“We thought he was an English spy, we took him, I went and after loading him in the car we had to beat him”, this was overheard by an Italian witness in the case of the abduction and murder of Giulio Regeni, during a Police conference in an unnamed African country in 2017.
An Egyptian security official, who attended the conference, made the statement. This statement illustrates the logic that is currently used to justify the mass repression of opposition to the regime, regardless whether this opposition is violent or not, and regardless of its ideological orientation. All opposition to the regime is seen as an existential threat, treated with a similar level of repression, with similar charges and sentences levelled against its members. For example, there is the case of Ismail El Eskandarani, an Egyptian researcher specialized in the affairs of Sinai, who was sentenced on the 22nd of May 2018, to 10 years in jail by a military court, under terror charges. On the other hand, there is Abdel Moneim Abou El Fotouh, the head of the ‘Strong Egypt’ party, detained in February 2018, accused of leading a terror organization.
This wave of repression has an ideological undertone of fear of imminent state collapse, driven by foreign agents, non- state actors, and other forms of ideological and cultural warfare. For example in May 2015, President Sissi warned of the possibility of state collapse in Egypt. A warning he would later repeat in in July 2018, when he warned of state collapse through internal acts of sabotage, and linked state and societal collapse with internal protest, driven by “rumours” aiming at spreading instability. He claimed that the Egyptian state has countered 21,000 rumours in the period of three month. In another statement in March 2019, referring directly to the mass protests of 2011, El-Sissi stated that the mass protests from 2011 to 2104 were “precisely planned” to overthrow the state, linking this to what he termed, fourth and fifth generation wars that aim at spreading instability through rumours.
Reference to the Fourth and Fifth generation war is not limited to statements made by Sissi, however, they are an integral part of the rhetoric used by the regime to justify repression. A rhetoric that is repeated by members of the security establishment, and experts in a plethora of media outlets, sometimes with outlandish claims. For example in May 2015, the military expert Hossam Sowailim, warned of the fifth generation war, which uses control of the environment to cause natural catastrophes, like floods, earth quakes, and volcanos as part of an international conspiracy against Egypt. This is not an isolated statement. The Egyptian media is flooded with articles of analysts and experts who are discussing fourth and fifth generation wars, and different international conspiracies against Egypt, linking it to spreading rumours and protests.
This rhetoric is not limited to the unofficial level, rather, official government statements are also made to that effect. For example, in September 2018, the Egyptian Minister of Defence, Mohamed Zaki warned of fourth generation wars that aim to destabilise the country by doubting the “achievements” made by the regime. This statement was echoed by Sissi in April 2108, when he warned of a conspiracy to push the country into civil war.
Another layer is added to this in the Egyptian media, which propagated the concept of the “World Board of Directors”, a clandestine organization that aims at destabilising countries, inciting wars, and stimulating crisis. For example, in December 2018, Tawfik Okasha, a media personality with close links to the security establishment stated on his show that the Muslim Brotherhood was created by the organization with the aim of destabilising the chaos.
The other side of the coin is how the opposition and the Security forces feature in this rhetoric. In a speech in May 2016, Sissi coined the term “The People of Evil” as a generic term used to describe opposition to the regime. He would later define the term, to include anyone who aims at stopping the “progress of the country”. For example, in June 2017, Sissi warned of the “rumours” being spread by the “The People of Evil” criticizing the performance of the government. This loose term has since been used to describe all forms of opposition, from the secular opposition to insurgent groups. Some parliamentarians have ventured to define the term, and their definition included the secular opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as foreign powers who are all aiming at destabilising the country. This even included those who called for a boycott of the presidential election in 2018.
On the other hand, the military and the security forces are portrayed as the guardians of the State and the bulwark against the slide into civil war and chaos. For example, in April 2018, Sissi highlighted the role of the security forces as the protectors of the state, while warning of conspiracies to ignite internal strife. This statement was echoed by the, then, minister of defence Sobhi Saleh, who in May 2018, highlighted the capacity of the military to protect the state. This rational is even used to justify the coup of 2013, where in July 2018, during a television interview, Sissi stated that the main reason for the military intervention was the “protection” of the State. The role of the military as the guardians of the State was even enshrined in the latest constitutional amendment, in Article 200, which added “protection of the constitution, democracy, the State and its secular nature, and personal freedoms” to the duties of the military.
Thus, in this atmosphere of extreme paranoia in which opposition is portrayed as literally evil, and an existential threat, not only to the regime, but to the State and the Egyptian society as a whole, the mass wave of repression becomes justifiable. Thus, this rhetoric lays down the foundation of the excesses of the security forces, from extrajudicial killings, to torture, and forced disappearances. It would also justify the use of heavy-handed tactics in Sinai, which has resulted in what HRW calls war crimes. It also paves the way for the heavy-handed treatment of all forms of opposition, including non-violent and in some cases, legal forms of opposition, since criticism of the government places them under the rubric of “The People of Evil”. This also sheds new light on the case of Giulio Regeni, whose abduction, torture, and murder can partially be attributed to this rhetoric and the paranoia that it developed. Thus, this ideology is both a driver and enabler of repression, creating the condition for it to thrive, pushing Egypt deeper in its slide to autocracy.