Three years after Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted, democratic hopes have given way to a spiraling crackdown on freedoms in the name of stability. When the army stepped in for the second time in less than three years to remove a president following mass protests, only unlike veteran autocrat, President Hosni Mubarak, Morsi had been democratically elected.
Now that former General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is president, the state tolerates no more protests and little criticism. "When I look back on June 30, 2013, I feel that we were deceived and deployed by part of the state," prominent rights lawyer Gamal Eid said.
In the months that followed Morsi's ouster, security services moved to crush Morsi's supporters, detaining the ex-president and thousands of members of his Muslim Brotherhood. The crackdown reached its pinnacle on Aug. 14 when police shot dead hundreds of Morsi supporters in a protest camp in Cairo during clashes – the worst mass killing in Egypt's modern history.
In May the next year, Sissi was elected president with almost 97 percent of a vote that was boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood and secular dissidents.
Few prominent activists spoke out during the crackdown, but security services began jailing left-leaning dissidents who had helped spark the 2011 uprising that deposed Mubarak. Three years later, activists like Eid say little remains of the democratic ideals that had swept the most-populous Arab country.
Protesters were used three years ago "not to topple the [Muslim] Brotherhood and to begin establishing a democratic system, but in the interest of the military, which is part of the Mubarak regime, to take over power," said Eid, the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. He is among several civil society activists accused of receiving illegal foreign funding and banned from leaving the country. Protests are now banned unless they are approved by the police. Calling for one can get an Egyptian jailed, as can posting an amateurish video on Facebook poking fun at the president or wearing a T-shirt denouncing torture.
Hundreds of people, including Morsi, have been sentenced to death in mass trials so hastily convened that dead people and a toddler were mistakenly included among the defendants, lawyers say. "Today, and without exaggeration, the human rights situation is the worst in Egypt's modern history," said Eid, whose group estimates that authorities are holding some 60,000 political prisoners, mostly Morsi supporters.
The government regularly denies there are political prisoners and says those in jail, who include a number of journalists, have all committed crimes. Sissi has said it will take decades for Egypt to have a proper democracy but that the country nevertheless enjoys unprecedented freedom of speech.
Rights activists and many journalists disagree and are concerned that restrictions on freedom of speech and media may be tightened further.
In one of the most prominent cases against the press, authorities last month arrested three top members of Egypt's journalists' union, including its chief Yahiya Kallash, and charged them with harboring two wanted journalists. The two journalists had been arrested in an unprecedented raid on the syndicate's headquarters for allegedly inciting protests. The two had been involved in protests against the government's decision earlier this year to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
That deal has been a rare setback for Sissi Egyptians have grown up reading in textbooks that the islands belong to their country, and many have opposed the move.
There is also increasing frustration with the government's failure to address a deep economic crisis and to meet its pledge to eradicate extremists who continue to carry out regular attacks, mostly in the Sinai Peninsula. "There is resentment among the majority of citizens due to economic policies," said Mostafa Kamel al-Sayyed, a political science professor at Cairo University. But Sissi's supporters say he is making progress, and that at any rate there are few or no alternatives. Sissi inherited an already battered economy and a devastated tourism industry, supporters say. And he has said human rights include not only free speech but also economic rights afforded by stability. Indeed, few Egyptians would welcome further tumult.
The Muslim Brotherhood was the largest political movement in Egypt and was delivering aid, social services and education facilities across the country with a moderate Islamist ideology, seeking to end poverty, foreign intervention, unemployment, social problems and corruption. Since the first day of its establishment in 1928 by Hassan al-Benna, who was killed in 1949, the group never resorted to violence but preferred to remain in legal politics and separated itself from radical groups. The Muslim Brotherhood was familiar with politics, as it was struggling to grab seats in parliament in the Mubarak era. The group entered parliamentary elections and presidential elections. The popularity, reliability and statements brought Muslim Brotherhood-supported Morsi to power after he received a little more than 50 percent of the votes.
After Sissi took power, the international community weakly voiced its concern over human rights violations, mass death sentences, arbitrary detentions and the suppression of all opposition groups by the Sissi administration, despite repeated warnings from rights groups. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned and declared a terrorist group after the military ousted Morsi in 2013.