Why Sisi Fears Egypt's Liberals

Behind the Recent Crackdown on Civil Society

Journalists gesture in protest against the arrests of fellow journalists, Cairo, Egypt, May 3, 2016. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

In recent days, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has seemed less interested in his usual repression of Islamists and more determined to crack down on liberal groups and watchdogs, especially the pro-democracy forces that were involved in the Arab Spring and that continue to challenge him. He has even gone as far as to bar Western journalists from entering Egypt as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Cairo this week.

It appears that Sisi now views liberals as more of a threat than Islamists. His strategy to weaken the liberal opposition began in 2013 when the government arrested and imprisoned a large number of prominent liberal activists who were protesting against his draconian restrictions on public speech. For instance, in December 2013, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, and Mohamed Adel, leading figures from a pro-democracy movement, were slammed with three-year sentences for participating in a rally against Sisi’s anti-protest law. Thousands of other activists were randomly arrested and jailed after facing unfair trials.

Then in February of this year, the Sisi administration began targeting nonprofits. First, he closed down Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an organization founded in 1993 that provides counseling services, legal support, and other forms of assistance to torture victims. The center’s director, Aida Seif al-Dawla argued that Cairo’s decision was political and not related to a license violation, as the authorities had claimed. In March, Sisi dismissed the country’s top auditor, Hisham Genina after using another law that he had passed in July 2015, which gave him unlimited power to sack heads of supervisory boards of government bodies if they “pose a threat to national security.” A few months earlier, Genina had publicly accused the government of stealing $60 billion from public funds over the past four years. Genina, who was appointed by the ousted President Mohamed Morsi, had also condemned the government for corruption, implicating key institutions such as the police and the judiciary. Sisi claims that Genina’s remarks tarnished Egypt’

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