November 1, 2019

IntelBrief: Allegations of Intimidation and Torture Stalk Sisi’s Egypt

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow).
  • Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi continues his crackdown on any dissent, real or imagined.
  • Since anti-corruption demonstrations began in late September, the government has arrested thousands.
  • There are widespread and credible reports of torture and indefinite detention.
  • Meanwhile, the United States is openly supporting its ‘favorite dictator’ as Sisi engages in mass human rights violations.


Egypt’s recent history has been defined by dictatorship, human rights abuses, and carte blanche support from the United States. Throughout nearly three decades of rule under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s government engaged in oppressive internal surveillance, widespread corruption, and suppression of a free press and civil society. Washington supported Mubarak until the bitter end, essentially accepting the false promise of autocracy for the sake of stability. And as bad as the situation was under Mubarak, it is managed to grow worse under Egypt’s current ruler, former Army general Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. After seizing power in a coup six years ago, Sisi has amassed power in a way that Mubarak could scarcely dream. Under Sisi, the government has crushed almost all dissent, political and social, and engaged in a long-running campaign to ensure that media outlets adhere strictly to the regime’s talking points. It has targeted individual journalists by the thousands, with intimidation, arrests, and torture. Sisi has also targeted non-governmental organizations, especially those with Western backing, viewing any support for democracy or freedom as a direct threat to the government.

Well before the recent public protests and demonstrations, the Egyptian government was a frequent violator of human rights. The protests have been galvanized by persistent and blatant corruption by the government. The military in particular has assumed an even larger role in the country’s licit and illicit economies. The government has engaged in pervasive monitoring of journalists through electronic surveillance, with all communications, from emails to cell phone calls, targeted by the government’s intelligence and military agencies. Now in the aftermath of the short-lived protests that began in late September, the regime has reverted to familiar ways. There have been recent reports that the government has arrested more than 4,000 people since the protests, many without charge. This includes more than 100 foreigners labeled ‘agitators’ or spies. Police have set up checkpoints on the streets and demanded to search the smart phones of ordinary civilians. 

Since the government views any non-Sisi-approved media as espionage, many people have been detained and disappeared in one of the country’s countless detention facilities, where torture is a common tactic used by the security forces. For decades, Egypt’s notorious internal security service has earned a reputation for abuse, but under Sisi the situation has intensified. The security services rely on a range of brutal methods against both Egyptians and foreigners held in these prisons. Individuals from the United States and elsewhere have been detained and harshly treated. Far from pressuring the Sisi government over the ill-treatment of Egyptians and even Americans, the Trump administration has been effusive in its praise and unwavering support. President Trump reportedly called Sisi his ‘favorite dictator’ and often refers to him as a ‘strong’ and ‘tough’ leader. 

One of the few consistencies in Trump’s foreign policy approach has been admiration for authoritarian ‘strongman’ rule. There are few human-rights ‘red lines’ that a dictator could cross that would incur even a mild U.S. rebuke. Sisi has mimicked President Trump’s use of unflattering media profiles as ‘fake news.’ The result has been the growth of a troubling trend in which dictators parrot the U.S. President’s words and put his views on a free press into reality by cracking down on ‘the enemy of the people.’ This is particularly the case in Egypt under Sisi, and without any external pressure agitating for change, there is little indication the situation will improve in the near or medium term.


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