On August 25th, 2020, the Director and co-founder of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) Bahey Eldin Hasan was found guilty of “publishing false news” and “insulting the judiciary.” Tried in absentia while in self-imposed exile in Tunis, he was sentenced to 15 years’ prison for tweets critical of the regime. The trial by the Fifth Terrorism Circuit of Cairo’s Criminal Court marks a new low for Egypt’s judiciary.
On February 7thPatrick Zaki was detained upon re-entering Egypt for a short holiday, based on a warrant which was never notified. Zaki is a student enrolled on an EU-funded Erasmus Masters at the University of Bologna, and formerly a researcher for another human rights organisation, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
As Director of one of Egypt’s oldest human rights organisations, Hasan’s case might be explained as a show of force against political opposition by a powerful regime. However, CIHRS had long since left Egypt, focuses primarily on research not activism, and in no way can be considered a politically relevant opposition force. In combination with thousands of cases similar to Zaki’s, Hasan’s sentence tells a different story, illustrating the weakness the Egyptian regime’s ferocity betrays.
Regime Weakness and the Road to the 2011 Revolt
CIHRS and EIPR are part of a group of Egyptian human rights organisations sometimes known as al-huqūqiyyūn, which in the 2000s regularly signed collective statements denouncing the regime’s human rights abuses. These organisations were an important component of the nationwide ferment which led to the ‘Eighteen Days’ of popular mass protest and to the removal of then-President Hosni Mubarak. The huqūqiyyūn were not the only opposition groups – independent unions were crucial and numerically more influential – but in the 2000s they were a thorn in the regime’s side. They collected and disseminated information about regime corruption, abuse of power and torture, denouncing these and other flagrant abuses. While most of the Muslim Brotherhood was abandoning its supporters among Egypt’s poor and working classes, the huqūqiyyūn focused precisely on those classes’ major concerns – corruption, abuse of power, unemployment, poverty. Campaigns like Shayfeenkum (We See You) and Kifaya! (Enough!) were also experiments in cross-ideological political organisation, involving activists from the left, liberal centre, and progressive Islamist quarters. The threat – and political potential – of these groups lay in their willingness to formulate and advocate for a truly anti-systemic alternative to the regime. By contrast, the ‘pious bourgeoisie’ leading the Muslim Brotherhood settled on a programme which, while emphasising ‘Islamic’ values and delivering charitable help to the poor, did not aim to replace a system of gross inequalities: it merely aimed to replace its ruling elites.
Paved with Good Intentions: The Paradoxical Decline of 2011-13
While the huqūqiyyūn were not the sole political motors of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, they did achieve considerable visibility in the immediate post-Mubarak period, not least because they had ‘called out’ the regime’s weaknesses and because it was they who, on the back of the Tunisian revolution, actually called for the January 25th protests which sparked the ‘Eighteen Days’. Indeed, the 2011-13 period saw the exponential growth of independent trade unions, parties, and civil society groups. The challenge they faced was enormous: a new system which would guarantee ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ for all. However, paradoxically, during this period the convergence of purpose and action among huqūqiyyūn dissipated. Some groups were co-opted, for others their small size meant attempting to influence transitional government policy detracted time from frontline organisation and mobilisation. Others, like CIHRS itself, were driven into exile by the supposedly ‘reformed’ security services, which had reasserted themselves. Others yet were so incensed by the high-handed attitude of newly elected Islamist parliamentarians and President, and believed their actions to be so dangerous that they ended up supporting the Tamarrod (Rebel) movement calling for Morsi to step down. Eventually, some supported the Army’s intervention to remove Morsi, ending Egypt’s democratic experiment.
The 2013 Coup and the War on Dissent
The ‘war on dissent’ carried out since the army retook control of the country is one of the most salient features of al-Sisi’s regime. Indeed, the new regime was born not on July 3rd, the day of the coup, but on August 13th, in the massacre of roughly 1,000 anti-coup protesters at Rabaa al-Adawiya. Since then, the new regime has targeted opposition ever more broadly and ever-slighter manifestations of dissent, including within its own ranks. Police abuse, mass incarceration and torture have intensified to levels not seen even under Mubarak. Legislative and Judiciary powers have been bent to servicing the regime.
Today, Egypt’s opposition is marginalised, scattered, and its public voice and presence have been largely silenced. Nonetheless, and despite having lost part of its anti-systemic and counter-hegemonic impetus due to the initial alignment of most civic activists to the ‘post-July 3rd’ political order, civil society has been targeted by the new regime as early as 2014. Indeed, after al-Sisi’s election to the Presidency of the Republic, many secular activists, intellectuals, and academics, including Bahey Eldin Hasan, fled the country in self-exile. The choice to move all CIHRS’ activities to Tunisia was a clear sign of the true status of freedoms in al-Sisi’s ‘new’ Egypt. Notwithstanding this exodus of activists, the regime insisted in persecuting civil society with all the tools available to it, culminating with Law 70 of May 2017. This law prohibits NGOs from conducting activities that “harm national security, public order, public morality, or public health”, a vague definition that has de facto blocked almost all activities by independent civic activists. Even harsher legislation was passed in the summer of 2019, making associative life impossible, and harming many activities such as humanitarian aid in the process. Still, such measures did not stop Egyptians – albeit not in huge numbers – from protesting against government corruption in September 2019. The consequent wave of repression has precipitated the country into a black hole. Despite the Covid-19 emergency, jails are brimming with activists with no clear accusations, as in the case of Zaki, or of socialist human rights lawyer Mahienour al-Masry.
Conclusions: Cracks in the Counter-revolution
This is the trajectory which cases like Hasan’s, Zaki’s, al-Masry’s or Regeni’s epitomise: the regime’s descent into a frenzied pursuit of threats even where there are none, and unprecedented levels of violence in doing so. So much so, that even stalwart support from European capitals fearful or desiring al-Sisi’s control over migration or his influence in Libya have been forced to publicly blush at the regime’s brutality.
On the surface, the regime’s actions appear irrational and excessive to the point of paranoia. However, precisely the stark lack of any political realism in this repression betrays its roots. The causes of the 2011 uprising were ultimately the combination of corruption, material dispossession resulting from the ‘structural adjustment’ of Egypt’s economy, and political dispossession epitomised by the repression of security services. None of those structural problems have even been addressed – indeed, the situation has worsened. However, Egypt’s ‘mafia state’ is built upon precisely these three ‘stool legs’: seriously tackling any of them would undermine an already precariously perched regime.
It is exactly these three pillars which Independent Civic Activists targeted before 2011. The unbridled repression unleashed against ICAs indirectly confirms their central role in pre-2011 mobilisation. It also indirectly confirms the regime’s weakness: for all its ferocity, and despite its apparent ‘strength and stability’, allowing ICAs to again expose its predatory and parasitic extraction of wealth from the Egyptian population, its corruption and its violence is considered too risky.
All this should sound alarm bells in both the Egyptian government and in its European counterparts. Without a modicum of democracy and social justice, Egypt will remain an unstable crucible, one which serves the national interests of neither its people nor Europe’s.
 Gervasio, G., Teti, A., 2020. Prelude to the Revolution: Independent Civic Activists in Mubarak’s Egypt and the Quest for Hegemony. Journal of North African Studies.
 El-Ghobashy, M., 2005. The Metamorphosis of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers. International Journal of Middle East Studies. 37, 373–395.
 Teti, A., Gervasio, G., 2012. “After Mubarak, Before Transition: The Challenges for Egypt’s Democratic Opposition.” Interface 4, 102–112.
 Matthies-Boon, V., 2017. “Shattered worlds: political trauma amongst young activists in post-revolutionary Egypt.” Journal of North African Studies 22, 620–644.
 Marfleet, Phillip. 2013. “Mubarak’s Egypt—Nexus of Criminality.” State Crime Journal 2 (2): 112–34.
 Teti, A., Matthies-Boon, V., Gervasio, G., 2014. “Sisiphus.” Middle East Research and Information Project.
 Lucia Sorbera, Andrea Teti, Gennaro Gervasio, Enrico De Angelis “Giulio e le ragioni della Giustizia,” Minima e Moralia, August 20th, 2017.