Abdel Fatah al-Sisi Sisi comes to London: why is David Cameron welcoming Egypt’s autocrat to the UK?


In 2011, the British prime minister hailed democracy in Tahrir Square. Now he is receiving Abdel Fatah al-Sisi with open arms. What is a man who has overseen the state killings of more than 2,500 political opponents doing at Downing Street?
Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi
Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has been travelling the globe in a bid to garner international legitimacy. Photograph: APAImages/REX Shutterstock

In footage recorded by news cameras, you can see David Cameron – flanked by a large security team – threading his way through the flag sellers and nut vendors and the amiable mayhem of Tahrir Square. It is February 2011, ten days after the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Locals drift over to see what the fuss is about, and many call out to welcome the British prime minister. At one point a boy, his face painted in revolutionary style with the colours of the Egyptian flag, runs up to Cameron and smiles. “Are you happy now?” Cameron asks, in English. The child looks blank. Cameron nods with satisfaction and holds out his hand. “Put it there,” he grins.

The imagery of Cameron traipsing around an urban landscape that still bore the scars of revolutionary struggle was designed to convey a particular message: after decades of providing steadfast support to one of the Middle East’s most entrenched autocrats, Britain was supposedly ready to embrace a new type of politics. “I’ve just been meeting with leaders of the democracy movement, really brave people who did extraordinary things in Tahrir Square,” Cameron told the BBC. “We want Egypt to have a strong and successful future, we want the aspirations of the Egyptian people – for democracy, for freedom, for openness, the things we take for granted – we want them to have those things.”

Almost half a decade later, Cameron is finally about to return Egypt’s hospitality, and once again news cameras will be on hand to capture the moment. This time round, though, the images will be very different.

Next week Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is scheduled to accept an invitation to Downing Street: red carpets will be unfurled, gifts exchanged and powerful hands shaken. His photoshoot with Cameron will be a celebration not of new politics, but of more conventional forms of power – the kinds that remain safely locked up inside the executive, the army and institutional elites. The buzzwords at the official banquet will be “stability” and “security”. Of freedom, or openness, or the Egyptian streets that Cameron was so keen to walk down – the streets in which power, not so long ago, came to reside – little mention will be made.

Egyptian protesters demonstration against President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in Cairo earlier this year.
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Egyptian protesters demonstrate against President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in Cairo earlier this year. Sisi has introduced draconian protest laws since coming to power. Photograph: Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty

Sisi – who has presided over the state killing of more than 2,500 political opponentssince removing his predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s short-lived president Mohamed Morsi – has been travelling the globe recently in an effort to adorn himself with the baubles of international legitimacy, something the UK government is keen to help with. That process depends upon a highly selective narrative, but to understand the real story of what has happened to Egypt since 2011, it’s worth looking back at that early footage of Cameron in Cairo and identifying those who were visible then, and yet conspicuous by their absence now.

Under Sisi’s rule today, the informal vendors who served as the prime minister’s backdrop in Tahrir Square have long been chased out by a regime intent on reasserting its iron grip on public space. Young Egyptians who cloak themselves in revolutionary colours are more likely to be tortured by the security services than to be allowed to meet foreign dignitaries. Mahmoud Hussein, an 18-year-old school student who was arrested in January 2014 for wearing a revolutionary scarf, for example, was taken to a nearby police station and repeatedly electrocuted; he has since spent more than 500 days in detention without charge. And the “leaders of the democracy movement” who Cameron was so keen to laud will not be accompanying Sisi on his UK visit, for the simple reason that a large number of them are subject to travel bans, or locked up behind bars.

“Sisi is the head of the most oppressive and criminal regime Egypt has seen during my lifetime, and I am almost 60,” says Laila Soueif, a university professor and opposition activist. Her son, the prominent revolutionary and young father Alaa Abd el-Fattah, isamong more than 40,000 political prisoners jailed at one point or another during the Sisi era; the 33-year-old has just finished serving the first year of a five-year custodial sentence after being found guilty of violating Sisi’s draconian protest law, which effectively outlaws any unsanctioned demonstration.

“This regime’s police and army have tortured and murdered with impunity,” added Soueif. “That the British government should receive him as an official guest does not surprise me in the least.”

Since the anti-Mubarak uprising began in January 2011 and filled the world’s TV screens with extraordinary scenes of protest, the twists and turns of Egypt’s revolution and counter-revolution have left even the country’s most seasoned observers dazed. After Mubarak fell, a military council assumed control and swiftly combined a half-hearted commitment to “transition” with a brutal crackdown against any Egyptians continuing to disrupt the status quo. Amid repeated acts of violence against revolutionary demonstrators, and the targeting of Coptic Christians, trade unionists and women who dared to assert their rights to presence in public space, it became clear that despite Mubarak’s departure the ancien regime was fighting to preserve as much of his state as possible, with only the flimsiest façade of formal democracy.

Egypt's President Sisi visiting Singapore earlier this year, the first presidential visit between the two nations
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Sisi visiting Singapore earlier this year – the first presidential visit between the two nations. Photograph: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Elections in 2012 propelled the Muslim Brotherhood into the presidential palace by a wafer-thin majority. But rather than fighting to democratise the state, as revolutionaries had hoped, Morsi sought an alliance with traditional forces instead, using the Mubarakist security apparatus to silence dissenting voices and thwart popular demands for social justice. At the same time he attempted to pack the corridors of government with his own supporters; promises regarding plurality were broken, and factionalism grew. As a huge wave of mass resistance to Brotherhood rule gathered momentum on the streets, Egypt’s top brass saw an opportunity to engineer a comeback. In the summer of 2013, General Sisi, the minister of defence, unseated the president who had appointed him and oversaw a massacre of Brotherhood supporters camped out in Cairo’s Rabaa and Nahda squares. Human Rights Watch described it as“one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”.

Sisi’s nationalist rhetoric has garnered him wide support from a populace wearied by years of turmoil, and in 2014 he won 97% of the vote in a presidential election from which the Brotherhood was banned. But since then his regime’s “war on terror” has decimated human rights in Egypt and claimed countless victims, not only Islamists (hundreds of whom, including Morsi, have been handed down death sentences, often in mass trials), but secular figures as well. Journalists have been among the most prominent victims of state repression, along with refugees, gay and lesbian Egyptians, and anyone who deviates from the norm. The winners, meanwhile, have been the senior generals and Mubarak-era tycoons at the apex of Egypt’s economy, as well as the multinational corporations that have been offered a chance to partner with them as part of an aggressive new privatisation programme.

For the UK and other western governments grappling with an increasingly unstable Middle East, Sisi’s ascendancy has brought with it the air of something comforting and recognisable. “Sisi looks like the sort of leader – military and authoritarian – the international community is used to dealing with in the Arab world, and his government is the type of government Britain has cultivated relationships with for decades,” argues Timothy Kaldas, of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “He is a familiar face in a region that is no longer familiar.” Sisi sells himself to his global allies as a bulwark against extremism and a friend to foreign business interests; Egyptian revolutionaries may have sacrificed their lives in an attempt to overcome the top-down choice between dictatorship and chaos, but governments elsewhere are perfectly happy to accept this binary and cash in along the way. In March of this year, UK foreign office minister Tobias Ellwood had to be asked six consecutive times by a parliamentary committeewhether the subject of human rights had been brought up during a government-led trade delegation from Britain to Cairo, before admitting it had not. “Our focus was on the commercial aspects,” Ellwood told the committee. “There is a time and a place … when you can raise [other] specific issues.”

Will Sisi’s visit to London be that time, or place? Few of those who will gather outside Downing Street next Tuesday believe so. A broad coalition of Egyptian organisations – some Islamist, some secular – plan to join with British NGOs and trade unions in protest at Sisi’s arrival; letters denouncing Cameron’s invitation have been issued by political figures and academics, and an early-day motion in parliament condemning the visit has been signed by 51 MPs, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. “The UK should be calling for change in Egypt, not rolling out the red carpet for its increasingly authoritarian ruler,” says Andrew Smith of Campaign Against the Arms Trade, one of the groups supporting Tuesday’s demonstration. He points out that the British government has licensed £85m worth of arms exports to Sisi’s regime. “It is impossible to show support for the people of Egypt at the same time as arming and supporting the tyranny that is oppressing them.”

A Sisi supporter holds up a portrait of the president after he won 97% of the votes in the Egypt’s 2014 election.
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A Sisi supporter holds up a portrait of the president after he won 97% of the votes in the Egypt’s 2014 election. Photograph: Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images

Many Egyptians in London see things differently, and some will hold their own gatherings in an effort to provide Sisi with a far warmer reception. “We don’t worship a single person – we just want the best for Egypt, and that means a ruler who works on behalf of all the Egyptian people, regardless of who they are,” Mostafa Ragab, founder of the Egyptian Association in the UK, explained. Ragab, a 67-year-old who left his home country almost four decades ago, believes that the majority of anti-Sisi sentiment is whipped up by the Muslim Brotherhood and its international supporters – a common argument among Sisi’s support base – and told the Guardian that “only 10%” of protesters next week will be Egyptians. “These people who want to demonstrate, why not engage in a dialogue?” he insisted. “They turn cars over, burn buildings, loot things … you can’t have freedom of expression, and destroy.”

But what lines of dialogue are really open to Egyptians under a regime that has placed all public property under the control of the army and granted itself the legal authority to designate any citizen it dislikes as a militant? And what sort of durable ‘stability’ is really being cultivated by Sisi, when such immense levels of repression are required to solidify his rule? “All the problems we are facing now in Egypt, and that we have faced in the past few years, are the outcome of the exact same policies that Sisi is implementing,” says Sherif Azer, an Egyptian human rights defender now based in the UK. “The dictatorship, the arrests, the lack of justice … Eventually the situation just explodes, and we will live through the same movie all over again. For the west, it is a repeat of the same experiment while expecting a different outcome.”

In Egypt, Sisi’s imminent arrival in London is being hailed by a largely fawning media as the latest step on his elevation to uncontested authority. But to reach those heights and win popular backing, Sisi has been forced to adopt the vocabulary of revolution, however insincerely, and issue promises – on economic justice, an end to corruption, an improvement in living standards – that his unreformed state will not be able to deliver. In the gulf between rhetoric and reality, cracks are already starting to appear. The government has pinned much of its credibility on a Suez Canal expansion project and the planned construction of a new capital in the eastern desert. Newspapers depict computer-generated images of Egypt’s future cities, but in its real, living cities, examples of state neglect – fatal ferry disasters, widespread flooding, patients left to die in hospitals due to lack of resources – are stacking up.

“There are those who see this piece of diplomacy as a matter for national pride,” says Kaldas, “but there are also many who will ask themselves: ‘Can I eat Sisi’s UK visit? Is Sisi’s UK visit going to fill my car with gas?’ A lot of people are increasingly disenchanted with the government, simply because it is failing to live up to its own illusions of grandeur.” Among the disenchanted are thousands of workers in the critical textiles sector who are striking over pay and conditions. Labour militancy in the Nile Delta textiles towns played a crucial role in the fragmented movement to oust Mubarak, which eventually coalesced in revolution. “This current strike has opened the door,” warns Haitham Mohamadain, a well-known labour activist, who points out that contagion within the workers’ movement is already under way.

For Cameron, Britain’s relationship with Egypt is now on stronger ground; Sisi’s regime has installed fencing around Tahrir Square designed to prevent large rallies from gathering, and the prospect of the prime minister having to do another awkward walk through the centre of Cairo, surrounded by the messy furniture of revolution, seems to have receded. But whether the UK’s renewed bet on state violence and authoritarianism in Egypt will pay off in the long term remains to be seen. “When you close the space for human rights, when you shut down democracy, you really don’t get stability at the other end,” concludes Sherif Azer, from the Centre of Applied Human Rights at York university. “Do members of the British government, deep inside themselves, really think this is going to work?”

Source: The Guardian

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