Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring, Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrested dozens of activists and journalists in an extension of a broader crackdown begun when the military took over the country in 2013. Sisi’s repression has left civil society groups fragmented and weakened; dissidents no longer pose an immediate threat to his regime. But there is a big difference between a strong state and a weak state using violence on a large scale against civilians to cover up its panic.
Indeed, the Sisi regime and its counterparts across the region are entering a process of decay, which they will not survive. Simply put, in an increasingly connected and digital world, it is civil society that will thrive against less innovative and technically impaired dictatorships.
The Arab Spring revolution laid the groundwork for a new political game in which the winner is the first actor to cope with fast-paced technological change—and the wealth of information and access it brings. During the Arab Spring, Egyptians at large made better use than regime forces of new tools for communication and collective action. And since then, despite a government backlash, they have continued to enjoy nearly ungovernable access to cross-border media and mobilization tools.
In contrast, dictatorships are increasingly isolated from their people and the rest of the world. Mubarak, for example, was easily overthrown after 30 years in power because he did not understand public demands for, at a minimum, good governance. The next president, Mohamed Morsi, continued in the same path—and now so has Sisi. Yet the public demands only grow louder. Two years ago, the regime closed down a satirical program run by Bassem Youssef that ridiculed military officials. But since then, myriad social media platforms have buzzed with similar satirical comments. (Most recently on January 25, two Egyptian comedians released a video in which they ridiculed policemen stationed in Tahrir Square by handing them balloons made of inflated condoms, with a dedication from the January 25
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