On May 16, an Egyptian court sentenced me to death in absentia in a highly politicised case, along with more than 120 other defendants, including the former president, Mohamed Morsi. The US and EU have expressed their “grave concern” regarding these recent mass death sentences in Egypt. This is good. But it is not enough.
The Middle East is witnessing the undoing of the popular uprisings of 2011 and the dashing of hopes for free and democratic societies that those events promised. Some states are plunging into civil wars, counter-revolutions, and disintegration. The region is morphing rapidly and reverting to primitive affiliations. Once nation states, they are now turning into sectarian, tribal, or ethnic entities fighting each other. This situation is not in the interest of any power, local, regional or international. It is a breeding space for extremism, “ISISisation” and barbarity.
Though many seem “concerned”, no one has offered a vision, a solution or an answer. The optimistic democratic narrative of 2011 has given way to the severe discourse of security. The rhetoric has reintroduced the false dilemma of security and stability versus democracy and principles. The fallacy behind this dichotomy consists in perceiving security and democracy as mutually exclusive rather than complementary.
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Dictatorship and tyranny do not produce security. The preference for security at the expense of genuinely promoting democracy and democratic values in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region over the past 60 years has not prevented the emergence of al-Qaeda, 9/11, and now Islamic State. Nor has it made the United States more secure.
The US and EU foreign policy in the MENA region should relinquish the old formula of siding with authoritarianism to achieve security and embrace a new one that sees democracy, not autocracy, as the basis for stability. As some pivotal states have been disintegrating politically and socially (Syria, Iraq, Libya Yemen), the need for national reintegration and reconstruction are more urgent than ever. The only formula to achieve reintegration and inclusion of more elements of society is the genuine embrace of democracy, not authoritarianism.
As the World Watched…
The latest death sentences in Egypt came as an astounding shock to many. The indecisiveness of the US and the EU, their inability to resolve their “democracy versus security” dilemma, are part of the problem, not the solution, to the ongoing mess. Specifically, they have made three serious mistakes. The first is not calling a military coup a coup. They attempted to pressure a duly elected civilian president to accept the coup as a de facto reality, when they should have taken a firm stand against the side that thwarted the democratic process and committed unprecedented massacres in the early days of the coup.
The second is acting as an accomplice to the coup leaders by accepting a phoney road map for restoring the political process in Egypt. General Sisi’s road map included undertaking constitutional amendments, parliamentary elections to precede presidential ones, inclusion and a code of ethics for the media. The EU and the US validated a skewed constitutional drafting process and recognised the fake election of the coup leader who claimed victory with 97% of the vote.
Top western diplomats, including US secretary of state John Kerry have repeatedly praised Sisi for “restoring democracy” in Egypt – this despite the general’s crimes against humanity, including killing and injuring thousands of protesters, arresting more than 40,000 dissidents and acquiescing in the rape of female university students.
…Democracy Was Crushed
Almost two years after the coup, Sisi has postponed the parliamentary elections and has been issuing laws as decrees. The media code of ethics has yet to see the light of day and, more alarmingly, Sisi has been pursuing an exclusionary approach, eradicating his opponents and crushing any dissent. For this, Sisi was even rewarded recently when the Obama administration lifted the arms freeze that had been in place for two years.
Finally, the US and the EU failed to extend adequate and much needed support for Tunisia and Egypt during their initial, rough transitions. Washington did not show as much enthusiasm for the new democratically-elected governments as it has for the old authoritarian regimes.
The US tolerated the dictators Mubarak and Ben Ali for many decades and is tolerating Sisi’s repressive and autocratic regime in Egypt. Contrast this with the speed with which Washington’s patience wore thin with Morsi – who, let’s not forget, was the first democratically and freely elected president in Egypt’s history. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt received any special financial packages that could help them stem the economic deterioration during their bumpy transition.
New Approach Needed
As the repression, bloodshed, and crimes against humanity continue unabated, expressing concern is not enough. The US and the EU should have a new vision and a consistent policy for the promotion of democracy and securing stability in the region. Sisi’s crushing of democracy and the mass death sentences against political opponents vindicate the extremist narrative: democracy is futile and violence is the only viable way to meet “state terror” and resist its violence.
Sisi’s raison d’être has been based on eradicating his political opponents and undoing the January 25 (2011) revolution. Instead of allowing room for national reconciliation and a political opening, he insists on polarisation, dehumanisation and escalation of violence, thus radicalising large segments of disgruntled and alienated youth and eventually undermining the West’s efforts to fight IS and radicalism.
The US and the EU need to consider a new approach to this born-again authoritarianism in Egypt. It is not too late to call the coup a coup, boldly treat it as such, and make the coup leaders pay a price for subverting democracy and violating human rights. This, and not appeasement, will provide an incentive to Egypt’s military establishment to reform itself and take a step back from direct control.
The US and EU should not reward the coup leaders – neither with rhetoric, nor with financial or military aid. The US cannot have it both ways: arm repression and advocate democracy. It must make up its mind and either admit its support of Sisi and like-minded autocrats or support democracy, human rights, and rule of law.
The US and EU need to also accept the fact that the reality of demography will bring new democratic forces to power in Egypt and throughout the region – and Western policymakers have to deal with this new reality no matter how unpredictable or risky it might seem.
If they don’t, the price to be paid will be heavy – the proliferation of yet more IS-like groups, with possibly decades of civil wars, terrorism, and instability. This dark scenario is not a fantasy. It is already becoming a reality. This will affect not only the Middle East but the world.
As for me, I am in a better position than thousands of Egyptians who are languishing in Sisi’s jails and are being exposed to torture and rape. I’m currently living in the United States where I research and teach and have embraced new hope in exile. But I will continue to strive for the just cause of democracy and rule of law in Egypt.
Disclosure Statement: Emad El-Din Shahin is Visiting Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is the editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics. He was sentenced to death in absentia by an Egyptian court after being charged in 2014 with “grand espionage”. He denies the charge.