Legislating authoritarianism in Egypt


Egypt’s new authoritarian regime is rapidly closing the public space—cracking down on autonomous civil society and independent political parties, asphyxiating the practice of pluralist politics, and thwarting citizens’ peaceful and active engagement in public affairs, notes analyst Amr Hamzawy (left). The government’s primary strategy is to institute wide-scale repression through lawmaking and justify its behavior through conspiratorial and populist narratives, he writes in a new analysis for the Carnegie Endowment:

With unprecedented resolve, it has passed new protest and terrorism laws, introduced legal amendments targeting nongovernmental organizations, and extended the military court’s jurisdiction. Essentially, the regime is adapting lawmaking for its own purposes. To fight against the tide, those challenging the system need to fully understand how.

The Strategy

  • Egypt’s government is institutionalizing its new authoritarian doctrine part of the state apparatus, thereby empowering the military and intelligence and security services to control civil society with little oversight.
  • Undemocratic laws are used to rescind established notions of the rule of law and denigrate trust in the impartiality of public institutions.
  • Vague, broad language in new and amended laws—such as the Protest Law, NGO Law, Penal Code, Terrorism Law, and Military Court Law—is enabling the regime to arbitrarily prohibit or criminalize activities without definition, make accusations of terrorism without legal restraint, and transfer civilians to military courts.
  • With legal backing, scare tactics and police brutality are used regularly to deprive citizens of their freedoms of expression and association.
  • To justify its policies, the regime is propagating conspiracy theories, the defamation of opponents, and hate speech directed at voices of dissent.
  • The government is also using religious and nationalistic narratives to elevate its ruler to the level of a moral paragon and savior and to counteract dissatisfaction with Egypt’s deteriorating conditions.
  • This approach allows Egypt’s generals to claim that their policies are aligned with national interests and national security.

The Effects

  • Debates about public affairs and politics have become permeated with incorrect information, fake news, and outright lies.
  • Liberal and leftist parties have been once again either domesticated or marginalized in a formal political arena controlled by the security services.
  • Viable opposition movements and civic activism have been severely hindered. Islamist movements, in particular, have been weakened.
  • Human rights defenders and nongovernmental organizations have been pushed to the edge of extinction, in constant fear of government sanctions.
  • Tens of thousands of people have been detained, imprisoned, tortured, or killed by the security and intelligence services in the name of protecting the country’s stability.

The crackdown helps explain why an Egyptian appeals court’s acquittal of former President Hosni Mubarak on charges of killing protesters during the country’s 2011 uprising was met with deafening silence.

“Egyptians have gotten used to this,” said Michele Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. “They’ve become used to seeing more and more of the Mubarak-era officials acquitted or have their cases dropped,” she told Foreign Policy.


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