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Is Sisi really Egypt’s strongman?

The hypocrisy of Egypt’s decision to join Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE in cutting off diplomatic ties with Qatar on the grounds that the Gulf state supports terrorism would be astounding were it not for the blatant level of denial Egypt has already shown over its role in the rise of terrorist attacks in its own country.

Figures as diverse as Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, to UN Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, have pointed out that Al-Sisi’s stifling politics of repression is fueling extremism. Egypt’s prisons are bursting at the seams with tens of thousands of political prisoners; opposition members are subject to travel bans, asset freezes and human rights activists are intimidated and interrogated.

Former Editor-in-Chief of the Daily News Egypt, Rania Al-Malky, put it succinctly when she said that in Egypt today there are no boundaries:

In fully fledged Orwellian fashion, the ministry of truth spews nothing but lies. Sisi’s Egypt has flipped reality absolutely, creating both the conditions for terrorism and the justification for fighting it with no regard for human or civil rights.

At the same time subsidy cuts, tax hikes and an unemployment epidemic mean that six years after they demanded bread, freedom and social justice in mass demonstrations, ordinary Egyptians are struggling more than ever just to keep their heads above water.

Read: Egypt takes Qatar to court on ‘terrorism’ charges

A new surge of oppression came at the end of May in the shape of the NGO law which will restrict the operation capacity of some 47,000 non-governmental organisations in the country, further squeezing the space between the people and the state and ridding any last notions that Egypt resembles a democracy.

The bill outlines details for arbitrary fees and fines, such as the request for $16,500 as a prerequisite for operations to start up, donations over $550 to be pre-approved and the potential for a $55,000 fine if people do not comply. Funding will be monitored and organisations will have to verify not only where this money comes from but also what it is being spent on. Studies and reports can only be published with prior approval.

Under the new law, foreign NGOs are required to renew permits on a regular basis, re-register themselves under the ministry of social affairs before submitting to working according to the state’s plans and developmental needs. The law bans domestic and foreign groups from engaging in rights work or indeed anything that can be said to harm national security, public order, public morals or public health.

Read: UAE, Saudi campaign to end Qatar’s independence

In short, the bill effectively bans NGOs from carrying out their work.

Around the same time of its release, Egyptian authorities banned 21 websites on the grounds that they support terrorism and extremism. The move confirmed theories first floated when Al-Sisi declared a state of emergency after the Palm Sunday bombings: that emergency law was simply a means to tighten his grip on freedom of speech. When constitutional powers are suspended the Egyptian state can block access to websites by order of a prosecutor, investigation judge or the president.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt on April 20, 2017 [Egyptian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency ]

Most of the websites on the list are perceived to be pro-Brotherhood or are funded by the “enemy” Qatar. Not all of them though – Al Jazeera is there but so is the independent news site Mada Masr, which has links to neither but is certainly critical of the Egyptian regime.

With this in mind Al-Sisi’s role in the isolation of Qatar is less about terrorism and more about stamping out critical voices – Qatar is home to a number of media organisations which offer a platform to the persecuted Muslim Brotherhood and has housed a number of political exiles from the country.

Within Egypt, human rights lawyer Khaled Ali was recently detained for “offending public decency” and eight members of his left-wing Bread and Freedom Party rounded up for allegedly misusing social media to incite against the state and insult the president. Ali was a former presidential candidate and in addition to him other opposition leaders and potential candidates are being arrested ahead of the 2018 presidential elections.

Al-Sisi knows there’s little chance he will win a free and fair election after the battering he has given his citizens for the last four years so he has to force them to support and vote for him instead by restricting the work of civil society organisations, blocking criticism in the media at home and abroad and arresting his opponents. There is no greater proof that Al-Sisi is far from being strong and stable.