The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Egypt’s dictatorship is squandering the country’s remaining assets

Egyptian protesters shout slogans against the then-ruling military council during a rally in support of then-member of Parliament Zyad El-Elaimy in Cairo in February 2012. (Amr Nabil/AP)

On Wednesday, after more than two years in detention without trial, Zyad El-Elaimy, Hossam Monis and four other young politicians and activists were rushed to a “State Security Emergency Court” and sentenced to three to five years in prison. They were not tried for their original “crime” — plotting to undermine state security by running for legislative elections in 2020. Instead, they were charged with “spreading false news, threatening national security and spreading fear.”

The evidence consisted of an article or social media post by each figure, in which they criticized Egypt’s human rights record and economic policies. The trial began just a day after the charges were laid. Defense lawyers were not allowed to consult with their clients or even get a copy of the case. As the lawyers kept protesting this egregious disregard of due process, the young judge seemed at a loss and simply “read” the sentences. Verdicts by this court can neither be appealed nor reviewed.

Read this piece in Arabic.

This type of blatant disregard for the rule of law has become so common in Egypt that it barely constitutes news. However, this case provides a clear glimpse of the numerous ways in which President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi's dictatorship squanders the limited assets the country still has, increasing its reliance on repression and eroding whatever prospect Egypt has to turn into a functioning state.

I worked with Monis when he directed the 2014 presidential campaign of Hamdeen Sabahi against Sissi. Revolutionaries who wanted all pro-democracy figures to boycott the political process accused Monis of legitimizing the military’s bid for power, and he retorted that good politicians use whatever available space to advance their cause. I also worked with El-Elaimy, first in 2011 during Egypt’s short-lived Arab Spring, and then in 2019 when he was putting together the “Hope” electoral coalition. During our long-distance calls, he told me he was making it difficult for the regime to go after the coalition by avoiding radical rhetoric and adhering to the rules set by the military as well as getting support from legal political parties. “We’re doing everything in the open; they can even hear us now,” he added jokingly. He asked me to write the coalition’s manifesto, but I didn’t get a chance; he was arrested the following day.

El-Elaimy and Monis are the kind of talent any political organization yearns for; they are smart, entrepreneurial, pragmatic and adaptive, seeing opportunities where others see obstacles. With fingers on the pulse of ordinary Egyptians, they build partnerships that go beyond ideological divides and — unlike most Arab secular democrats — can actually win elections.

But instead of seeing them as indispensable human capital for Egypt’s future, the dictator throws them in jail. Dictators don’t need — nor can they tolerate — independent and creative talent. To survive as dictators, they foster sycophants instead, like the World Youth Forum that Sissi is backing. No country can truly advance, politically or economically, while it systematically decimates its human capital.

Beyond the violation of citizens’ rights and the wasting of precious talent, these sentences, and other similar ones, erode whatever independence and functionality the Egyptian judiciary still has. Think of the young judge who presided over that court, as well as the prosecutors and everyone involved in this travesty of justice. How are they going to carry on their work? What kind of relationship will they — and everyone else in the judiciary — have with those in power? And how would this affect the future of the rule of law, whether in relation to the rights of Egypt’s citizens or the environment and credibility necessary for its economy?

And this is the deeper problem of dictatorship: It seeks to ensure full compliance and repress all dissent by its subjects, as well as by its own institutions. Successful dictators destroy the independence of all other players, leaving only vacuum around them. They become the thread holding the country together and the only source of inspiration and decision — the only thing standing between their country and chaos. But they often end up falling, bringing about the very chaos everyone feared, until a new dictator emerges. This is precisely how Sissi became dictator within several years of Hosni Mubarak, and most likely how Egypt’s next dictator will replace him.

For Egypt to one day break away from this infernal cycle, or to even have a chance in the future as a functioning state, its dictator’s assault on its human capital and on the independence of its institutions has to be restrained. The Biden administration, which has just subsidized Egypt’s dictatorship by more than $1 billion, has the responsibility to push back on such brazen, destructive attacks. Though the administration is prioritizing its immediate regional security concerns over human rights, it should also take steps to ensure that it doesn’t finance the erosion of Egypt’s chances for future recovery.