Egyptians, it seems, are being asked once again to exchange their political freedoms for stability and security. However, the expanding clampdown on fundamental rights overlooks the fact that security and stability cannot be attained in the absence of freedom.

Recent Egyptian court rulings have signaled the expansion of authoritarianism in the name of protecting national security and combating terrorism. International and Egyptian rights organizations have condemned the long-term imprisonment of well-known political activists and journalists and the doling out of death penalties en masse. They argue that the judicial proceedings leading up to the sentences were politicized and flawed and that the crackdown is a gross violation of basic freedoms, including the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and due process. 

Maha Yahya
Yahya is director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, where her research focuses on citizenship, pluralism, and social justice in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.
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These sentences are supplemented with a draconian antiprotest law, emerging information that disappeared Egyptians have been tortured in Azouli prison, and the systematic clampdown on even socially oriented civil society initiatives, along with public defamation campaigns against activists and critics. Human rights organizations have reported that approximately 16,000–41,000 individuals have been imprisoned in the past year alone.

Security and stability are more than prisons and antiprotest laws, as indicated by other countries’ experiences, including Spain after the authoritarian rule of Francisco Franco and post-apartheid South Africa. Ensuring long-term security and stability will require inclusive policies and open dialogue that brings Egyptians from different walks of life into the same conversation. Sealing off political space to all but those who toe the official line will drive the excluded to find alternative means and spaces to express their dissatisfaction. A series of bombings in Cairo on June 25 and June 30 may be one manifestation of this. 

Exclusionary and repressive practices will also lead to persistent political instability in Egypt that will in turn undermine investor confidence. And they will undercut a hoped-for revival of the tourism industry, one of Egypt’s key economic sectors. This will have both short- and long-term repercussions. 

In addition, these actions are driving deeper wedges between Egyptians and augmenting political polarization. Two interconnected trends are used in public discourse as justification for the governments’ actions. The first is the sense of trauma expressed by Egyptians from all walks of life with regard to the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule under then president Mohamed Morsi. Descriptions of this trauma, as expressed in a number of interviews I carried out in May 2014, range from “they sought to change Egyptian identity” and “they had a knife to our throats” to “it was a year of colonial rule.” The second trend is the strong sense of national identity and national pride that most Egyptians share. Defense of this identity was a central theme of public discussions in the run-up to the ouster of Morsi and since then. These sentiments have been augmented by a recurring public theme of the need to restore the state’s authority after three years of unrest. 

However, national identity is more complex than the nationalist sentiment currently on display in Egypt. Nation building often relies on narratives and principles that can bring together entire communities and that define the self and the other. Often these principles are enshrined in a country’s constitution. 

The narrative and principles underpinning Egyptian national unity as expanded upon in the country’s recently ratified constitution are equality between citizens, justice, equal opportunity, and pluralism. The constitution also guarantees the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. 

Long-term security and stability require inclusive policies that consider all Egyptians to be part of this narrative and that ensure all benefit from the dividends of political stability and development. The slogans of the Egyptian uprising were freedom, dignity, and social justice. These slogans are reflective of a genuine demand by the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets seeking better lives—and the government must help realize them. 

On the political front, this means upholding the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizenship enshrined in the Egyptian constitution, carrying out the institutional and legislative revisions and establishing the legal frameworks needed to sustain the enactment of these rights.

Egypt also faces considerable socioeconomic challenges, such as a skyrocketing fiscal deficit, growing national debt, and inflation. What’s more, as of 2011, over 25 percent of Egyptians lived in poverty, more than 17 percent of Egyptians did not have secure access to food, and the stunting rate of Egypt’s children, an indicator of malnourishment, was over 31 percent of children. The need for social protection programs that sustain citizens and empower them economically is increasing while the fiscal space to sustain their expansion is severely constrained. 

For economic policies to be inclusive, they must be structured around the key principles of social justice, equal opportunity, and participation. Those policies include current plans to stimulate economic investments, address the escalating costs of government-provided subsidies, and reform tax systems. Effective policies would also provide a way to secure the growing needs of Egypt’s most vulnerable citizens while optimal revisions of the current structure of social protection plans are being considered. And they would entail a reconsideration of the legislative frameworks that encourage crony capitalism across different sectors in the country.

To constructively address the challenges the country faces, a different mind-set is needed. Egyptian citizens and their representative associations must be considered key partners in designing the future of the country and placing it on a more politically and economically stable path. 

Egyptians should not be made to choose between stability, security, and freedom. To move forward, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi could call for a national dialogue on translating the key principles of the constitution into actionable legislative frameworks, programs, and institutions and on addressing current and future challenges, priorities, and opportunities. This dialogue would also consider the policy trade-offs required to address Egypt’s daunting socioeconomic issues, deal with the escalating needs of its vulnerable population, and implement the structural economic reforms that are necessary to place the country on the path of sustainable development. 

Such a dialogue must be nationwide, take place within an agreed time frame, and encompass all significant political and social groups in the country. Representatives of the private sector and civil society organizations, including labor unions and others, should also have a seat at the table. 

A partnership of this nature can help an overburdened state address the escalating needs of its citizens, trigger a process of long-term national reconciliation, and build bridges between different sectors of society. Such a step may help preempt future unrest. And it would demonstrate that the state has faith in Egyptian citizens as equal partners in the country’s future. This road less traveled will make all the difference to the future of Egypt and to political transitions across the entire region.