Five years ago next month ordinary Egyptians looked on in amazement as British Prime Minister David Cameron swept through Tahrir Square with a huge security detail in tow to congratulate the people on their revolution. Just 10 days earlier they had overthrown one-time friend of the West — and close friend of Tony Blair — the brutal dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The arrival of the first Western leader amongst the chaos of the historic square to hail the revolution was an astonishing sight. Chameleon Cameron portrayed himself shamelessly as a man of the people, but ever since mid-2013 and his government’s support for the military coup which overthrew Egypt’s first ever democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, he has exposed his true colours. By November last year the process was complete as he reverted to the now default position of a British prime minister; with £ signs in his eyes, he rolled out the red carpet at 10, Downing Street to welcome Egypt’s latest despot, the coup leader Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
The issue of human rights, once the benchmark for British foreign policy, takes a back seat these days, especially when lucrative arms deals are up for discussion. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said rightly that the move showed the British government’s “contempt for human and democratic rights.” Cameron rebutted the accusation by claiming that he needed to discuss security in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, but Corbyn insisted that the invitation to Sisi would threaten, rather than improve, Britain’s national security.
It was an almost prophetic statement from Corbyn as, days later, on 31 October last year, a Russian passenger plane exploded after taking off from Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. All 224 people on board the Airbus were killed and, shortly afterwards, a group affiliated to Daesh claimed responsibility for blowing the aircraft out of the sky.
Following the atrocity, several countries suspended flights to the resort, dealing a heavy blow to Egypt’s tourism industry, upon which it is heavily reliant. Since then, hotels have come under fire and tourists have been injured in the resorts of Hurghada and Giza; Daesh has again claimed responsibility.
Sharm El-Sheikh is now officially off-limits to British tourists following Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice, and other areas in Egypt are also deemed unsafe for overseas visitors. This presents Cameron’s friend Sisi with a huge problem, for while the two leaders have been complicit in the demonisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, a non-violent political movement, the rise of Daesh in Egypt presents Cairo with a very real threat.
How has the extremist group managed to get a foothold in Egypt? The so-called “Islamic State” is as brutal as Sisi’s regime and carries out medieval punishments, tortures and killings on dissenting voices with the same relish as the latest dictator to sit in Cairo. The reality is that wherever injustice, cruelty and torture corrupt the rule of law — as appears to be the case in Egypt these days — then rogue terror groups like Daesh will germinate and thrive on the discontent of the people.
The Egyptians are merely following the path of so many of their Arab counterparts whose countries have and are being ripped apart because of Western double-standards and meddling. There is a host of cruel regimes run by despots supported by the West where injustice is routine. Where ordinary people aspire for democracy and justice there’s now turmoil and conflict as the despots cling to power desperately, using the tools of oppression purchased at huge cost from the West. This includes some of the West’s oil-rich friends, who pay vast sums of money to ensure that aspirations for liberty and freedom can be stamped-out ruthlessly.
Cameron and his friends in Europe and Washington were very happy when the secular General Al-Sisi ousted the Islamist Mohamed Morsi. Democracy in the Arab world is only tolerated as long as the West approves, as the Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, discovered when they voted overwhelmingly for the political wing of Hamas to run the Palestinian Authority in 2006. They have been facing a brutal blockade imposed by Israel and backed by the West and its puppets in the region ever since.
Now the death cult called Daesh is emerging and spreading across Egypt like an infectious rash. A passenger airline full of Russian holidaymakers has been blown up; a rocket has been fired at an Egyptian naval gunboat patrolling the Mediterranean Sea; and tourist resorts are being targeted. One of the most audacious strikes by the terror group was the planting of a car bomb in the heart of a Cairo security headquarters which killed Sisi’s chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, and injured 29 others. The initial support for Daesh came from a militant group called Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which proclaimed its allegiance to the “Islamic State” a few months after huge swathes of Syria and Iraq were seized by the extremists. Now calling itself the “Sinai Province of Islamic State”, its campaign of bloodshed and violence looks set to escalate across Sisi’s Egypt.
The Cairo government is more preoccupied these days with the activities of Daesh on Egyptian soil than with the 40,000 or so political prisoners – more than 20,000 from the Muslim Brotherhood – that it has behind bars. Sisi’s claims that the Brotherhood, which espouses non-violence, is as dangerous as Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s followers in Daesh, have neither credence nor legitimacy.
Five years ago I joined in the celebrations in Tahrir Square as Mubarak quit. The tears of joy that I shared with my Egyptian friends are now a distant memory along with any hopes of the country’s fledgling democracy under Morsi being revived. Suddenly the view from London, Washington, Paris and Berlin doesn’t look quite as clear as David Cameron must have thought when he welcomed Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to Downing Street last year. Uncomfortable questions must be asked within the British and other governments about foreign policy and continued support for tyrants like the Egyptian president.
The mood today is probably best summed up in an article written by filmmaker Omar Robert, who co-founded Cairo’s Mosireen Collective; it is the most watched non-profit YouTube channel in the world and it remains the most watched in Egypt.
“The question is what might come next,” wrote Robert. “The possibilities line up before us: decades of President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi overseeing a country slowly crumbling into the sea. A series of intra-military coups. More uprisings of the hungry and dispossessed. A slow democratisation process played out between competing elites. State collapse and an Islamic State insurgency. An acceleration in climate change, the flooding of the Nile Delta and widespread famine.”
He suggested that, perhaps, it might be something different and as yet unknown. “I can’t say that I’m optimistic,” he added. “But I’m not dead and I’m not in prison so I have no right to say it’s all over.”
The revolution in Egypt certainly isn’t over. The fact that the Sisi regime is so jittery and has put, it is alleged, 400,000 troops onto the streets on the 5th anniversary of the January 2011 Revolution, proves that the dictator feels far from certain that his position is secure. If Western governments continue to give him their unqualified political and military support, they could well be backing a loser.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.