This Newlines Institute Contours podcast assesses state resilience and fragility in Egypt and the future of the Egyptian state using one of the best books on this subject, “Coups and Revolutions: Mass Mobilization, the Egyptian Military, and the United States from Mubarak to Sisi,” by Dr. Amy Austin Holmes. Newlines Institute Senior Analyst and Contours host Nicholas Heras sits down with Dr. Holmes and another highly regarded Egypt expert, Mohamed Soltan, to discuss the Egyptian state’s response to the three mass uprisings it faced since 2011 and how the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi-led government could adapt to numerous pressures on Egypt’s stability. Dr. Amy Austin Holmes is currently a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center. Previously she served, for more than 10 years, as a tenured Associate Professor at the American University in Cairo, where she lived through the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak and al-Sisi’s subsequent rise to power. Mohamed Soltan is a human rights policy advocate and founder of The Freedom Initiative, a leading rights organization dedicated to the release of political prisoners in the Arab World. In 2013, Mohamed was shot and detained amid a violent crackdown on dissent following Egypt’s military coup. He began an open-ended hunger strike to protest his unjust imprisonment and inhumane detention conditions, which ultimately lasted 489 days. The Obama Administration, urged by bipartisan members of Congress and international civil society, intervened at the highest levels to facilitate his release in May 2015.
“Coups and Revolutions in Egypt” transcript
This segment of the Contours podcast features graphic discussion of real-life events where significant bloodshed occurred. These descriptions might be upsetting to some of our listeners. We ask that you be aware before you proceed.
Nick Heras: Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us for today’s Contours podcast, a production of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. My name is Nick Heras and I am the senior analyst and head of the State Resilience and Fragility program here at the Newlines Institute. Today, we will have a special discussion on state resilience and fragility in Egypt and the future of the Egyptian state with two outstanding Egypt experts: Dr. Amy Austin Holmes and Mohamed Soltan. We will explore the intricacies of how the Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is trying to maintain control over its population and territory and the lessons that it learned from the Egyptian uprisings from 2011 to 2013 period. To help us focus, we will be discussing the findings from what I believe is the best book on the subject, “Coups and Revolutions: Mass Mobilization, the Egyptian Military, and the United States from Mubarak to Sisi” by Dr. Holmes. We will be using this book to guide our discussion because it’s one of the most comprehensive works on the Egyptian state’s response to the three mass uprisings it faced since 2011 and it provides keen insights into how the Sisi-led government could adapt to numerous pressures on Egypt’s stability. In this book Dr. Holmes develops a new framework for analyzing the Egyptian state apparatus and introduces the concept of a coup from below by illustrating how the nature of the coup shaped the subsequent crackdown and resurrection of the military regime. Her book offers insights into state resilience and fragility in Egypt and beyond.
So without further ado, I’d like to introduce Dr. Amy Austin Holmes to you all. She has a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, and is currently a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center here in Washington, D.C. Dr. Holmes previously served as a tenured associate professor at the American University in Cairo, where she lived through the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak and led to Sisi’s subsequent rise to power. During her decade in Egypt, her articles have sought to explain the role of military versus police defections in Egypt and Tunisia during the revolutions, why Egypt’s military orchestrated the Rabaa Massacre, Sisi’s crackdown on civil society from Alexandria to Aswan, how analysts have contributed to the erasure of women from Egypt’s revolution, how Egypt’s Nubian minority has averted state repression and gained concessions, why the loss of academic freedom in Egypt is detrimental to economic development, and how IMF loans to Egypt entrench corruption. Dr. Holmes’ paradigm shift in research culminated in this book, “Coups and Revolutions: Mass Mobilization, the Egyptian Military, and the United States from Mubarak to Sisi.”
I’m also truly honored to be hosting Mohamed Soltan, a one-of-a-kind expert on Egypt and the modern social politics and security dynamics that motivate the Egyptian state. Mohamed is a human rights policy advocate and founder of the Freedom Initiative, a leading rights organization dedicated to the release of political prisoners in the Arab world. Mohamed holds a master’s from Georgetown School of Foreign Service and a bachelor’s of science and economics from the Ohio State University. In 2013, Mohamed was shot and detained amid a violent crackdown on dissent following the military coup. He began an open-ended hunger strike to protest his unjust imprisonment and inhumane detention conditions which ultimately lasted 489 days. The Obama Administration, urged by bipartisan members of Congress and international civil society, intervened at the highest levels to facilitate his release in May 2015. Amy and Mohamed, thank you for joining us for today’s important discussion that has great relevance to U.S. foreign and national security policy.
Amy, I’d like to start by asking you, and then I will turn this question over to Mohamed. So Amy, the period between 2011 and 2014 was one of the most tumultuous in Egypt’s modern history. So how did the Egyptian deep state respond to the challenges presented to it during that period? And how have those responses had lasting impact on Egypt’s society?
Amy Austin Holmes: Well, thank you very much Nick for hosting this discussion today, and thank you also to Mohamed for offering to act as a discussant. So I actually argue in my book that in order to really understand what was happening during this period, which as you rightly say was extremely tumultuous – as someone who lived through it, it was a period that was very intense in terms of just the sheer number of events that were happening constantly on a daily basis. And this chaotic tumultuous period – in order to study it as a scholar you have to basically choose what are the key actors in this period of revolutionary upheaval, because you can’t study everything. And I actually believe that the notion of the deep state is important. And I do sometimes also myself refer to the deep state in Egypt. However, I believe that it is sometimes a used almost, you know, as an excuse by some scholars, analysts to not do their homework. And I’m being a little bit provocative here, but it is true of course that Egypt and other authoritarian regimes are by definition opaque. There’s a lack of transparency. But that should not give us as analysts an excuse or a blank check to simply say, “Oh well, it was the deep state that did this or that.”
Really what we have to do in order to be analysts is to look carefully at who did what when, where, to whom, and that’s what I’ve tried to do in my book is to be as precise as possible in terms of analyzing these social forces. And I argue that in order to analyze the Egyptian state apparatus, because this was a revolution aimed at the state apparatus, that it’s important to distinguish between what I see as tools of the regime and pillars of the regime. So this is my framework that I developed in the book.
Briefly put, a tool of the regime – you can literally think of as a tool like a hammer or chainsaw or gun – there are tools that the regime uses to do its bidding. So for example, the regime can tell under Mubarak and now under Sisi, they can tell the Ministry of Interior, the security apparatus, they can say “Go and make these protesters disappear,” and they do that. They engage in forced disappearances, or they attack unarmed protesters back in 2011, 2012, 2013. The regime can tell to the Ministry of Interior, “Spread propaganda,” they spread propaganda. So they’re literally tools of the regime that usually have to simply follow orders. And so I contrast these tools of the regime, which I see as the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Information, and the National Democratic Party, for example under the Mubarak regime, as three examples of tools of the regime in contrast to what I argue are pillars of the regime.
And the pillars of the regime have more agency. They have the ability to actually decide, do we want to follow orders or not. Or – they have the ability to decide whether they’re going to continue to prop up the regime or withdraw support from the regime. And so I argue that the four most important pillars of the regime under Mubarak and until now, I believe, are the Egyptian military, the Egyptian business elite, the United States because of our unceasing military aid to Egypt – the second highest amount of military aid in the world after Israel since the Camp David Accords – and then finally, the fourth pillar is the ordinary people, the citizenry, which can either acquiesce to the regime that’s in power and decide that they are not going to protest or contest the ruler, or they can withdraw their support and, for example, stage these mass protests the milieunaire, as they’re referred to. Those are four pillars of the regime who have the ability and have some agency in determining during this period of revolutionary of people who I believe were the four most important pillars of the regime.
And that’s why I actually prefer this framework. Because its, first of all, more specific than just talking about the deep state. It allows for us to look at who did what when to whom, so some level of accountability for their actions or at least a document their actions. And so that’s why I – this is the framework that I put forward we can maybe discuss later on. It may be that in the future, if, for example, the support that’s coming from the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, continues at this level, that perhaps they would have to be added as an additional pillar of the regime. And I would also just say that this framework, I believe could be applied to other countries or to other cases of revolutionary upheaval. For example, if you want to analyze the revolution in Tunisia, I think it would also be helpful to look at what are the tools of the regime and what are the pillars of the regime. And perhaps instead of the United States being a pillar of the regime, perhaps it would be France due to the historical ties between Tunisia and France. That’s why I actually believe this framework is more useful than talking about deep state as a sort of shadowy, mysterious unnamed forces that are at work, because I think it is important to name names and to, to be as precise as possible in carrying out an analysis of a revolution. And so that’s, that would be my first response to your question.
NH: Thank you very much Amy. So Mohamed, I will ask the same question to you. The period between 2011 and 2014 was one of the most tumultuous in Egypt’s modern history. So how did the Egyptian deep state respond to the challenges presented to it during that period? And how have those responses had lasting impact on Egypt’s society?
Mohamed Soltan: Thank you so much Nick and Amy for having me here. To answer your question – it’s always very hard going after Amy, she’s an amazing scholar with deep knowledge and really, really enjoyed her book – goes right through the nuance there about everything that happened in that period. And to just sort of simply answer, I mean that period and onwards is defined by personalist, authoritarian politics, military supremacy, and unprecedented wide-scale repression. And it was about rebuilding that wall of fear that everybody talked about in the post-Arab Spring era. It was about building, rebuilding that ceiling of aspirations and hopes where people whose hopes and aspirations in – from 2011 to 2013, there was no ceiling to them. People wanted somebody from the villages of Egypt can aspire to be a parliament member, or maybe one day a minister or president, to the highest aspiration, meaning not wanting to be extrajudicially killed or forced to disappear or be arbitrarily detained. And that has definitely paved the way for unprecedented repression that we have seen in Egypt. Definitely not compared to the Mubarak era – it surpassed it by a lot – but also in Abdel Nasser era, which a lot of Egyptian citizens remember as being one of the darkest eras in Egyptian history.
But you look at Egypt in 2020, the human rights and rule of law index for the Fund for Peace’s fragile state indexes, 9.7 out of 10, which comes in third in the world after following Syria and Yemen. And so when you look at the way that the regime has started, and I was there for the Rabaa Massacre where a thousand people, the military, the security apparatus, broke their oath of protecting the land and the people of Egypt and turn their weapons onto Egyptian civilians, unarmed Egyptian civilians, in an attempt to consolidate the military coup that had happened and killed over a thousand people in broad daylight. I was shot in my left arm after a bullet nearly missed my head that day, and I spent 22 months in prison thereafter. And when you see that that is how the deep state, the security apparatus that had been in those pillars that we talked about, coming back full force, and having learned the wrong lessons from the Mubarak era that a little bit of space will make it so that people demand more. And so the only way to do this is to govern with an iron fist with brute force and nip anything in the bud before it even starts so that no momentum grows. And you see the suffocation of the political space, you see the crackdown on civil society members, society space, you see the death of politics in Egypt. You saw the consolidation, you saw the ratification of draconian laws like the protest law, the terrorism law. I mean the 6th of April movement that sparked the Arab Spring in Egypt is designated as a terrorist organization. The revolutionary socialists are designated as terrorist organizations, not just the political Islamists, and so that has defined – that’s the way that they consolidated in a very militarized, securitized way, where everything in politics and even economics of course and we’ll get into that. But also in the day-to-day social life, everything has been militarized leading all the way up to a few days ago Sisi saying that every village should have an officer in charge of the village so that we can see a Renaissance and Delta in the villages of Egypt. And that is the perception. That is the perspective, the military and the security apparatus sees itself as the guardian of the state and they don’t play politics. They – it’s brute force. And so, this is what happens when you have a general who has admitted multiple times publicly that he is no politician in ruling with the country with brute force the way he is. It’s I think that’s obviously in addition to what Amy mentioned. That is how the deep state, the security apparatus in Egypt, has taken full control and monopolized both politics, the economy, and the social life in the Egypt in an unprecedented way that I believe is going to lead to an implosion in the future. And so, that’s my long answer to your question.
NH: Mohamed, thank you very much and I want to pull on the string that you have laid down for us because you give us this very nuanced and also gritty perspective – those period has shaped Egyptian society. Amy, I want to turn to you because in your book, you talk about this concept of a coup from below. And what do you mean by that? And why does it matter that we call it that? And in what ways has Egypt’s coup from below shaped how the Egyptian public views building peace, stability, and prosperity in their country, especially now that we are the better part of a decade since that tumultuous period?
AAH: The question of the coup from below is a notion that I developed because I felt that it was clear that even experts and people who had longstanding knowledge of Egypt as well as American officials, Western officials in the European Union, for example, who had been following Egypt for a long time – they were confounded by the events, not just in 2013, when Morsi was overthrown, but already back in 2011 there was I believe, just to give one example of how Westerners misread Egypt, okay: The phrase that was chanted back in January of 2011 and February 2011, during the 18-day uprising that brought down Mubarak the “Geysh walsha ‘biyd wadha,” “the army and the people are one hand.” This phrase that was chanted was understood, I realized, in the United States for example, as a statement of fact that the army and the people are one hand. But that is not, in my opinion – Mohamed can correct me if he thinks I’m wrong – but in my opinion that was never a statement of fact, when the protesters on Tahrir were chanting “Geysh walsha ‘biyd wadha,” it was an appeal. They were appealing to the rank and file soldiers and asking them and pleading with them, “Be on our side. Support us, don’t support Mubarak.”
But in the West, it was interpreted as a statement of fact, and it was interpreted then as then people came up with this idea of military defection, the Egyptian military defected from the regime. The Egyptian military never defected from the regime. I mean they allowed Mubarak to step down in order to preserve the regime, and Mubarak didn’t even ever leave Egypt like Ben Ali in Tunisia – he fled the country. So Mubarak, I think, always felt even after he stepped down he was protected. He was protected by Tantawi. He was protected by his former military officers and by the Mubarak regime, which was still very much intact even though he himself stepped down. Again – and this goes back to my analysis of the pillars because Egyptian military is a pillar of the regime and has agency – this is why protesters were appealing to them and appealing to the military and the rank-and-file. Whereas they attacked the police stations, right? They burned down hundreds – the exact number is unclear, but possibly more than a hundred police stations were burned down all across Egypt, because the police and the Ministry of Interior was seen as a tool of the regime, as a component of the regime. This, I think, Western misinterpretation continued of what actually was happening in terms of the military, continued until 2013 when you then had these mass protests against Morsi that led to him stepping down. And I think that for some people, they thought, “Okay this is not a coup because of these mass protests because of these milieunaire, because people are out all over the country in protesting.” But it was a coup. It was it was a type of coup that we were not familiar with and that even experts fail to recognize as such.
And that’s why I argued that we should understand this as a coup from below, a coup that emerged from within the society. Because going back to my analysis of the four pillars, who was it that withdrew support for Morsi first? Well, I argue that it was some of the very people who voted him into office – that you had already in November and December of 2012, you had mass protests emerging against Morsi and these mass protests led to, continued, until June and July 3, the day that he was eventually removed in 2013. But that it was actually these people, the ordinary Egyptians, who went out and protested him. And we can debate what exactly was that they wanted – some wanted merely for him to step down, for there to be early elections. There were others who perhaps wanted the military to step in. But my point is that this came from – the protagonists came from below, came from society. And then, of course, the military stepped in, Morsi was removed. He disappeared. Nobody even knew where he was or if he was alive, or if he was dead.
But my point is that this confluence of bottom-up approaches and top-down military intervention is best understood, I argue, as a coup from below and this is important because – because it was a coup that emerged from society, the crackdown that followed also targeted virtually all of Egyptian society. So if we think of a counterfactual – if, for example, it had been like a small cabal of military officers who had decided you know what, we’re going to get rid of Morsi, let’s step in and remove him, then I believe the crackdown that followed would perhaps not have been as severe, because the instability was coming from this cabal of military officers. But because what happened in Egypt, this – it was these mass protests that really threatened Sisi and the military. It was not actually Morsi, I believe, and I know some people maybe disagree with me, but I actually believe that Morsi never threatened the military. The Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi were far too weak. He was in power for one year. He’d never represented a genuine threat to the military. What was threatening to the military were these milieunaire. It was the fact that people were staging mass protests that were uncontrollable. Even if some of these mass protests did have elite support, and even if they were spurred on by elements within the deep state, they were not controllable, because millions of Egyptian people are not marionettes. Nobody can control them. And this uncontrollable nature of the mass protest is what really threatened the regime. And this is why they turned against them as soon as Morsi was gone – first going after the Muslim Brotherhood, then very soon turning after secular left-wing activists, going after students who have no political affiliation, going after then the civil society crackdown the NGO law, the laws suppressing freedom of the press, etc. etc. I mean, we can talk about that also later on. But this is why I believe that if we had had the proper vocabulary to describe what had happened, perhaps we in the United States would have decided to cut off military aid. If we had been able to say, you know what, this is not a classical military coup but it’s a coup that’s coming from within society in which the military intervenes, a coup from below, then perhaps the U.S. could have done, what we actually had to do, according to our own laws, which is to cut off military aid, and perhaps then the subsequent Rabaa Massacre could have been prevented.
NH: Amy, I want to follow up very quickly because you’ve mentioned that the counter-revolution in Egypt took place in two phases since 2013, and that in many ways your own life and career as a tenured professor at the American University in Cairo was impacted by this counter-revolution because you witnessed all these events in Egypt firsthand. Could you explain to us how you witnessed this counter-revolution and what it meant to you?
AAH: I believed that initially, because I was in a very privileged position as a tenured professor at the American University in Cairo and American citizen, that I was relatively protected compared to the majority of people in Egypt. And so I was able to conduct my research, I was able to travel throughout Egypt, I had applied actually for a grant to study specifically the crackdown on the NGOs, nongovernmental organizations, in Egypt, which my university AUC had approved that I get the grant, they approved that I hire research assistants, I got IRB approval, they approve that I travel throughout Egypt. So I traveled, for example, to Alexandria to Aswan, to Assuit. I traveled to all of these different parts of the country to understand how – was the NGO law being applied systematically throughout Egypt, or was it mainly targeting the high-profile NGOs in Cairo? Like EIPR, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, NAZRA, and some of these other high-profile human rights or NGO associations in Cairo. Everything that I did was approved by the American University in Cairo.
And then when I was attacked in the media with absurd allegations about how my research was part of a conspiracy against Egypt, AUC was silent. And they refused to even say that I was actually doing research, which they had fully approved of. They refused to publicly defend my right to academic freedom and defend me as a faculty who dedicated 10 years of my life to this university. When this happened, in 2018, is when the media campaign happened, and it was timed right before the so-called elections, when Sisi was elected in the spring of 2018. So they basically were referring to a trip that I had made to some Nubian resettlement villages around Aswan in 2017. And so, obviously, they had timed this media campaign to happen right before the elections, and Sisi was re-elected because they thought that would, I guess, stir up Egyptian nationalism or xenophobia, it was also very racist – the, the terms that they used to refer to the Nubian minority, they were called “Nubian elements,” although they’re Egyptian citizens. But anyway, I mean, the point is that I had done everything to conduct this research according to AUC’s guidelines, and I was conducting research which they had fully approved, and it was not, I thought, on a topic that was a taboo topic. I mean, there are taboo topics. I knew what they were, and I thought I was avoiding those. And I was researching the NGO law, which is publicly discussed in the media all the time. Then when and this happened, AUC was silent. And it’s just disturbing that the accusations that they were making against me were so absurd, I think it would have been easy to just simply defend me and say, “She’s a researcher. She’s not trying to stir up some kind of Nubian conspiracy,” but it was the decision to remain silent was very disturbing, and this is something that we’ve seen, unfortunately, over and over again with other faculty who have been on the faculty at AUC and also students, Giulio Regeni was actually a visiting scholar at AUC. He was doing his Ph.D. at Cambridge University in the U.K., but he had an affiliation with AUC when he was abducted and then tortured to death, and they dropped his body by the side of the road. I think every academic or, or student at AUC and at other universities in Egypt, the way they are targeted is different. So every case is different. But the overall pattern is simply that even AUC, which I believe has more ability to defend academic freedom than any other university in Egypt, is not doing so, because Egyptian public universities are really much more controlled by the state apparatus, with – Sisi can appoint the president of every public university, he can appoint the dean of every faculty. Whereas AUC has autonomy. Supposedly we have autonomy from the regime and yet AUC is not using that autonomy to defend their own faculty or students, and this is what ultimately led to my decision to resign from my tenured position and not return to Egypt.
NH: Amy, thank you very much for your thoughtful response and how you weave together your academic research, your experiences as being an insider/outsider as part of the series of uprisings that occurred in Egypt, as well as what happened in the counter-revolution phase as the Sisi-led government seeks to continue to try to control its population and its territory. Mohamed, I want to turn to you. You had mentioned to us very vividly your experiences in this period of the uprising – how you were almost killed, how you were arrested and sent to prison for over two years. So I’d like to ask you, could you elaborate on your experiences? What were the pressures that led to your eventual release, and what has your experience been since then?
MS: With all of those very very traumatic experiences that I went through, it’s really interesting to note, like, I’m an Egyptian-American. I grew up in the Midwest most of my life, I went down for the Tahrir Square protests, I joined the protests, I was there until Mubarak stepped down and thereafter, a few weeks after. But I visited Egypt just occasionally. I had always had this like dream that – a far-fetched dream that the Egyptian part of my identity would somehow, someday, enjoy the same liberties and freedoms I enjoy here in the States, and I was naive. I was naive when I went and joined the protesters in Tahrir Square, but I didn’t know anybody.
My father, in late 2012, accepted a position in the Morsi government as a deputy minister of endowments, and around the same time, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. The family had to make a decision. I was back in the States, and so I sort of sold my businesses and I’d just graduated from the Ohio State University and went to Egypt, got a job there at an oil service company, and was just there taking care of my mom right before the coup happened and was very pure, not in the weeds on what was happening on the day-to-day Egyptian politics – just kind of work and hospital and taking care of my mom. You know, I followed the news but for me, July 3, not June 30, and sort of just piggybacking off of what Amy was talking about and what she describes her in her book as a coup from below is the big warning signs were the military coming back in the political space atop tanks and with guns. And that to me was a sort of a big no-no. I saw that there was a huge media, U.S. sort of Western media bias because a lot of the elite and the revolutionaries had turned on because of actions and the incompetence of the Morsi government, of course, and all of that seeing a perception having changed.
I took down – I went down to the streets and I was like, “Let me go to these different protests and tweet very, very American of me, of thinking that I can be like the citizen journalists that I can take out my phone and record what was happening or take pictures and, and tweet it out. Leading all the way up to the Rabaa Massacre, and there was two massacres that happened before then with the protesters in Rabaa that always go, just to kind of were swept under the rug, the Manasa Massacre and the Republic Guard Massacre, where 130 and 80 people, respectively, died. And it was a preview to what was going to happen in this foreshadowing of what was going to happen leading to the worst day of my life for sure. Even having have after, you know, gone through what I’ve been through, what I went through and it was 11 hours of being in a war zone, where you were getting shot at from every direction, literally, from snipers in helicopters, from snipers in tall buildings, from police that were ransacking the place from literally every entry and exit point where there’s no safe exit, for 11 straight hours, where the smell of blood and tear gas that Egyptians have become so familiar with since 2011 and seeing cameramen from Sky News and from Al Jazeera take shots to the head as they were covering the massacre and right in front of me and seeing just so much blood and death running from death to death in broad daylight on camera as the world watched, and where a thousand people got killed that day. And finally, after 11 hours, we were afforded a safe exit from everybody – whether you were citizen journalist, whether you’re a protester, somebody at the sit-in, whether you were someone who’s protesting the coup or someone who is a Muslim Brotherhood or whatever it was, it was – you had a British cameraman that got killed that day. Just there was indiscriminate shooting for 11 straight hours to try and disperse, which they did. And then, because I had just moved to Egypt a few months back, I didn’t know where to go. And so I went to my dad’s house, and they came looking for my dad – didn’t find him, so they took me instead. And so this hostage-taking policy, of taking family members to go at families, is something that has existed from day one of the military coup – of this military regime – and I was arrested and then they found out I was the same guy that was tweeting in English from these massacres and been shot during the massacre as I mentioned earlier.
And I had to undergo this process where I had only been in Egypt for five months, and I spent 22 months, a little less than two years, in prison. Most of my Egypt experienced is defined by prison, by hazing parties at every prison or police station that we went to is defined by these arbitrary detention periods that are indefinite. They’re supposed to be bound by two years, by the absolute lack of rule of law, by these politicized courts and judges that are just going through the motions. Being denied the most basic right, medical attention, access to your lawyers, access to your family, constant torture. Where, you know, at some point, I was in the last six months of my imprisonment. I was placed in solitary, a building and not even a cell, where I was not allowed to talk to anybody for six months. And just all sorts of torture, light control, temperature control, officers would slide razors and tell me to cut my wrists vertically, not horizontally, exposing electric wires and telling me to hold it with both hands so I can end this – almost driving me to insanity. And I went on a long, open-ended hunger strike until I was released. I lost more than half of my weight; I was in a hypoglycemic coma over a dozen times. I don’t know how I’m still alive and very grateful and thankful that I am.
And there was an international campaign, of course, for my release at the time, and they’re bipartisan – Senator McCain, and Senator Leahy, and others really pressed for my release condition, put my name in the appropriations bill for the release of the 1.3 billion dollars of military aid, President Obama intervened personally on my behalf multiple times until the Egyptians challenged Obama administration on sentencing to life after Sisi had promised President Obama personally that I would be released and there was an ultimatum that was given to them at the end that if I was not released within a certain time, that the military attaché would get kicked out and all of that. And finally, I was released on May 30, 2010.
Having come back, literally from a solitary cell, where I wasn’t seeing anybody, barely seeing sunlight, to being on a plane and being back home, amongst family and friends, it was surreal. Freedom is the best feeling anyone could ever experience. I mean, coming to the White House, meeting with senior officials, meeting with Secretary Kerry and briefing him on the radicalization and there – the ISIS recruitment that’s happening in prison and how these people after they fully been radicalized are released so that then they can continue feeding this need for the military to continue to crack down because these terrorists, people are getting radicalized and they’re getting out and blowing shit up and you need more military assistance and more diplomatic support so that you can continue fighting terrorism this – this vicious cycle where you’re eliminating all reasonable descent from the middle, basically, anything that’s middle of the road where you’re left with two extremist ideologies – one is a military regime and another is Islamic terrorism. … And you see extremes both need each other and seeing that witnessing that firsthand, where ISIS recruiters would come into my cell where I was not allowed to talk to anyone, but they would come and talk to me. Try to talk me out of my nonviolent hunger strike and resistance, basically saying this stuff doesn’t work, the world only understands might. And with them both having so many similarities, these two extremes, and seeing that firsthand, of being a victim of one, and being trying to be recruited by the other, and sticking to just trying not to have my ideology, my way of thinking, thinking that I grew up with in the U.S., not be altered in any way.
And then trying to take the after prison – I’m trying to advocate on behalf of other people who are in prison both in Egypt and Saudi in other places. And seeing how much the regime has now continued to use escalating in the tools of oppression that they have used and, as Amy mentioned, it’s not just against political Islamists, but across the board and using religion in the same way that ISIS and these guys use religion to give cover to this repression, having their own religious scholars give these fatwas, sentencing people, mass sentences to death for people who their only crime is political participation, their only crime is having been part of the revolution demanding more, demanding that they have a voice, people who participated in governments from people who have protested. Ahmed Douma, who protested, who’s an activist who was very, very much against the Muslim Brotherhood, was the leader of the protest against them, is languishing in prison for years. And their only crime is just being part of the revolution … these tools of repression get casted on the Islamist lab rats, and of course, nobody has sympathies for political Islamists because of the rhetoric, because of, you know, whatever. They test these tools of repression on Islamists when there is no pushback, international pushback, on this. They then expand it to civil society members and then when there is some pushback but not being applied across the board across their population and you see this, you see the extension of this now. And I’ll end with this with this very interesting case of the Juhayna CEO and their chairman, father and son, who have donated millions of dollars to the … for the Sisi’s sovereign wealth fund, his own personal, his own slush account just to stay afloat as businessmen, where military company tried to compete with Juhayna and it failed. They were then pressured to buy out the competing company from military officers at an inflated price, and when they disagreed about the price, they imprisoned the father on terrorism charges. So using the same tools of oppression, the same laws – draconian, repressive laws that exist that were used against political dissidents now, against people that are competing with them economically. Then they went to the son, the CEO, and they told them, “Do you want to buy?” And he said, “Are you going to release my father?” They said, “No this is so that you don’t go to prison,” and so when he refused he’s now in prison on terrorism charges and this is where this case, my case, other cases, so many hundreds, literally hundreds of thousands of other cases where you know, in my post-imprisonment, seeing all of this, seeing how these tools of repression for that the military regime has used and is applying across the board to control its population. It’s a sad reality that we’re living in, and I do hope that the U.S. government uses whatever leverage it has and won’t have for a very long time to try and mitigate some of the damages that we’re going to see, that are going to have a very, very long term effect on Egypt and Egyptians.
NH: Mohamed thank you very much for your gripping and harrowing account of your experiences in the uprising in Egypt, as well as during the period when the Sisi-led government tried to reassert its authority and took full charge into this counter-revolutionary phase that Amy has described in her book. I’d like to pivot now. The Biden administration has said that it wants to put human rights first and foremost in U.S. policy, now that has at thus far met with some skepticism in Washington, D.C. However, in January of 2021, a new caucus was formed in Congress, the Egypt Human Rights Caucus, by two influential Democratic Congressman: Representatives Don Beyer of Virginia, and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey. And they’re trying to put human rights, especially human rights in Egypt, front and center. So I want to ask the two of you: If you were invited to the White House to brief the National Security Council, to brief Secretary of State Blinken on the Sisi-led government, and in particular, on Sisi himself, how would you do it? President Sisi rose through the ranks of the Egyptian Army in the post-Camp David Accords period. He held several assignments during his career that were focused on internal security and counterintelligence. So what ways does President Sisi’s background shape his approach to managing Egypt’s population, and then I want to ask, related to that, and I guess I’ll start with you, Amy, related to this question on how does Sisi’s background shape how he approaches what he sees as his task, what can the United States do to try to put human rights more front and center in our engagements with Egypt?
AAH: So the question about how much leverage does the United States have vis-à-vis Egypt is something that I think it’s helpful to step back and look at, for example, how have some scholars who are not Egypt experts, but who have looked at the question of U.S. leverage and linkage to authoritarian countries in the world, writ large. And two of those very prominent scholars are Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in their book “Competitive Authoritarianism.” So in their book, they developed a framework where they argued that there are five different types of linkage and leverage which the United States or other countries have vis-à-vis other authoritarian countries. So the first is economic linkage. This, for example, we can look at the fact that the U.S. is one of the top three countries in terms of foreign direct investment in Egypt. Intergovernmental linkage – again, I’m applying their framework to Egypt, right? So they talk about economic linkage, intergovernmental linkage, technocratic linkage, social linkage, information linkage, and civil society linkage. And all of these forms of linkage and leverage, if we apply them to Egypt, you see that the U.S. does actually have quite a bit of leverage in terms of Egypt being designated a major non-NATO ally, second highest aid package in the world, information linkage, access to Western media, flows of information in Egypt, social linkage, Egypt’s dependence on foreign tourism, civil society linkage – many Egyptian NGOs have ties to the West, etc.
So, what I’m trying to say is that, I think if American policymakers realize this full spectrum of linkage – it’s not just narrowly defined in terms of our military aid, but there’s a broader forms of linkage and leverage that which we have, I believe, in the United States which I think we could simply be more creative in terms of thinking about this. There’s also other forms of leverage. For example, the mere fact of allowing Sisi, for example, an audience in Washington, D.C. This is something that he craves. Sisi was very keen on visiting the White House which Obama never invited him to the White House, but President Trump did. So even just allowing Sisi the platform here to visit the White House is a huge concession, actually, which needs to be thought about very carefully in terms of, do we want to offer him this platform? And I would recommend that the Biden administration not invite Sisi to the White House. I think that that’s simply unwarranted. I also believe that in terms of the military aid, that Egypt simply does not deserve our military aid. He doesn’t deserve basically – the Egyptian military, I mean, historically has been modernized at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. So it’s something that I think that the United States absolutely does have leverage over Egypt but we need to be more creative in terms of thinking about how we use it.
MS: The Biden Administration having promised to center human rights in the bilateral relationship with Egypt and in their overarching policy, in their national security or international security strategy, I really think that there’s a lot of room there. It’s not the Trump Administration, – I think the comparisons to the Trump Administration and this business-as-usual arguments are a little unfair and without political biases here, there are human rights oriented people. I mean, you have somebody like Sarah Margon, who is nominated to be the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. You have folks like Samantha Power who sits on the principles committee for USAID, and you have people in our government – Tony Blinken is got the right inclinations, I think, or is obviously the balance there. I think is do I say this as someone who’s been on the receiving end of terrible treatment from the Biden Administration with regards to my lawsuit against the former prime minister of Egypt, who was an IMF executive whom I sued under the Torture Victim Protection Act and the administration gave him immunity last April, they released the arms sales – $197 million dollar arms sales – on the same day that my cousins were arrested and they were arrested as a big middle finger to Biden because he had tweeted about me last July. And so I say this having seen and briefed multiple people in government about the missed opportunities, the phone calls, the two phone calls that Biden made to Sisi after the cease-fire in Gaza, the Abbas Kamel, head of intelligence, who was in D.C. and got warm treatment both in the Senate and … and in the State Department.
I do think, and this is just going off of what Amy mentioned here, there is a lot of leverage to use. I do think that using the U.S. assistance as a lever of influence, I am literally a living testament of that leverage when the United States government, when there’s political will to advance human rights, it’s there. I do think that there needs to be a bigger acceptance that and realizations of how this military regime uses bully diplomacy to advance its policies, how they form pick between different agencies and play on the lack of synchronization and the separations of power between the Congress and the administration, and the different agencies that deal with them, whether it’s DOD, the intelligence community, or the State Department. So, I do think that and I think that the administration is on the right track of speaking in one voice, with all of the different agencies saying the same things about human rights, ensuring that they are using all of the leverage and not allowing the Egyptians form pick to sort of get away with all of the, the repression that they get away with. I do think that that we have an opportunity here in the next few months to see what the administration is going to do with regards to the 300 million dollars that are conditioned on human rights. You know, they have to make a decision on here before September 30 and because not many human rights advances – quite the contrary, they just sentence 12 people to, put 12 people on death row and final imminent executions that can happen any day. They have summoned Hirsan back at was the most prominent human rights defender in Egypt, after meeting with Blinken I mean over some stupid tweets. [Unclear] who’s a former parliament member. You have sentencing the Tik-Tok girls to 7 and 10 years in prison over literally using Tik-Tok.
I think that those are the signals that the Egyptian government is going to look for. They’re going to see how much the U.S. government is actually putting its weight behind these promises. I do think that speaking publicly and privately about the importance of … political environment, and ending the human rights abuses is very good but I think one way to also do that, that’s very, very effective, is seeking accountability. There has not been a single person, official, that has well documented human rights abuses that has been held accountable. We have tools at our disposal. We have sanctions. We have them the Global Magnitsky Act. We have the … policy for transnational repression. We have the … act have some sanctions in there. There are some real accountability measures that the U.S. government has to use to at least end the patronage system that exists within Egypt and the reward system for human rights abuses.
And lastly, and Amy alluded to this a little bit earlier, as the Gulf money to Egypt starts drying up with the global economic situation not going in their favor, the Egyptian government will have to either turn to the international financial institutions, as it has the IMF and the World Bank, or to the Chinese. And they’re trying to do a little bit of both. But when the Egyptian regime comes to these international financial institutions, of which the United States is one of the biggest donors, ensuring that there are democratic benchmarks, that there are human rights conditions that democratic governance benchmarks, but also some transparency and anti-corruption conditions, I think will be very, very important. There’s a lot to do. The U.S. government has a lot and the Biden administration has a lot. There’s a huge Egypt Human Rights Caucus in Congress to ensure that it is holding up the administration to its promises, ensuring that it is a congressional watchdog and making sure that it’s playing its part. And I think this, the Egyptian rights caucus and other members of Congress who are joining the caucus is growing at the moment. And so we’ll hopefully ensure that they hold the Biden administration accountable.
NH: Thank you very much, Amy and Mohamed, for your thoughtful responses both in terms of analyzing how President Sisi approaches his policies towards controlling Egypt’s territory and its population, but also on the ways in which the Biden Administration can think about putting human rights at the center of the table of U.S.-Egyptian relations. I’d like to close our discussion by pivoting a little bit to the realm of domestic affairs inside the United States. Amy, you’ve recently talked about how your notion of a coup from below can actually be applied to the case study of the assault on the U.S. Capitol that occurred on January 6, 2021, and then it can actually be understood as a coup from below. You wrote about this in a Foreign Policy op-ed so could you elaborate to close this discussion on how you would apply the concept of a coup from below to what occurred on January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol,
AAH: Sure. So in this short piece in Foreign Policy, I built off of a debate that had already started, basically where the question was so is what happened on January 6 here in Washington, D.C, was it a coup attempt or not? And it was framed as a yes or no question. So was it a coup? Yes or no. But again here the problem is that framing the debate as a yes or no question actually prevents us from understanding the reality which is often messy. And so in this piece in Foreign Policy, I was saying that this is essentially – Trump, in many ways, I think was following the Playbook of Sisi who he described as his favorite dictator in calling his supporters to march on the Capitol and to intervene to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. Of course, this attempt failed. All 10 living secretaries of defense had written an op-ed prior to January 6, where they were calling for the importance of a peaceful transfer of power.
But I argued in the op-ed that there were three reasons why I think in the United States we failed to recognize the possibility even of potential coup happening in the United States. First, I think the simple fact that military coups and other forms of contentious politics such as social movements or revolutions are sequestered into different academic subfields. And this makes it difficult to understand how a protest movement can evolve sometimes into a coup. Second, I think racial bias in the United States has led both Scholars and government officials to underestimate the threat from white protesters, even when they espouse openly extremist views. And third, the Chapter 115 of the U.S. Criminal Code that covers treason sedition and subversive activities, makes no mention of military coups. And this omission is very telling because coups are distinct from these other activities because they don’t necessarily entail the destruction or the overthrow of the government but are rather an attempt to seize power or prolong a chief executive’s hold on power through undemocratic means. But this is why this concept of a coup from below which I developed based on my experience of living in Egypt, to try to explain what happened in my book, I already used it to try to analyze events in Burkina Faso, Thailand, the coup attempt in 2016 in Turkey, which failed, I argued does not constitute a coup from below. So, as a negative case, but I think that it is a useful concept and I think that it can actually be used to explain other cases of confluence of bottom-up protests and top-down military intervention.
NH: Thank you very much, Amy and Mohamed, for a detailed, nuanced, and provocative discussion on Egypt’s uprising, the counter-revolution, and the entrenchment of the Sisi-led government inside Egypt. We’ll continue to monitor events as Sisi stands sentinel in Egypt and the impact that that has on U.S.-Egypt relations. Thank you.
Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.