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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Donald Trump’s “great friend” locks up more dissidents in Egypt|mea

The punishments of Sisi fussDonald Trump's "great friend" locks up more dissidents in Egypt

With a green light from America's president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi crushes his opponents


On May 23rd the state accused Mr Ali of making an indecent hand gesture during that celebration and, five months after the fact, arrested him. He is one of dozens of opposition figures detained in the past two months on similarly risible charges. The government has also blocked websites, raided homes and hobbled NGOs. Even before all this, Mr Sisi's repression was unprecedented. But with little protest from America or Europe, and with an election coming next year, the president has intensified his suppression of dissent.

The government says it is acting in the name of security. On May 26th gunmen killed 29 Coptic Christians on a bus south of Cairo, the latest in a series of attacks. But the repression is aimed at critics, not terrorists. The authorities have targeted democratic political parties, such as Bread and Freedom, run by Mr Ali, and activists who have criticised Mr Sisi online. Tens of thousands of political prisoners sit in Egypt's jails—so many that the state has had to build 16 new ones. Only China and Turkey lock up more journalists. Yet, still fearful of the press, the government blocked several independent news websites last month.

Mr Sisi has also tightened his grip on NGOs with a new law that gives the government the final say over what they do and how they are funded. The authorities had already used travel bans, asset freezes and prosecutions to shut down groups they deemed troublesome. This is self-defeating, say activists. "No one is working with the victims [of human-rights abuses], so they may be easy to radicalise," says Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. Mr Zaree himself has been charged with taking foreign funds and could face life in prison.

Egypt's vaguely worded laws are purpose-built for repression. NGOs must avoid such crimes as "destabilising national unity". Mr Ali was charged with "violating public morals", while others arrested recently are accused of "misusing social-media platforms". Some members of parliament want to make matters worse by forcing users of Facebook and Twitter to register with the government and further criminalising "insults" against the state.

The clampdown appears aimed at clearing the way for Mr Sisi to win re-election next year. Mr Ali, a former presidential candidate, was mulling another run. If convicted, he would be ineligible. He has little chance of winning anyway, but his campaign might raise issues, such as the islands transfer, that Mr Sisi would rather avoid. The president appears especially vulnerable to criticism over the economy. To clinch a loan from the IMF last year, the government imposed new taxes, raised the price of petrol and floated the Egyptian pound, which caused inflation to spike. "Ordinary people are getting squeezed," says Khaled Dawoud of the Dostour party, another target of the government.

One thing Mr Sisi can apparently count on is the backing of Donald Trump, America's president, who has hosted him at the White House and praised the way he "took control of Egypt". Mr Sisi, in turn, gushes that Mr Trump is "a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible". Such displays of mutual admiration make Egyptian activists nervous. "This is a disaster," says Mr Dawoud. "Sisi feels he has the green light from Trump."

Mr Trump's lack of interest in human rights, made clear at a summit in Saudi Arabia last month, is having effects elsewhere in the region. On May 23rd the authorities in Bahrain, a Shia-majority island that is run by Sunnis, killed five people and arrested 286 more in a raid on the home of a prominent Shia cleric. "The timing of this operation—two days after King Hamad's convivial meeting with President Trump—can hardly be a coincidence," says Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch, a pressure group. A week later the government banned the country's largest secular opposition group.

Yet autocrats emboldened by Mr Trump's support may not have a completely free hand. Mr Sisi waited months before signing the NGO law, in part due to pressure from American senators such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They now hope to make America's aid to Egypt conditional on improvements in human rights and democracy.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline "The punishments of Sisi fuss"

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