Egypt: Beware al-Sisi’s claims of freedoms

On his first official visit to Germany, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will present an image of himself that many back home would not recognise.

To his hosts, he will play the friendly democrat and reliable business partner – a fresh hope for Egypt.

But to the Egyptians who have seen through the smiles and handshakes, he is the face of brutal power – a throwback to a more repressive era.

Al-Sisi has praised Egypt’s youth as the “hope that lit the flames of change” of the “25 January Revolution” that drove ex-president Hosni Mubarak from office in 2011. Yet many of its youth leaders are behind bars, facing prison sentences on spurious charges.

As he meets Germany’s political and business elite, al-Sisi will hope to show that he is a leader they can trust to help create stability in Egypt and the region.

But since he ousted his predecessor from office two years ago, the violence and repression in Egypt is reminiscent of the darkest days of Mubarak’s three-decade rule.

Al-Sisi rose to prominence after ousting former president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

One month later, Egypt’s security forces dispersed sit-ins and protests by Morsi’s supporters across Egypt, resulting in up to 1,000 deaths in one day on 14 August 2013.

The Egyptian criminal justice system has increasingly become a blunt instrument for crushing dissent. The courts have rounded up hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement to which Morsi belongs.

Yet in an interview with Der Spiegel in February, al-Sisi said “the independence of the judiciary must be respected” if Egypt was to develop like Germany.

Death sentences have been handed down after grossly unfair trials. In 2014 alone, 509 people were sentenced to death in Egypt – up from 109 sentenced in the previous year. Most are Muslim Brotherhood supporters – suggesting that the death penalty has become a tool for purging the political opposition.

Al-Sisi, who claims to be “saddened by even the loss of a single life”, has done nothing to halt the use of this punishment. And he has not reined in his security forces or ensured that those responsible for the unlawful killing of protesters are brought to justice.

In his comments to Der Spiegel this year, al-Sisi also insisted that he respected human rights and freedom of expression.

“Human rights should not be reduced to freedom of expression,” he said. “Even if this were the case, though, people in our country are free to say whatever they like,” he said.

Meanwhile, scores of journalists and media workers have been subjected to detention or criminal investigation for challenging the authorities’ official narrative and human rights record.

The government has also restricted the legitimate activities of non-governmental organizations that have criticised its policies.

Hundreds of people have been arrested under a repressive protest law that outlaws gatherings of more than 10 people not approved in advance by the authorities. Some have been held without charge for more than a year.

Detainees are typically kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, where they are subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

Egyptian officials will hope that al-Sisi’s Berlin visit confirms his legitimacy on the international stage.

However, Amnesty International and four other international rights organizations have stressed to Chancellor Angela Merkel in a 1 June joint letter that Germany must not choose the illusion of stability over the need to confront gross human rights violations.

For more information please see: Reporter’s Guide Human Rights in Egypt: