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Five years on: Egypt after the Arab Spring

Caroline Schmitt January 18, 2016

Imprisoned journalists, terrorist attacks and a silenced opposition: Where is Egypt today ahead of the 5th anniversary of the Arab Spring?

Symbolbild Arabischer Frühling
Image: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

On July 3, 2013, two years after the beginning of the Arab Spring, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, then head of Egypt's armed forces, arrested Islamist President Mohammad Morsi and suspended the constitution. Morsi, who was the first Egyptian president to be democratically elected, is a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood. His presidency was brief and chaotic and his popular support eroded. One year after Morsi’s ouster, el-Sissi won the presidency with 97 percent of votes. He has since silenced the opposition, press and NGOs, banned the Muslim Brotherhood, and kidnapped and killed hundreds of demonstrators. His policies have been harsher than those of his predecessor. Has the Arab Spring damaged Egypt? Here are some answers.

Free Press?

If you're a journalist in Egypt having affiliations with a banned group or are part of the opposition, you'll likely land in jail. It's as easy as that. The number of journalists being imprisoned is at an all time high, according to a December 2015 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Egypt currently has the highest number of journalists in jail (23, as of December 2015) worldwide. It comes second for the worst jailer of journalists after China. According to the CPJ, entire outlets like Al Jazeera and Anadolu, a Turkish news agency, were forced to close their offices in Egypt. President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi frequently claims that these controls and arrests are carried out in the name of "national security". When Egyptian investigative journalist Ismail Alexandrani was arrested in November 2015, Human Rights Watch (HRW) spoke about "a pattern of Egyptian security agencies arresting people whose writings don't conform to official views".

Symbolbild Arabischer Frühling Ägypten
The Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-SissiImage: picture-alliance/dpa

As a result, entire regions in Egypt remain under-reported or not reported at all. Next to nothing is known about the Sinai conflict between militant groups and Egyptian forces because journalists "attempting to cover news in the peninsula have been denied entry at military checkpoints" according to the CPJ. "Journalism is over in the Sinai. The only reporting we can do is [to] tell the army's story. Anything else is a prison wish," a veteran reporter said.


Not just journalists experience severe curbs to their freedom of speech. Activists, human rights defenders and opposition members are also being targeted. An estimated 40,000 political detainees are said to be in Egyptians prisons. The majority of political activists are in jail, making it difficult for the remaining political groups to demonstrate on the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring. Members of the April 6 pro-democracy movement were imprisoned as a security precaution ahead of the anniversary, which is on January 25. The organization Freedom for the Brave reports unlawful detentions, "black site" prisons, use of illegal judicial procedures and state torture. The Egyptian online magazine Mada Masr published a list of Egyptians who aren't in jail this week ("pretty much everyone accused of killing protesters"), suggesting that it's easier to track who is walking on the streets freely.

Muslim Brotherhood

When then-President Morsi was removed from office, the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization. The government claimed that the Brotherhood carried out numerous assassinations, bombings and torture. When Deputy Prime Minister, Hossam Eisa, listed these events on television in December 2013, he provided no evidence. Now, most of the journalists and political detainees who are in prison have actually been charged with belonging to the Brotherhood. Human Rights Watch called the ban "politically driven" and called for the decision to be reversed promptly: "Since Morsi's ouster in July 2013, the authorities have killed more than 1,000 pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters; arrested thousands of its supporters, including the majority of its leadership; and engaged in a systematic media campaign to demonize the group."

Ägypten Außenminister Sameh Shoukry
The Sinai peninsula borders the Gaza Strip. Egypt's security forces are fighting militants linked to IS there.Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/ El Shorouk Newspaper/A. A. El Latif

Terrorism in Sinai

There is no transparency about what is happening in Sinai due to the lack of media coverage. What we know is that Egypt's security forces are fighting militants linked to 'Islamic State' (IS) in the Sinai peninsula, which borders the Gaza Strip. Since July, at least 238 members of the security forces have been killed there. IS claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian plane and the deaths of 224 people on board in October 2015. Egypt, however, says that there is "no evidence" for a terror attack.

As Egyptian security forces are increasingly being targeted by terrorist groups, Egyptian authorities began demolishing buildings and evicting people from their homes in July 2013. The official aim was to stop the smuggling of goods and weapons between the town of Rafah and the Gaza Strip. By August 2015, at least 3,255 residential, commercial, administrative, and community buildings had been destroyed in North Sinai according to Human Rights Watch. The organization also claims that more than 3,200 families were forced to leave their homes. The Egyptian military "began clearing the area" after an attack on a military checkpoint in North Sinai that left 33 soldiers dead. Human Rights Watch criticized that the government didn't use technology to detect and destroy smuggling tunnels used by terrorists and instead "wiped out" entire neighborhoods: "The Egyptian authorities have offered little or no evidence to support this justification, failed to observe international law protections for residents facing forced eviction, and may have violated the laws of war by disproportionately destroying thousands of homes in their effort to close smuggling tunnels [to the Gaza Strip]."

Ägypten Sinai Grenze
Has Egypt lost the human rights gains from the Arab Spring?Image: AFP/Getty Images/M. Abed

Any leftovers of the Arab Spring?

According to Human Rights Watch, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is responsible for a "reversal of the human rights gains that followed the 2011 uprising." Because of multiple targeted efforts against dissidents, Egyptian activists talk about the biggest repression in history of organizations, campaigners and bloggers - which may or may not be triggered by the government's fear of the fifth anniversary of the revolution. Cairo's Townhouse Gallery, one of the country's most important and treasured cultural and intellectual institutions was been stormed by 20 members of the security forces and closed without an official reason.

Merit, a publishing house that promotes anti-censorship and freedom of speech and supports young voices in particular, has also been raided. The official reason is that Merit operated without a license and sold unregistered books. Merit's office in downtown Cairo famously functioned "as a haven for protesters" during the 18 days of the 2011 revolution. The founder, Mohamed Hashem, told Mada Masr: "If they want to scare us because of the noise we cause for them, we will continue to be noisy." Eric Trager wrote in Politico that while the "activists' revolutionary dreams were never realized, Egypt's state broke down further, and remains quite broken today. As a result of this experience, many Egyptians are so fearful of change that they are now content to live with their broken state, since they view it as preferable to further collapse."

Sameh Shoukry
The Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry will be questioned by DW's Tim Sebastian on January 20.Image: DW

What about the economy?

Egypt's unemployment rate is currently at 12.7 percent (35 percent for the under-25s), the country is battling with high budget deficits, yet Mr. el-Sissi is still carrying out several big investments like building a new city in the desert or creating a new branch of the Suez Canal. He has obtained expensive arms which are of little use in Sinai, but can come in handy for intervention abroad in Libya or Yemen, according to The Economist. Egypt's tourism sector is almost completely ruined since the ousting of the dictator Mubarak. Three tourists were injured in a knife attack at a hotel resort in Hurghada in early January, just one of several IS-claimed attacks. For the millions of Egyptians who used to make a living from tourism, the future looks bleak until tourists' confidence in the country's security situation is restored.