Sisi's brutal crackdown continues, aided by western accomplices

Sisi's brutal crackdown continues, aided by western accomplices
Comment: It's time for western governments to stop supplying Sisi's regime with technology, training and equipment, and officially condemn its human rights abuses, writes Samuel Woodhams.
5 min read
22 Oct, 2019
British PM Boris Johnson meets Egyptian President Sisi at the G7 summit, August 2019 [Getty]
According to Donald Trump, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a "great guy" and, in the eyes of the UK government, is leading Egypt through a "transition to a democratic state."

Last Friday, however, the UN was required to "remind the Egyptian government that under international law, people have the right to protest peacefully, and a right to express their opinions, including on social media" following an unprecedented clampdown on civil liberties.

In the past two months alone, the Egyptian regime has been accused of torturing human rights activists Alaa Abdel Fattah and Esraa Abdel Fattah, and detaining more than 2,000 people in response to protests that broke out on 20 September.

The regime's reaction has not only reinforced Sisi's repressive and authoritarian reputation, it has also brought into sharp focus the West's selective condemnation of human rights abuses around the world.

In the name of bolstering regional and international security, western governments have disregarded the very real threats facing ordinary Egyptians every day.

Human Rights Watch estimates that since taking power in 2014, Sisi has been responsible for imprisoning over 60,000 people on political grounds. Additionally, "torture is a systematic practice" in the country, according to the UN Committee Against Torture.

Despite this, there has been a noticeably muted response from the US and European governments.

Western governments continue to provide the regime with the technology, training and equipment that enable such atrocities to occur

Four days after the most recent protests began, Boris Johnson met his Egyptian counterpart at the UN General Assembly in New York, where they spoke of the "two countries' economic ties and the importance of building on this after the UK leaves the EU," with no mention whatsoever of the rights abuses occurring in the country.

Similarly, Trump defended Sisi at a recent press conference, saying: "Egypt has a great leader. He's highly respected."

Not only has there been a steadfast refusal to acknowledge many of the accusations made by human rights organisations, but western governments continue to provide the regime with the technology, training and equipment that enable such atrocities to occur.

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Their continued support falls short of their international human rights obligations and contradicts their professed support for civil liberties around the world.

As an act passed last week in Congress made clear: "It is the policy of the United States to restrict the export of security assistance and crime control and detection instruments and equipment to any government that engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognised human rights."

The act prohibits the sale of tear gas to the Hong Kong police amid concerns of widespread police brutality and human rights abuses.

And yet, the US continues to provide $1.3 billion a year to the Egyptian regime in security assistance, while recognising "Egypt's poor record on human rights and democratisation."

Although the security assistance and military training exercises are ostensibly aimed at fostering international and regional stability - particularly in relation to neighbouring Libya - they have also emboldened an increasingly totalitarian regime and ignored the plight of Egyptian citizens.

They have emboldened an increasingly totalitarian regime and ignored the plight of Egyptian citizens

Support does not just come from foreign governments, however. American companies also stand accused of complicity in the silencing of dissent within Egypt.

Wael Eskander, an independent journalist based in Cairo, found that Twitter was suspending a large number of accounts that were "critical of the Egyptian government at a time when online interaction was high and translated to possible action on the ground".

The regime has increasingly sought to restrict all forms of freedom of expression, including online. During the recent protests, for example, the regime blocked access to the BBC and Alhurra, leaving citizens reliant on VPN apps to access popular news services.

The UK - Egypt's single largest foreign investor - fares no better. According to the UK government's website: "This is a historic moment for Egypt and the region. Egypt's transition to a democratic state has the potential to be the role model for many other states in the region."

The tone-deaf nature of the statement is made more alarming by evidence that the UK has licensed the sale of over $77 million worth of spyware and surveillance technologies to a range of authoritarian countries in the region, including Egypt.

As I've noted beforethe increasingly sophisticated nature of Sisi's surveillance and censorship apparatus has been supported by several western companies, including the Italian Hacking Group, and Israeli NSO group.

France, in particular, has been criticised for its role in bolstering the regime's surveillance capabilities. In a report from last year, Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), uncovered that French companies had supplied Egyptian security services with bulk interception, individual surveillance and personal data acquisition technologies.

The report argues that with the combination of these resources, France has "participated in the construction of a widespread surveillance and crowd control architecture aimed at preventing all dissent."

Despite mounting evidence, there is little indication that western governments will begin to challenge the Egyptian regime on their human rights record in any meaningful way.

Instead, they appear intent on maintaining huge security aid budgets and lucrative trade deals that will only embolden the regime and could lead to a worsening of conditions in Egypt.

It's time for western governments to officially condemn the human rights abuses occurring under Sisi and call for change. Following this, they must comply with their international human rights obligations and halt the sale of potentially repressive technology to the regime.

If this doesn't happen, then the West will remain complicit in the clampdown of individual freedoms and must deal with the consequences of supporting a government that, in the words of Human Rights Watch, "continues to oversee Egypt's worst human rights crisis in decades."

Samuel Woodhams is a writer and researcher at the digital privacy group Top10VPN.

Follow him on Twitter: @Samuel_Woodhams

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.