to have such a reaction. Congratulations."

Sissi was unimpressed by the exchange and vehemently denied that there were any political prisoners in Egypt, or that the executions were unlawful and the accused confessed under torture. This could have been a persuasive answer if only the Egyptian government hadn't practiced unprecedented brutality against its political rivals, bloggers, activists, actors, journalists and ordinary citizens who criticize the regime.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi and European Council President Donald Tusk during the first EU-Arab League Summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, February 24, 2019.
Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

It's easy for Sissi to respond to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when the latter criticizes him for the executions and calls them a crime against humanity. Erdogan is not a beacon of justice and honesty when it comes to human rights, freedom of expression and tolerance of critics. And what does Sissi care about Erdogan when U.S. President Donald Trump says he's done "a fantastic job."

But when a famous actor like Waked stirs up a storm on social media, he is a threat to state security and "insults religion, which does not prohibit executions," according to Egyptian religious leaders drafted to defend the executions. This was also the accusation against blogger Wael Abbas, who was arrested in May and released after seven months under restrictive conditions.

Sissi’s supporters also launched a popular Twitter campaign, "Be calm, Sissi, you are not alone," where they express the support of "100 million Egyptians for the president." But this hashtag has also become a source of ridicule among his opponents. "Be calm, Sissi, you’re not alone, you have lead bullets, military power, a police force with its prison transports and torture … and you will also have the curses of millions of Egyptians until you leave," one user wrote.

International human rights groups have already defined Sissi’s term as much worse than ousted President Hosni Mubarak's rule. Egyptian activists remind the public that eight years ago February "our unity ousted the leader," and hint that the time has come to unify again to achieve the same goal.

But the president does not intend to allow this activity to threaten his rule. New amendments to the constitution approved by a sweeping majority in parliament last month will allow him to stay in office for two more six-year terms when his current term ends in 2022, even though in November 2017, Sissi promised his people to "not seek a third term" and "stay one more day against the will of the Egyptians."

File photo: Egyptian demonstrators brave police water canons and tear gas during a protest in Cairo after Friday prayers, January 28, 2011.
Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

He has now also won additional broad powers, like the authority to appoint the president of the constitutional court, the attorney general and other senior officials in the justice system. The new amendments also make the army responsible for "protecting democracy and the constitution" and exempt its budget from oversight.

These amendments still have to be approved by referendum, but under Sissi’s rule, that is a mere technicality that will not risk the president’s achievements. His opponents have already organized a petition on social media against the amendments allowing him to stay in office, and called on people to wear black on the day of the referendum to show their strength. This, however, will only make it easier for Egyptian police to identify and arrest them on the day of the vote.