Updated | The day I arrived in Egypt in April, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi had just given two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who was visiting Cairo to announce billions of dollars in aid and investment. The islands are in the Gulf of Aqaba, where both Israel and Jordan maintain ports, so the transfer of the land was strategically important. It was also a baffling and highly contentious gift that angered many Egyptians.
“Do we have any idea why he gave them, what his motivation was?” I asked Mohammed Zaree from the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. He replied, “Good question. No one knows.”
The next day, President Sisi gave a two-hour speech in which he defended his decision, saying the islands always belonged to Saudi Arabia, and prompted an uproar after a daring member of parliament tried to ask a question: “I did not give anyone permission to speak,” Sisi retorted. It set off a social media frenzy with a hashtag that translates to #SpeechDoesNotNeedPermission.
Friday prayers, the traditional time for demonstrations and protests, were tense that week. Hundreds gathered in the Giza area of Cairo, and police fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse crowds that called for an end to Sisi’s rule. Police turned out in force to keep subsequent demonstrations in check and conducted raids to detain suspected activists.
“Egypt is now a mediocre military dictatorship,” says Mohamed Lotfy, a former Amnesty International researcher, now executive director of the Egyptian Center for Rights and Freedom. “Even [former Chilean President Augusto] Pinochet would be ashamed. Because under real dictatorships, there is economic development. People sacrifice human rights for security. Here, people are not gaining anything. The economy is collapsing, and they are cracking down on activists, journalists, NGOs.”
Two years after Sisi seized power following the toppling of democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi in a military coup in June 2013, and five years after the demonstrations in Tahrir Square brought down Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is in deep crisis. “It’s a very dangerous time,” says Lotfy. “One can’t see prospects for the future. Not because the government is weak but because people don’t have a vision for change. When the vision is this blurred, however, it is very easy for a government to fall.”
That could mean Egypt is set for another wave of violence. Although there are no official polls, many feel that Sisi’s popularity has plummeted. “There is no trust in the government,” Lotfy says. “People have actually gone back to saying the days of Mubarak were better.” As repressive as he was, Lotfy says, Mubarak had clear goals—to develop the economy and bring peace to the troubled region.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said that was an “unfair biased assessment” and such criticisms were “based on rumors and inaccurate statistics” circulated by media outlets and human rights organizations. “Egypt has taken legislative steps aiming to make progress in the field of human rights, most notably in the constitution, and is working to ensure that these steps are implemented,” Abu Zeid said in an email responding to Newsweek’s questions.
Prominent Egyptian human rights activists and groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said this is the worst state repression in decades, citing enforced disappearances, 60,000 political prisoners in jails across the country and alleged extrajudicial killings by the state.
Gamal Eid from the Arabic Network for Human Rights says 10,000 of those political prisoners have not even come to trial. “It’s a form of punishment,” Eid says. “We are currently facing the most violent attack against human rights groups since the 1980s. I have been working in human rights for 25 years. This is the worst I have seen.”
For all his proclamations that his policies are necessary to fight terrorism, Sisi has not brought security. (The president rarely talks to foreign reporters and communicates to the media mostly through speeches or press conferences.) Militants related to the Islamic State group (ISIS) operate with impunity in the Northern Sinai, making it a no-go area. Tourism, one of the main drivers of Egypt’s economy, has all but shut down. At the pyramids on a beautiful spring morning, a time when just a few years ago the attraction would have been packed with visitors, I counted fewer than 10 Europeans or Americans.
This past October, a bomb brought down a Russian plane over the Sinai carrying tourists from Sharm el-Sheikh, and in January suspected ISIS militants armed with knives, guns and explosive belts stabbed three foreign tourists at a beach resort in Hurghada on the Red Sea. One of them, Jon Torp, told the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang that he saw a sign indicating the assailants were ISIS. “I went out onto the balcony and could see a man waving a black flag with white lettering,” Torp said.
The combination of militant attacks, enforced disappearances, a flagging economy and a military regime opposed to democracy has many Egyptians in despair. It seems as though the hopeful days of the Arab Spring, the jubilance of Tahrir Square and the belief that it was time for democracy in Egypt were centuries ago.
Shortly before the fifth anniversary of Tahrir Square, on January 25, things grew even more difficult, according to locals: Authorities raided the homes of suspected activists and put up surveillance cameras near the square to monitor activity. Paranoia started to prevail.
“I have not felt safe since 2014,” said one foreign reporter, who has lived in Cairo for more than 20 years and asked not to be identified for obvious reasons. “Since the Al Jazeera journalists were imprisoned, no one working in the press feels they can operate safely.”
In recent months, foreigners have felt almost as threatened as Egyptian activists. On the evening of the Tahrir Square anniversary, a young Italian researcher named Giulio Regeni was abducted while walking to the subway near his home. For several days, he was brutally tortured and finally dumped by the side of the road, dead. Regeni, an Arabic speaker, had been researching trade unions—a sensitive subject under the Sisi regime. The state security services denied involvement in the killing, blaming bandits. They identified five men as the killers, whom they promptly assassinated. The Italian government reacted strongly; it pulled back its ambassador and demanded phone records and an open investigation from the Egyptian authorities, who balked.
“The extraordinary thing is how five people who probably did not do it were just liquidated,” says Lotfy. The death of Regeni symbolized a ruthless approach by the security services: If they would kill a foreigner with impunity, then they would kill anyone.
In late April, Egyptian authorities filed a police report against international news agency Reuters after it quoted six police and intelligence sources as saying that Regeni was detained by police before his death.
“Politically speaking, Egypt is going through a period of loss of control over the security,” Lotfy says. “But also a loss of credibility with the public opinion and a state of helplessness over the economy. It’s not good.”
The official unemployment rate in Egypt is 11 percent (unofficially, it is thought to be closer to 20 percent). Tourism is at an all-time low. Prices for food and everyday items are expensive. The gravest worry, however, is the loss of civil liberties. After the death of Regeni, whose body was so badly tortured that his mother recognized him from only the tip of his nose, according to one local journalist, there is an underlying fear and anger at the power of the security services.
“These guys come with an entrenched mentality of being above the law,” says Lotfy. “To the extent where if they buy a car, they don’t even bother to put up license plates—they just put an eagle sticker on the back, which means they are security.”
Abu Zeid of the foreign ministry said improving human rights was a process and that, “In any given country there will unavoidably be violations and incidents that involve breaches of human rights… Violations happen, but they are tackled with absolute seriousness and with no impunity.”
Outside Lotfy’s office sits Ibrahim Metwaly, a lawyer and the father of a young student, Amr Ibrahim, who disappeared on July 8, 2013. Metwaly explains he is the leader of a grassroots organization called Coalition of the Disappeared. His son was not political, he insists, nor a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group blamed by Sisi for undermining the country. Ibrahim was last seen being taken away blindfolded from the street while he was walking home. The next day, his frantic father searched hospitals, morgues and police stations, where officials told him to go to the Ministry of Interior (the department blamed by human rights groups for many of the disappearances).
Nearly three years later, Metwaly believes his son is still alive and most likely being held at Azouly, the prison near the Sinai that is notorious for brutal torture. He is not sure what his son did to be picked up, and there is no record of him being charged with anything. Metwaly filed lawsuits against the person who was minister of defense at the time of his son’s abduction, Sisi.
“He is my son. He is a part of me, and I won’t give up until I find him,” Metwaly says, his voice cracking with emotion as he sits huddled in a darkened office. “How could I live without a part of me?”
As a lawyer, Metwaly has the advantage of understanding Egypt’s tangled judicial system better than most. He is now trying to help others whose children and relatives have disappeared and who have no idea where to start looking for them. Some of these people, he says, live far away and are so poor they “cannot even afford to take a minibus to get to Cairo to file missing persons reports.”
“It’s worse than Mubarak,” he says—perhaps the 10th time I heard this from different people in a single day, ranging from my taxi drivers to students, to shoppers, to activists. “We live in a disastrous time.”
Another woman at Lotfy’s office, Manal Ibrahim Sallam, is crying. She says she has searched morgues for days looking for her 24-year-old son, Abd el-Hamid Mohamed Mohamed, who has been missing since 2014. Every day, she takes a bus from her home in the Kafr el-Sheikh district, about three hours outside of Cairo, to plead for news and meet others in a similar situation. “I will go to any gathering. I will talk to anyone who might have information about my son,” she says, adding that the authorities have not done anything to help her.
Students and those suspected of political activism are not the only ones disappearing. Aya Hijazi, a 29-year old American with a degree in conflict resolution studies from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, came to Cairo to try to “fix things,” says her brother, Basel, a Google employee in Dublin.
Hijazi founded a charity for street children called Belady (our country) with her husband, Mohammed Hassanein, but was arrested within months. She has spent nearly two years in a Cairo women’s prison; her trial has been postponed five times. She reads a lot, her brother says, and draws. “She used to be a good artist,” he says darkly. “Now she is a great artist.”
Her crime? “Aya decided to tackle the enormous problem of street children,” Basel says. She launched a nongovernmental organization that focused on sanitation, combatting sexual harassment and attending to the needs of the children. But she missed one small detail, and that was her downfall: She failed to get a formal registered NGO number before she started working. “We’re not sure why they decided to use her as a scapegoat,” says Basel, who says the newspapers attacked her for days after her arrest. Perhaps it was her American heritage (she was born in the United States, to a Lebanese father and an Egyptian mother).
Hijazy was accused of sex trafficking and child abuse, a charge her family and friends, as well as human rights activists like Lotfy and others, believe is fabricated. “Everyone knows the state is using Aya as an example,” says Basel. “They arrested her to send a message to tell young people—you want to give us a different view of how to run society? You want to start NGOs that help people the government is not reaching? Well, you cannot. You will go to jail.”
“Her case is one of those stories that we just don’t have an answer for,” says Lotfy.
Growing repression by the security services is a way of demonstrating that the government can operate without restraints, says Zaree, of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “This is not a war against terrorism—which is what the government says—but against civil society. The security apparatus is running out of control.”
In the minds of the leaders, Zaree says, Tahrir Square was a terrible event, “and they are determined not to let it happen again.”
Asked about the detention of people who seem to have no connection with terrorism, such as NGO staff and bloggers, the foreign ministry spokesman, Abu Zeid, said anybody in prison was facing charges of violating national laws, and was guaranteed due process and a fair trial. “Egypt is indeed in the midst of an arduous battle against terrorism, and in light of the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and security personnel, it has been necessary to take some strict security measures,” he said.
Most of Egypt’s independent journalists have been silenced, and the imprisonment of Al Jazeera reporters, which lasted for more than a year, has made many foreign reporters wary of traveling or working in Egypt, or indeed of asking too many questions. Many of Egypt’s most prominent political bloggers—including Alaa Abd el-Fattah (the nephew of the popular British-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif), who worked tirelessly to expose corruption under Mubarak—are also in prison.
Abu Zeid said freedom of speech and independence of the press were guaranteed by the constitution as long as media outlets operate “within the confines of the law.”
Most people I spoke to in Egypt believe that things will come to a head soon, that Sisi cannot continue his rule by repression and fear. It was, after all, the high price of bread and the power of social media that fueled the revolution at Tahrir Square. There is anger, and it takes little to trigger demonstrations. On April 19, police in the Cairo area of Al-Rehab shot a man dead in an argument over a cup of tea, leading to street protests. “People are utterly fed up with life here,” says Sara, a young lawyer who declined to give her last name.
Yasmin Hossam is a lawyer representing the writer Ahmed Naji, who was imprisoned in 2014 for writing a sex scene in one of his novels, which was syndicated in the newspaper Akhbar al-Adab. Naji was sentenced to two years in prison, and Hossam and a team of lawyers are appealing. “This is all a symptom of the fact that there is a line in Egypt now. No one is allowed to talk in a way that is outside the system,” says Hossam. “They will not allow any kind of freedom of expression.”
She says she doesn’t regret the revolution in Tahrir Square. “It was the best thing that ever happened to us Egyptians,” she says. “But the problem is simple now: There is no rule of law. They beat doctors; they kill foreigners; they imprison writers.”
“No one is safe,” she says. “There is too much blood.”
Correction: This story originally gave the wrong translation for Belady, which means "our country."