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Is As-Sisi Seeking Legitimization Through Repression?

November 13, 2018

Egypt can fit us all with all our differences. Accepting others and creating common ground will be important for us in order to create political development…“Sisi sworn in for second Egyptian presidential term amid crackdown on critics,” read the headline of the Reuter story on President As-Sisi assuming his second term in office. The Guardian headline was similar: “Egypt’s Sisi is sworn in for a second term, amid crackdown on dissent”

As-Sisi rode to power in 2013 on a wave of enthusiasm. Here, it was hoped, was someone who could bring back stability, improve the economy and be a secular president for all Egyptians. As I wrote elsewhere, reflecting on post-uprising Egypt through the lens of liminality theory:

Egypt’s quest is to find a “ritual specialist” to end this period of liminality by initiating the “decline and fall into structure and law”—the new order that will replace the old. Al-Sisi’s capacity to fulfill this role depends on his ability to present an authoritative narrative of order for the new Egypt…

In the event, as-Sisi’s regime has attempted to crush all forms of dissent, targeting Islamists, critics, activists, human rights organisations and journalists.

Among those arrested during the swearing-in period:

  • Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (Feb. 14), physician and former presidential candidate, accused of leading a terrorist organisation .and spreading false news inside and outside the country
  • Moataz Wadnan (Feb 23), journalist, accused of publishing false news that incites against the state (apparently for interviewing Hisham Geneina), and of joining an illegal group that aims to disrupt state institutions.
  • Adel Sabry (Apr. 3), editor in chief of Masr-al-Arabia, a news web site, for spreading false news by republishing a New York Times article about alleged irregularities during the 2018 presidential election
  • Hisham Geneina (April 24), former head of the Central Auditing Authority, accused of spreading news that harms the armed forces.
  • Shady Abou Zeid (May 6), comedian and vlogger, accused of joining an outlawed group and spreading false news.
  • Amal Fathy (May 11), activist and actress. Accused of membership in a terrorist organization, calling for terrorist acts over the internet, and spreading false news that “damages the public order and harms national security” (apparently for complaining on social media about being sexually harassed by two policemen).
  • Shady Ghazaly Harb (May 15), political activist, accused accused of insulting the president and spreading false news with the intent of destabilizing social peace and national security
  • Haitham Mohamedeen (May 17), activist and human rights lawyer, accused of joining a terrorist organisation and calling for the overthrow of the regime by publishing false news.
  • Ismail Al-Iskandrani (May 22), journalist and social researcher, sentenced to ten years in prison for allegedly belonging to an illegal organization and spreading false news regarding national security in Sinai.
  • Wael Abbas (May 23), blogger and journalist. Accused of joining a banned group.
  • Mona el-Mazboh (May 31), Lebanese tourist, accused of deliberately spreading false rumors that are harmful to society and infringing upon religion for posting a video about being harassed and cheated in Egypt.

Yet even as the regime engaged in this effort to silence protests,  as-Sisi proffered in his swearing-in speech a narrative on inclusiveness:

Egypt can fit us all with all our differences. Accepting others and creating common ground will be important for us in order to create political development…

I assure you that accepting the other and creating common spaces between us will be my biggest concern to achieve consensus, social peace and real political development in addition to our economic development…

I will not exclude anyone from this common space except those who chose violence, terrorism and extremist thought as a way to impose their will…

I think there is more going on here than mere hypocracy. This juxtaposition of rhetorical commitment to inclusivity and the common good while engaging in increased arrests and incarcerations (and, let’s face it, torture), made me think about an argument on repression and legitimization in a (relatively) recent article by Mirjam Edel and Maria Josua in the journal Democracy.

They argue that what as-Sisi is doing here is attempting to actually turn the arrests into an argument for the legitimacy of his regime by establishing a rhetoric of common good with one small, legitimate exception–into which, naturally, everyone his security forces arrest must be categorized.

This contradicts the common sense axiom of political science that legitimization and repression exist in tension with one another. Understanding “legitimacy” as an observable relation between the ruler and the ruled, the standard claim is that an increase in the legitimization of a regime reduces the need for repression, while an increase in repression automatically decreases a regime’s legitimacy.

In other words, the arrests of the bloggers and activists should be expected to lead to an increasing popular distrust of the regime, but as-Sisi’s rhetoric can, if successful, actually reframe these acts of repression to increase the legitimization of the regime.

The trick, Edel and Josua point out, is that there are multiple social groups in any society and they may assess legitimacy differently. The key isue becomes how repression is justified to particular audiences, with justification defined as “the official explanation or defense of state action, as one part of the latter’s discursive legitimization.”

The authors recognize that one rhetorical frame does not fit all audiences, and emphasize that there are multiple levels and sublevels of audience for speeches and media quotations by as-Sisi and other regime spokespersons.

  • The domestic audience can consist of multiple groups, one of which will certainly be the regime base, those persons who, due to their social positioning, are particularly subject to selective legitimization attempts.
  • The international audience may include neighboring states, the international community, regional and international organizations, or diaspora populations.

One of the case studies used in the paper is the forced clearance of the Rabi’a ‘Adawiya and Nahda Square protest sites in Cairo August 14, 2013, in which armored vehicles, special forces from the Interior Ministry, and snipers on the roofs of military buildings, attacked peaceful civilians, shooting and in part even burning an estimated 1,000 people to death.

The authors then examine the rhetorical strategies used by the regime, noting:

Egyptian officials have made extensive use of the frames “security”, “order”, and “terrorism”. Their main narrative was that the Rabi’a Square protesters consisted only of violent MB supporters, who were terrorists. In addition, the disruption of daily life and public order were contrasted with the security of state and citizens. Then-Prime Minister Beblawi “justified the use of force saying that Morsi loyalists had been inciting chaos around the country, ‘terrorizing citizens, attacking public and private property’.”

Justification strategies included:

  • depicting the police forces as defending their own lives, the state and its institutions. To do this, officials highlighted and exaggerated the number of wounded policemen, while downplaying the number of victims among the protesters
  • depicting protesters as dangerous armed criminals. This frame was particularly evident in the trial where the defendants were charged with “premeditated murder of security personnel, vandalizing private and public property, forcibly occupying buildings, obstructing traffic, terrorizing the public, and restricting citizens’ right to freedom of movement and personal safety.”
  • depicting protesters as terrorists Even before the crackdown, al-Sisi paved the way for this in a 24 July July speech calling on “all honest and trustworthy Egyptians” to “give me the mandate and order that I confront violence and potential terrorism”

This latter is a tried-and-true strategy for international audiences; it links local repression to “war on terror” rhetoric and practices on the global level.

Here’s the abstract:

How do authoritarian rulers legitimate repressive actions against their own citizens? Although most research depicts repression and legitimation as opposed strategies of political rule, justified coercion against some groups may generate legitimacy in the eyes of other parts of the population. Building upon this suggested link between legitimation and repression, this article studies the justifications of mass killings. To this end, framing theory is combined with recent research on the domestic and international dimensions of authoritarian rule. We contend that frames are directed towards specific audiences at home and abroad. Moreover, given the common threats at the global level and the diffusion of repressive tactics, we assume that learning processes influence discursive justifications of repression in authoritarian regimes. We provide an analysis of government rhetoric by comparing the protest crackdowns of Rabi’a ‘Adawiya Square in Egypt and Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, taking into account the audiences and the sources of the frames that justify repression. In both cases, we find the terrorism frame to emerge as dominant.


Edel, Mirjam and Maria Josua. 2018. How authoritarian rulers seek to legitimize repression: framing mass killings in Egypt and Uzbekistan. Democracy 25(5): 882-900.

Peterson, Mark Allen. 2015. In Search of Antistructure: The Meaning of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Social Drama. In Breaking Boundaries: Varieties of Liminality. Agnes Horvath, Bjorn Thomassen and Harald Wydra, eds. Pp. 164-182. Berhahn Books.

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