A year into Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s time in office, the former armed forces chief sailed in a yacht up the newly expanded Suez Canal. The $8 billion project, slated to take three years, was finished in just one. Egypt was euphoric. This was the jolt a sluggish economy needed to achieve its potential. The bigger canal, which now enabled two-way traffic, was the result of a “huge effort” by Egyptians, said El-Sisi, to “give the world this gift.”

That was in 2015. A little over seven years later, the Egyptian economy lies in tatters. The canal project, a white elephant, is now a symbol of El-Sisi’s failed economic policies and his inability to deliver on his grand proclamations.

Alongside Egypt’s economic crisis — exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — is an ongoing human rights crisis that is receiving far less attention. 

On March 5, an Egyptian court sentenced over a dozen activists to prison, a decision that human rights groups around the world described as unwarranted and unjust. According to Human Rights Watch, the sentences were the outcome of “an unfair mass trial of 29 men and women solely because of their peaceful activism.” Many of these activists are subject to extended pre-trial detention periods and denied due process.

The Egyptian authorities also routinely go after journalists in these roundups and mass detentions. Reporters Without Borders bluntly describes Egypt as “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists,” ranking the country as 166th out of 180 countries included in the latest edition of its annual World Press Freedom index.

Earlier this week, three journalists, all women, from Mada Masr, arguably the last independent Egyptian news outlet, went on trial for supposedly offending members of parliament. The journalists had reported on serious corruption charges leveled against members of a political party that supports El-Sisi. Lina Attalah, Mada Masr’s editor-in-chief, who has taken full responsibility for the story, said it was “a shame that journalists who do their job in a professional manner should face complaints which could threaten their freedom, at a time when we need to… welcome any work critical to those in or close to power.”

But the opposite is true in El-Sisi’s Egypt. The detention of critics is entirely arbitrary and unpredictable.

One activist, now in France after spending over two years in an Egyptian jail, said that he’d “seen people in their hundreds that were arrested basically because an officer stopped them in the street, checked their mobile and checked their Facebook account and found a joke, or a post, or even a like on a post or a joke.”

Since El-Sisi became president in June 2014, human rights groups say he has imprisoned possibly tens of thousands of dissidents and activists with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared as a terrorist organization. Mohamed Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate in the 2012 presidential election, becoming the first ever democratically-elected president of Egypt. He was deposed in 2013 in a coup led by El-Sisi, who was then the defense minister and de facto chief of the Egyptian army. The Muslim Brotherhood has since been declared a terrorist organization in several other countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where it is seen as a threat to authoritarian rule. 

Both countries have long propped up Egypt’s failing economy with loans and bailouts, amounting to tens of billions of dollars over the last decade. Just last month, the Egyptian president acknowledged the importance of his Gulf allies at the World Government Summit in Dubai. “The most important point here,” he said, “is support from our brothers.”

But that support, Saudi Arabia has hinted, will now come with “strings attached.” Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, the Saudi Arabian finance minister said his country was “working with multilateral institutions to actually say we need to see reforms.” Commentators in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have engaged in a flame war of late, with one Saudi academic describing Egypt on Twitter as a “captive of the International Monetary Fund.” The academic’s tweets were later deleted but he blamed the Egyptian army’s chokehold on the economy. 

While El-Sisi has consistently pinned the economic crisis on issues arising from the double whammy of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, experts have long argued that the Egyptian military’s advantage in almost all sectors has made ensuring sustained growth, revenue generation and foreign investment very difficult. The military, said Sarah Saadoun, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, “have a competitive advantage in the market, in both overt ways like tax advantages and less obvious ways like access to permits.” It means that the military is “gobbling up these huge public contracts. But what is the public actually getting from them in return?”  

Addressing the military’s competitive advantage has become a priority for the International Monetary Fund, whose loans to the Egyptian regime — amounting to over $20 billion since 2016 — have helped keep the economy afloat. The IMF, whose stringent conditions have often attracted criticism within developing countries, is intent on forcing El-Sisi to expand Egypt’s private sector. Saadoun says the IMF’s conditions are a step forward. “You need transparency, accountability, and not to be owned by the military,” she told me. 

Military mismanagement of the economy is a running theme through much of the commentary on Egypt’s economic woes. “There’s this huge spending spree that’s basically been ongoing, since Sisi became president,” Timothy Kaldas, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told me. “And Egypt’s external debts have grown by over $100 billion. What has been accomplished in that time?”

Much of El-Sisi’s spending has been on giant infrastructure projects, like the expansion of the Suez Canal. He has funded the building of a new “administrative capital,” of Africa’s tallest tower and of what will, later this year, become the world’s longest driverless monorail system. All this as the Egyptian pound has lost half its value against the dollar in just one year, making imports unaffordable and sending the prices of staples soaring. “None of these mega projects make economic sense,” Kaldas told me. “Why on earth would you build these things except for vanity?” 

Among the “deep structural reforms” that the IMF recommended in January were the reduction of “public debt vulnerabilities” that included investments in such major projects. The Egyptian economist Wael Gamal told Al Jazeera that these Egyptian national projects “eat money.” They have, he added, “a very weak economic rationality and do not create sustainable jobs.”

As Egypt is nudged toward making systemic changes to its economic policies, it appears to continue to get a free pass for its human rights violations. In November 2022, Egypt hosted the COP27 climate conference in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. Activists and some media outlets took the opportunity to put El-Sisi’s appalling human rights record under the spotlight, but world leaders ignored the steady drumbeat of condemnation. U.S. President Joe Biden announced a “$500 million package to finance and facilitate Egypt’s transition to clean energy” but made no mention of prominent activists, journalists and writers languishing in Egyptian prisons.

Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Joe Biden meet at the COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. The U.S. president promised $500 million in climate funding to Egypt. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images.

A couple of weeks after Biden’s appearance at COP27, Sherif Osman, who called for protests at the conference, was arrested in Dubai and threatened with extradition to Egypt. Osman, a former officer in the Egyptian army, is an American citizen. He had made videos from his home in the U.S. for his YouTube channel in which he criticized El-Sisi’s regime and urged people to “wake up and take to the streets.” Osman was arrested on the street in Dubai, in accordance with a request from Egyptian authorities, and held for 46 days before being eventually deported to the United States.

Back in 2019, at a summit in France, then-U.S. president Donald Trump was waiting to meet with El-Sisi who was running late. “Where’s my favorite dictator?” Trump was heard asking, to the shock of Egyptian and American officials in earshot. “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’,” tweeted Biden just months before he took office. In truth, though, while the Biden administration has blocked some aid payments to Egypt on account of El-Sisi’s human rights record, it is a fraction of the annual $1.3 billion that the U.S. extends in military aid.

Mohamed Mandour, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told me that the sum blocked by the Biden administration revealed the priority the U.S. placed on human rights in its dealings with Egypt. “Ten percent of their relationship,” Mandour said, “has to do with human rights.” The other 90%, he implied, takes precedence. Amr ElAfifi, a researcher at the Freedom Initiative, an advocacy organization for the rights of political prisoners in the Middle East, told me plainly that the “Egyptian authorities have grown to understand that they can do whatever they want when it comes to human rights and they won’t be held accountable.”

This week, Lloyd J. Austin III, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, arrived in Egypt as part of a Middle East trip that included scheduled visits to Jordan and Israel. He tweeted that the “U.S.-Egypt defense partnership is an essential pillar of our commitment to this region.”       

Whatever its economic problems, in El-Sisi’s near-decade in charge of Egypt, the country has consistently been among the top global weapons buyers. In January 2022, the Biden administration approved $2.5 billion worth of sales despite human rights concerns. In classified documents, France, another major supplier of weapons to Egypt, revealed it had participated in a secret military operation in 2016, which meant it was complicit in air strikes against Egyptian civilians. 

If El-Sisi’s authoritarian practices, particularly his relationship to the military, is significantly responsible for Egypt’s latest economic collapse, it appears it is those same tendencies that make him acceptable to leaders in the EU and the U.S. as a guarantor of stability. Egypt, for instance, is crucial to Arab negotiations with Israel.

What is clear is that the world appears to have little interest in stopping arbitrary detention in Egypt. And that El-Sisi, as Sherif Osman might attest, is increasingly emboldened to repress critics beyond Egyptian borders.

“Yes, in the U.S. you are kind of free,” Mandour from the Tahrir Institute told me. “You can speak your mind, you can advocate in Congress. But, on the other hand, the Egyptian regime will arrest your family members in Egypt and the U.S. government will not do enough to help release them.”