The Egyptian military’s latest moves to consolidate power should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the promise of that country’s Arab Spring wither over the last three years. Ever since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, seized power from President Mohamed Morsi last summer, whatever shoots of democracy that had managed to emerge in the Arab world’s most populous country have been trampled and ground down.
Even those Egyptians who say they prefer the stability of the current regime to life under Mr. Morsi – the coup was welcomed by many secular Egyptians – should be appalled at the measures the authorities have taken in last two weeks. The regime governs more and more like the autocrats the revolution sought to depose. Egypt is fast becoming a security state where journalists are jailed, demonstrations are banned and opposition is outlawed.
The regime’s most sinister move to stifle dissent was announced on Christmas Day, when the interim cabinet declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The proclamation came in the wake of a suicide bombing of police headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, where at least 16 people died and more than 100 were wounded. A jihadist group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility, but that was apparently irrelevant to Egyptian authorities, who, without citing a shred of evidence, pinned the blame squarely on the Brotherhood, which had in fact condemned the bombing and renounced violence forty years ago.
The government now says any association with the group is a crime, punishable with up to five years in jail. Leaders of the organization, if caught, could be sentenced to death.
In a way, the government’s announcement merely formalizes the status quo. The new application of the law won’t make much of a difference to the Brotherhood’s senior ranks, most of whom were driven underground during the summer, when thousands of members – including most of its leaders – were arrested. About 1,000 more were killed. Nor is this a new dilemma for the Brotherhood, which has been banned in Egypt for the vast majority of its 85 year history and has resisted every attempt to eradicate it.
What the law does accomplish is to further stoke tensions between the country’s military rulers and millions of Egyptians, who, while perhaps not card carrying members of the Brotherhood, are at least supportive of the group’s broad social mandate. This is an organization that has deep roots in Egyptian society, providing charitable outreach, healthcare and other services to millions. All of those activities are now banned. Last week, the group’s newspaper was forced to cease publication.
Meanwhile, Mr. Morsi, the Brotherhood’s former leader who became president as a result of the 2012 democratic elections, remains in jail. The military has slapped him with fresh charges, accusing him of killing protesters and orchestrating a plot to bring down former president Hosni Mubarak’s government with foreign assistance. If found guilty, he could face the death penalty.
And the SCAF’s enemies list is growing beyond the Islamist opposition. Three young, secular activists who were key figures in using social media to mobilize mass demonstrations in 2011 were sentenced to three year jail terms last week for breaking a new law which essentially bans public protests. Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma have launched a hunger strike from prison to protest their treatment. And four journalists working for the Al Jazeera English network were jailed after being charged for publishing “false news” that “damaged national security” and allegedly colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood. The team included an Australian correspondent and the channel’s Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s military backed government appears to be veering from the plan they promised would transition the country back to democracy. Adly Mansour, the interim president, says Egypt could hold presidential elections as early as this summer, before electing a new Parliament. In the original timetable, the order of the vote was reversed, and with good reason. The new schedule could allow the current leadership to maintain stricter control over electoral outcomes, enabling a newly-elected president to use his influence to shape Parliament.
Taken together, the events of the last two weeks should spark outrage. Egypt’s military-backed rulers have shown increasing disregard for the democratic ideals of the Arab Spring. Is it possible to have a free and fair election when the press is muzzled and opposition is banned? Things in Egypt have gone from bad to worse, and there’s no reason to believe the military regime will allow them to change for the better once the time to vote arrives – and the stakes are even higher.