Mohamed Soltan is a human rights advocate and founder of the Freedom Initiative.
Four years ago, a special circuit court in Egypt sentenced me and 36 others to life in a maximum security prison on journalism-related charges. A month earlier, the same judge had sentenced my father and 13 others — including a journalist — to death on similar trumped-up charges. Our appeal was granted by the Court of Cassation a year later, and the sentences were reduced. Justice had not been served, but the judicial system did not completely cave in to appease the political demands of the hour. I spent 22 harrowing months in prison, and my father still remains imprisoned today. However, I now find myself in the peculiar position of advocating for the preservation of what remains of Egypt’s judicial independence.
This week, Trump is preparing to welcome Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, for a second official White House visit. Sissi came to power in 2013 through a military coup that hijacked popular protests against the elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Since then, Sissi has tried to assert his authority through brute force in the face of civil disobedience. As a result, Egyptians today live under unprecedented levels of repression and authoritarianism.
Sissi’s White House visit comes in the middle of new efforts to further consolidate his power. This year, Sissi’s rubber-stamp parliament proposed amendments to the 2014 constitution that will turn his reign from brutal authoritarianism to complete totalitarianism. Similar amendments have historically sparked popular outrage and instability in the country. The proposed amendments will expand presidential consecutive term limits, allowing Sissi to remain in power until 2034. One amendment also vaguely grants the military increased powers over the constitution and the nation’s democracy. Additionally, another amendment includes the expansion of executive powers over an already politicized judiciary.
The judiciary oversight amendments will give Sissi authority to appoint the heads of the three judicial bodies, the Supreme Constitutional Court, Court of Cassation and the State Council. These bodies have historically maintained conventions of seniority in appointing their chiefs. The amendments will also give Sissi authority over the budgets of the judicial bodies. These changes are not merely bureaucratic squabbles — this kind of authority would serve Sissi in rewarding judges who are sympathetic to him and punishing those committed to the rule of law.
Last year, I co-wrote a column about Sissi’s efforts to devour his own regime. This approach has expanded beyond removing generals and high-ranking officials to now include judges and heads of judicial bodies. Sissi is effectively gutting the state institutions that could potentially threaten his rule. The high turnover of leadership within the once-powerful intelligence apparatus and the military has created a culture of institutional loyalty to Sissi, connecting the nation’s power centers to one man.
But the judiciary, a constitutionally equal branch of government, needed to be subdued delicately and methodically and would not go down without a fight.
Scores of judges recused themselves from overseeing cases built up against tens of thousands of political prisoners in the aftermath of the 2013 crackdown. The move forced the regime to create special circuit courts, headed by loyalists, to prosecute the political opposition. In my case, the Court of Cassation granted my appeal and overturned my sentence of life in prison handed down to me in one of these special loyalist courts. This is how the judicial branch has resisted with thousands of other cases.
In response to this subtle defiance, Sissi named his brother, Ahmed, the deputy chief of the Court of Cassation. Soon after, the appeals of political prisoners were denied, and sentences were confirmed and final. The rise in executions is a chilling testament to the transformation the Court of Cassation is experiencing.
The judiciary has continued to push back with the regime. Sissi pushed for two contested islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to be ceded to Saudi Arabia. The State Council defied the government’s decision to hand over the islands and reiterated, on legal grounds, that they should remain under Egyptian control. Yehya al-Dakroury, the judge who made the ruling, was subsequently denied a promotion and forced into early retirement. Sissi then pressured the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter and rule in his favor.
The judiciary has publicly rejected the proposed amendments to the constitution through a released memo by the State Council’s de-facto syndicate. The memo, released on March 29, denounced the proposed constitutional amendments, noting they “circumscribe what is left of judicial independence and renders it an appendix to the executive branch.”
Not even during the darkest days of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship did Egyptians witness the level of infringement on judicial powers as we have seen with Sissi. Amid renewed calls for democracy and self-determination in nearby countries such as Algeria and Sudan, Egypt’s trajectory becomes increasingly more dangerous and concerning.
As a former political prisoner, I found the court system to be corrupt and complicit in stifling political opposition and restricting personal freedoms. During my imprisonment, I never fathomed that I would be highlighting the importance of preserving this system’s autonomy. But even someone like myself, who suffered at the hands of dishonorable and unprincipled judges, can recognize the importance of maintaining whatever tiny bit of independence the courts have. The stakes are incredibly high.
For that reason, rather than warmly embracing a dictator in the Oval Office, the Trump administration needs to recognize that enabling the desecration of the last semblance of power separation and institutionality in a country so important to regional stability sends the wrong signals. Not only would U.S. support of Sissi and his amendments directly contradict American democratic values, but they would threaten our strategic interests in an already volatile part of the world.
We have stood idly by and watched the basic tenets of democracy erode in a nation we consider to be an ally and partner. Surely, we cannot hold the final nail in the coffin as Sissi hammers away.