Just a few short months after John Kerry disingenuously congratulated Egypt’s military junta for “transitioning to democracy”, the young students who helped galvanize the 2011 Egyptian Revolution are back protesting its increasingly draconian rule. Campus protests have broken out in several major cities calling for the release of imprisoned student activists and for the removal of new limits on academic freedom imposed by the regime.
As part of wide-ranging campaign to stifle popular dissent, the government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has recently given itself broad powers to directly appoint university heads, dismiss faculty without the possibility of appeal, and force students to sign documents promising “not to participate in political activities” in their housing applications. Private security firms have also been hired to enforce order on campus and monitor activists.
Predictably, these measures have led to outrage among students – and equally as predictable, their protests have been met with harsh retribution from the military regime.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 100 students have been detained since the start of the school year on October 11th. Video shot by student activists has shown images of protestors teargassed and brutalized by baton-wielding riot police.
Despite this, the Obama administration has remained steadfast in its support of the Egyptian government. Indeed, in the face of an escalating campaign of repression by the Sisi regime – including a Tiananmen Square-scale massacre of protestors, arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings and torture – the American government has seemingly doubled down on its support for him.
Earlier this year the U.S. concluded a major arms deal with the Egyptian government, even as popular activists once heralded as the vanguard of democracy languished in prison. In response to rampant human rights abuses, the American government has remained tactfully mute, even offering inexplicable praise at times for the Egyptian government’s non-existent commitment to “democracy”.
While the crackdown originally targeted its fury at supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi, it has now extended itself to left-wing groups and civil society activists. Major NGO’s have been forced out of the country, and journalists have been imprisoned after public show trials.
The sad truth behind all this is that the U.S. has always been a committed enemy of democracy in Egypt. Apart from a few short weeks in 2011 when global media coverage of popular demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square made such a position politically untenable, the U.S. has consistently supported Egyptian dictators willing to align with American policies in the region – particularly support for Israel and Gulf Arab dictatorships.
The reality of this has not been lost on Egyptians, who have seen successive American governments help impose military rule upon them and stifle their hopes for a democratic future.
It’s worth remembering that the ideology which inspired Al Qaeda was itself born in the torture chambers of Egyptian government prisons. And when the military under General Sisi last year intervened to annul democratic elections – killing, torturing and imprisoning Muslim Brotherhood political activists in the process – it made clear that peaceful political participation was not an option available to Islamist groups.
While heretofore such groups have largely eschewed a violent response in the (likely misplaced) hope that the international community will eventually intervene on their behalf, it’s difficult to imagine them continuing on this path indefinitely in the face of escalating repression.
Abboud al-Zumar, a former member Egyptian Islamic Jihad who spent 30 years in prison for his role in the assassination of Anwar Sadat, said upon his amnesty after the 2011 Revolution:
“The revolution created a new mechanism, the mechanism of strong, peaceful protests…the climate for armed action is finished and the main reason is the atmosphere of freedom we are now establishing… violence breeds violence.”
Those avenues of peaceful democratic protest and representation have now been violently shut. As many analysts have pointed out, the repression of the Sisi regime in many ways dwarfs that of even Mubarak or Sadat.
It remains to be seen what these policies – both tacitly and actively condoned by the Obama administration – will eventually give rise to in response. But if history is any guide, the answer will not be good.
Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images