TIME Libya

Egyptian Involvement Sparked Libya Oil Port Battle, Expert Says

General view of the industrial zone at the oil port of Ras Lanuf on March 11, 2014.
General view of the industrial zone at the oil port of Ras Lanuf on March 11, 2014. Esam Al-Fetori—Reuters

Islamists suspected Libya's government in Tobruk was receiving reinforcements from Egypt

An ongoing battle for two of Libya’s key oil ports began last weekend because Islamist-leaning militias feared Egypt planned to reinforce the Libyan elected government based in the eastern city of Tobruk, according to a Tripoli-based analyst.

The fighting that has closed the oil terminals at Ras Lanuf and Sidra underscores how fears of Egyptian meddling in Libya is leading to an escalation of the country’s armed conflict. “They had information or belief that the Tobruk side was being reinforced in its military capacities,” says Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst based in Tripoli with International Crisis Group. “The more evidence there is of Egyptian involvement, the greater the risk the opposing side might make abrupt strategy choices, like the one we saw over the weekend.”

Libya’s internationally-recognized government in Tobruk is locked in armed conflict with a rival government run by the Islamist-leaning Libya Dawn movement, based in Tripoli. The Tobruk government is allied with Khalifa Heftar, a general who declared war earlier this year against Libya Dawn. Heftar’s campaign, dubbed Operation Dignity, has triggered some of the deadliest fighting since the 2011 armed uprising that overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

Egypt is concerned about instability from Libya spilling over into its territory. Egypt shares a long desert border with Libya that has been used to smuggle weapons, particularly since the 2011 uprising. More broadly, the Egyptian government led by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who led the military’s 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s elected Islamist government, regards the Tobruk government as one ally in what they see as a regional struggle against political Islam in which policy is guided primarily by religious rather than practical considerations.

“They want to reshape Libya’s political landscape where the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islamists don’t have a powerful role,” says Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. “The larger fear of having a country next door or where the Brotherhood is dominant is a real political concern for them.”

Though Egyptian officials deny direct military involvement, Egypt has taken a number of steps to aid the Tobruk side. In August, U.S. officials confirmed that Egypt allowed its airbases to be used in surprise airstrikes by the United Arab Emirates on targets in Libya. In November, Egypt sent special forces on two raids inside Libya, according to Western officials quoted by the New York Times.

In addition, forces allied to the Tobruk government have received weapons from Egypt. Gazzini says that in October she observed an Egyptian ship unloading in Tobruk port and that officials there confirmed that the ship delivered light arms.

In interviews in Cairo, Egyptian officials acknowledge that Egypt shares intelligence with the Tobruk authorities, but deny direct military operations. “Our position on the crisis in Libya is clear: to provide information, expertise and training,” says Hossam Khairallah, a former general in Egypt’s intelligence service. “But the conditions do not permit or favor intervention in Libya.”

Libya is just one arena where Egypt joins the wealthy Gulf monarchies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in what Egyptian officials see as a regional power struggle with the forces of political Islam. Opposing them are other states, including Qatar and Turkey who are regarded as more sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. The rivals also back competing rebel groups in Syria, as well as rival factions in Lebanon and in Palestinian politics.

“It’s clear that Egypt is involved in supporting Heftar’s forces in some respects,” says Chris Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the Santa Monica-based Rand Corporation. “Libya is at risk of becoming a proxy war for this conflict between authoritarian militarism and conservative Islamism, with different regional powers backing different sides.”

Inside Libya, analysts say the perception of Egyptian assistance for the Tobruk government is driving the calculations of the warring factions. “It has a very damaging effect for the country, because if it’s not true it gives the impression to the Heftar side that they have the military capacity, or will have the military capacity to carry out this military strategy for the liberation of Tripoli,” says Gazzini.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Badr Abdelatty says Egypt is prepared to offer training and capacity building for the internationally-recognized government and its military forces, but denied reports of direct intervention. “We are coordinating with neighboring countries to empower the legitimate government, legitimate institutions, namely the House of Representatives and current government in Tobruk,” he says. “We are not going to intervene militarily in Libya. This is not our business.”

Alaa Youssef, the spokesman for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, also denied Egyptian intervention in Libya. “President Sisi has made it clear several times that the Egyptian army will only secure the borders. In no way could it go beyond that,” he says.

Egypt is also concerned about the emergence of a militia in the eastern Libyan city of Derna that proclaims its allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the militant group that overran large parts of Iraq and Syria this year. The group is just one of dozens of individual militias operating throughout the country since the implosion of Libyan state institutions following the 2011 civil war. Since 2011, insurgents have exploited Libya’s vast desert borders to smuggle weapons into Egypt and other neighboring countries. “It’s on the top of our priorities here in Egypt. We cannot afford having a failed state on our western border,” says Abdelatty.

In Egypt, the military and police face persistent deadly attacks carried out by insurgents based in the Sinai Peninsula who also pledged loyalty to ISIS this year. Those attacks accelerated following the military’s July 2013 overthrow of elected president Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the takeover, the authorities have jailed thousands in a vast crackdown on the Brotherhood and other political opponents.

As a result, some Egyptian officials characterize the battle in Libya as an extension of the domestic fight against political Islam. “It’s imperative to deal with all terrorist groups with the same firmness,” says Abdelatty. “There is no difference from our point of view between ISIS, Fajr Libya [Libya Dawn], the Muslim Brotherhood, Jabhat An-Nusra, or Ansar Al-Sharia. They are all the same.”

Heftar, the general spearheading the current assault on the Islamists, is a former commander in Gaddafi’s army who trained under the CIA in the 1980s with the aim of toppling the Libyan dictator. In his current campaign against the Islamists, Heftar has modeled his rhetoric on that of Egypt’s President el-Sisi, a popular former military commander viewed by some Egyptians as a national savior and reviled by others as a new despot. Framing his campaign as an assault on terrorists, Heftar has said the viability of his campaign depends on the level of outside support, according to Wehry.

But after more than six months of fighting, Heftar’s forces have failed to dislodge the Islamists, and some Egyptian officials have lost their enthusiasm for the general. “I’m somehow disappointed,” says Sameh Seif el-Yazal, a retired general from Egypt’s General Intelligence service. “He should have interfered in some occasions where he did not,” he says, naming as an example the Libyan town of Derna, which was taken by extremists in late November. “We saw Derna falling to ISIS without any work from his side.”

Analysts say that Egyptian policy has also been influenced by lobbying from members of the former Gaddafi regime. “We know that senior members of the old regime are very close to the Emirati royal family and also to Egyptian security officials,” says Gazzini. “They are part of this process of creating the movement for the support for the Tobruk faction.” Gaddafi’s cousin and former aide Ahmed Gaddaf Al-Dam, lives in exile in Egypt.

For the Tobruk government and its allied forces, a victory on the battlefield would only yield more problems. “These Islamist groups are not going to go quietly,” says Wehrey. “They’ll probably shift to a different set of tactics, a terrorist campaign. They’ll go underground. It’s entered a dangerous phase.” In Libya, the only certainty is continued bloodshed.

TIME Egypt

Egypt’s Rights Groups View Report on CIA Torture With Weary Familiarity

It's a reminder of Egypt's past as a home for "outsourced" torture — and its present regime's alleged use of the same kinds of practices

For rights advocates in Egypt, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report released Tuesday detailing years of CIA torture was a reminder not only of the country’s past role as a destination for “outsourcing” U.S. torture, but also of a present reality in which Egypt’s security forces continue to use brutal methods on detainees.

Egypt was a key destination under the CIA’s “rendition” program in which the U.S. transferred prisoners to other countries for interrogation. For years the CIA cooperated with the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, including the Egyptian security agencies whose widespread use of torture was one of the hallmarks of the authoritarian state.

In the eyes of human rights activists, the legacy of the CIA’s collaboration with the Egyptian state lives on in widespread accounts of security force abuses. “Today we see more cases of enforced disappearances involving the Military Intelligence and the National Security. These are practices that existed in Egypt before and were used in the extraordinary rendition program,” said Mohamed Lotfy, the executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. “This mistake shouldn’t be repeated.”

The 500-PAGE executive summary report released by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday redacts the names of the partner countries involved in rendition and torture, but those countries involved have long been publicly identified. The U.S. began rendering people suspected of involvement in terrorism to Egypt in 1995 under President Bill Clinton. According to a 2013 report by the Open Society Foundations, Egypt accepted a U.S. request to join the program in part because it wanted access to suspected members of Al Qaeda.

Rendition expanded massively following the September 11, 2001 attacks. In 2005, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif admitted that “60 to 70” people had been rendered to Egypt, out of an estimated total of 100 to 150. The CIA also sent detainees to Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya and Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria, all autocratic regimes with long records of torture. All three countries would be shaken by popular uprisings in the “Arab Spring” of 2011.

Egypt was the destination for some of the most high-profile cases of extraordinary rendition, according to the Open Society Foundations report. Detainees included Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar, an Egyptian who had been living in Italy. Abu Omar was picked up on a street in Milan in 2003, then flown to Ramstein airbase in Germany, then to Egypt, where he was detained secretly for 14 months and subjected to electric shocks.

In another instance detailed by the Open Society Foundations report, an Australian citizen named Mamdouh Habib was captured in Pakistan, questioned by U.S. and Australian agents, then rendered to Egypt where he was tortured. In another instance, a pair of Egyptian men seeking asylum in Sweden, Muhammed al-Zery and Ahmed Agiza, were handed to the CIA then flown back to Egypt. In Agiza’s case, CIA agents “stripped him, dressed him in overalls, and chained and shackled him,” according to the report. The Egyptian government had assured Sweden that the two would not be tortured, but both were submitted to electric shocks.

Hosni Mubarak was removed from power in the 2011 revolt that was in part fueled by public outrage at the abuses of the security forces. But the massive police apparatus he oversaw remained intact, and the regime figures and security officials responsible for the use of torture stayed in place. Torture of detainees continued after Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was elected in 2012, human rights groups say, and after the military deposed Morsi in July 2013.

(Egyptian government officials dispute claims of torture. Though the Interior Ministry has in recent years admitted some violations, it asserts that it holds offending officers accountable and also said it was training police in human rights principles.)

Throughout, opponents of the Egyptian regime expressed dismay at the U.S. role in cooperating with the Egyptian security forces. “Mubarak used the security agencies to continue his rule,” said Mohsen Bahnasy, a human rights lawyer specializing in cases of torture said, “The United States unfortunately did not take a stance against the Egyptian government’s use of torture. The U.S. used Egypt as a bridge,” he said, “sending prisoners to be tortured here before moving them elsewhere.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee report argues that the CIA’s rendition program undermined efforts to compel other countries to change their treatment of detainees. It describes an incident in 2004 when the U.S. Secretary of State ordered the ambassador to an unidentified country to urge that country open its prisons to the International Committee of the Red Cross. At the time, the report states, the country whose name is redacted “was holding detainees being held in secret at the CIA’s behest.”

Since the military takeover in Egypt, an estimated 40,000 people have been detained in a clampdown on opponents of the regime, according to a database maintained by WikiThawra, an initiative of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. Former detainees describe beatings, burns, and electric shocks. Amnesty International, Egyptian human rights rights groups, and journalists have also documented the forced disappearance of dozens of civilians held at Al-Azouly detention center in the Galaa military base near the city of Ismailia. The government refuses to acknowledge the facility.

“The CIA and the Egyptian intelligence were cooperating at a time when the Mubarak government was hated and the people revolted against it,” says Lotfy. “The foreign policy of the U.S. has to keep in mind that the stability they want to reach by fighting terrorism in this way is a false stability.”

TIME Libya

ISIS-linked Camps in Libya Fan Concerns About Growing Militant Threat

Libya Derna's Islamic Youth Council ISIS
An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna's Islamic Youth Council, which pleged allegiance to the Islamic State, drive along a road in Derna, eastern Libya, Oct. 3, 2014. Stringer—Reuters

With the elected government struggling to enforce its writ in the north African country, a top U.S. general has confirmed the presence of ISIS training camps in eastern Libya

When the commander of U.S. armed forces in Africa confirmed the presence of what he described as training camps linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Libya this week, he threw a spotlight on a growing source of anxiety in the Middle East: namely the erosion of the Libyan state and its consequences for both Libyans and the wider region as militants fill the vacuum.

General David M. Rodriguez’s remarks followed the news earlier this year that a local militant group called the Islamic Youth Shura Council had declared its allegiance to ISIS’s self-proclaimed state in Iraq and Syria. The group operates in eastern Libya, which is where the American general said ISIS had “begun its efforts.”

When asked about the possibility of ISIS also moving into western Libya, Gen. Rodriguez said, “We’re continuing to watch that. But most of it is over in the east right now.” ISIS’s activities in eastern Libya, he added, were “mainly about people coming for training and logistics support right now.” “As for as a huge command-and-control network, I’ve not seen that yet.”

Although Gen. Rodriguez did not name the Shura Council, Issandr El Amrani, the head of the North African Project at the non-profit International Crisis Group, says he understood the remarks as a reference to the group. “That’s the only group we know of that has publicly made such an allegiance.”

Based in the eastern town of Derna, the group emerged as Libyan state institutions unravelled amid the ongoing conflict between the country’s elected government and Islamist militias, who have seized the capital Tripoli and proclaimed their own rival administration. More than three years after a NATO-backed uprising toppled the dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s elected representatives have been forced to flee to the small port city of Tobruk.

With pro-government forces focusing on fighting the Islamist militias in Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi, much of the rest of the country has come under the control of a patchwork of other militias of various sizes and ideologies. In Derna, the Shura Council and other militants have been terrorizing the local population, carrying out at least three summary executions and ten public beatings in recent months, according to Human Rights Watch. In August, the Shura Council is reported to have overseen the public execution of an Egyptian man accused of murder, while more recently, eight men caught drinking alcohol were said to have been publicly flogged in a Derna square in late October.

“The real danger that the international community is concerned about is where does this lead over time?” says El Amrani. “How do places like Derna and the deep south look in five years time? Are these going to be hubs not just for Libyan radicals but for radicals from across the region?”

For now, though, the militants in towns like Derna operate on relatively small scale, according to El Amrani. “Generally speaking, this is people who have a few pickup trucks and guns on them and not much more than that, and there’s such a power vacuum that they’re able to do what they want sometimes,” he says.

There are, as a result, questions about the level of the Shura Council’s control over Derna, which was long a center of political resistance and virtually disregarded under the Gaddafi regime, with no representation in Tripoli. Some observers have also characterized the group’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS as little more than a bid to raise its profile.

But it’s existence serves to underline the growing chaos inside Libya. “It’s very divided on the ground,” adds El Amrani. “The local police force and state authority is so weak that they’re not really able to stop them from coming in and stop them from shooting people and holding executions.”

TIME Egypt

Sinai Insurgency Shows Signs of Spreading after ISIS-Linked Militants Say They Killed U.S. Engineer

Egyptian armed group claims it killed William Henderson who disappeared in August

The claim this weekend by an Egyptian armed group linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that it had killed an American oil worker has brought renewed international attention to a long-running insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and raised concerns that the Sinai jihadis might increasingly seek targets outside of their narrow focus on the Egyptian military and security forces.

The group, calling itself the Sinai Province of Islamic State, published an image on Twitter on Sunday of a passport and two identification cards belonging to William Henderson, a 58-year-old employee of the Apache Corporation and Qarun Petroluem Co. A man by the same name, a petroleum expert working in Egypt’s Western Desert, reportedly died in August.

Henderson was the victim of a “tragic carjacking incident this past August” which is “still under investigation by the U.S. government,” according to Apache spokesperson Castlen Kennedy. The Enid News & Eagle in northwestern Oklahoma published an obituary for Henderson in August saying he had “passed suddenly.” The U.S. Embassy in Cairo declined to comment.

The militants’ claim highlights the bloody nature of the confrontation between the Egyptian military and armed groups in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Egypt’s military and police have been the targets of a surge in attacks since the 2011 uprising that forced out Hosni Mubarak and loosened the central government’s grip on Sinai. The attacks accelerated dramatically following the military’s ouster of elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

Until last month, when it pledged allegiance to ISIS in an online video, the self-proclaimed Sinai Province was known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM), or Partisans of the Holy House, a religious reference to the city of Jerusalem. The group first made itself known in 2011 when the uprising against Mubarak routed the police in Sinai. The new name is misleading since, unlike ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the group controls no territory in Egypt.

The group soon became Egypt’s deadliest insurgent group, striking in Sinai, Cairo, and the Nile Delta. It’s attacks include multiple attacks on a pipeline through Sinai carrying natural gas to Israel, and the assassination in Cairo of a top Interior Ministry official, and several deadly bombings of police installations. Over nearly four years, the insurgency has killed hundreds of army conscripts and police.

The insurgents’ campaign reached another turning point on Oct. 24 of this year when armed men carried out a car bombing and subsequent ground attack that left 31 Egyptian soldiers dead near the north Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid.

Egyptian authorities responded to the attack with overwhelming force, using bulldozers and dynamite to destroy entire neighborhoods in the nearby town of Rafah, which straddles Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip. In creating a “buffer zone” along the border, the government hoped to limit the smuggling of weapons and people in and out of Gaza.

The demolitions and the resulting displacement of thousands of people were a sign of the government’s desperation, said Mokhtar Awad, a research associate at the Center for American Progress who tracks the Sinai insurgency. “What we’ve seen the military doing is the number one non-counterinsurgency step, which is effectively alienating the population almost by design,” he says. “They resorted to the equivalent of plan F: ‘We’ll just blow everything up.’”

Long before the last month’s campaign in Rafah, the government’s harsh measures in north Sinai are one of a confluence of political factors that form the context for Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis’ rise. Since Israel handed the Sinai back to Egypt following the 1979 Camp David Accords, the Egyptian state has marginalized the peninsula’s residents, stoking resentment by barring them from serving in the security forces and sidelining many from the formal economy.

The militants have also been bolstered by the radicalization fostered by the civil war in Syria. Court documents from the trial of a group of ABM members, obtained this year by the Egyptian news website Mada Masr, describe how one group of young men from Cairo joined the group after fighting with jihadis in Syria.

The Egyptian military has banned virtually all international media from north Sinai for months, rendering impossible any direct reporting on the conflict there. Any contact with the group could also be dangerous. The resulting information blackout makes it difficult to predict what effect Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis’ declaration of allegiance to ISIS will have on the dynamics of the insurgency and counterinsurgency.

Some observers speculate that the new alliance will push the Sinai jihadis to broaden their search for targets, as they look beyond the Egyptian military. Henderson’s death could fit that pattern. “We will likely see more outside-Sinai terrorist operations without any kind of immediate strategic gains just to prove that they are there and to cause as much havoc as possible,” says Awad.

“It bolsters the state and the state’s approach to the crackdown against any and all,” says Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York, in reference to ABM joining ISIS. “It’s a boon to those who want to paint the most far-reaching picture of the threat that Egypt faces. It’s a shot in the arm to hardliners in the Egyptian security establishment. But of course there’s a real terrorism problem, there’s no question about that.”

TIME Egypt

Mubarak Court Ruling Another Blow to the Spirit of Egypt’s Revolution

Seen as major setback for what's left of Arab Spring movement

An Egyptian court cleared Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday of charges related to corruption and the killing of demonstrators during the 2011 uprising that ejected him from power.

The ruling dealt a blow to many Egyptians who took part in the revolution and who demanded Mubarak be held accountable for 30 years of repressive rule and for the deaths of at least 846 protesters who were killed during the uprising.

“The failure to hold Mubarak accountable for the deaths of hundreds of protesters, while Egyptian courts have sentenced hundreds of Egyptians for merely participating in demonstrations, is emblematic of the glaring miscarriages of justice doled out by Egypt’s judiciary,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. “This is a fresh slap in the face to every Egyptian who believed that their revolution would bring fairness into their lives.”

The removal of the charges was seen as another setback for what is left of the driving spirit of the Arab Spring’s most significant revolution. Many of the institutional changes engendered by the uprising have been reversed.

Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist President elected in 2012, was removed by the military last year following a separate wave of protests. The current President, former military chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, has presided over a sweeping campaign on Islamists and other political dissidents.

Mubarak was acquitted in Saturday’s ruling, issued by a three-judge panel in the morning hours, of corruption charges related to the sale of natural gas to Israel at below-market prices. The head judge on the panel, Mahmoud Kamel al-Rashidi, announced that the charges of involvement in the deaths of protesters had been ruled inadmissible on a technicality.

Mubarak is currently serving a prison sentence in a separate corruption case and did not immediately go free. Sitting in the courtroom wearing sunglasses, the former autocrat showed little emotion in the televised hearing.

By late afternoon, several hundred anti-government protesters gathered outside Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the central site of the protests that forced Mubarak out in 2011. Security forces had sealed the entrances to the square. Demonstrators faced off with armored personnel carriers across a barbed wire fence dragged into place by soldiers.

“The people demand the fall of the regime!” the crowd chanted in a reprise of an iconic chant of the revolution. “Down with military rule!” Though nowhere near the size of previous Tahrir demonstrations the rally was a rare display in a country where the resurgent regime has criminalized unauthorized protest.

“I want to ask a question: How did they [the protesters] die?” said a demonstrator named Karim Abdel Wahab, standing in the crowd. “Was it Photoshop? Did they kill themselves?” He held a handwritten cardboard sign reading, “Where is justice?” As he spoke, the demonstration swelled. Later, police scattered the crowd using gunfire and teargas. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that it dispersed the protesters after Muslim Brotherhood members began fighting with other protesters.

The court’s decision was the latest episode in a lengthy and complex legal saga that is likely to continue as Egypt’s chief prosecutor announced Saturday that he plans to appeal the decision to drop the case over the protesters’ deaths. Mubarak had initially been sentenced to life in prison in June 2012 after being convicted of failing to prevent the deaths of demonstrators, but a court ordered a retrial on procedural grounds in January 2013.

The ruling was part of the complex interplay between Egypt’s judiciary and the government; at times the judiciary can appear like an arm of the government and at others as an independent state institution. Egyptian judges espouse a diverse set of philosophies and fiercely proclaim their independence from the executive. Some judges criticized Mubarak’s excesses while others supported the system that he oversaw. Many of those same judges have issued harsh sentences rulings against the dissidents and journalists under the crackdown under el-Sisi.

“This is absolutely a triumph for the old regime and for what has come to be called the ‘deep state.’ And the context for the trial has been political from the beginning,” said Nathan Brown, a political scientist and expert on Egypt’s judiciary at George Washington University.

Brown also said the politicized nature of the trial did not mean that the ruling was legally illegitimate, citing procedural and conceptual flaws with the investigation and trial. “A true prosecution of Mubarak — if the impetus had been based on criminal law and not just politics — would have required full cooperation of the security apparatus. The verdict is likely justified by the evidence presented to the court. But a true investigation of the Mubarak presidency did not occur.”

TIME Egypt

Egyptians Debate Gender Violence After Video Shows Woman Being Raped in Crowd

An amateur video depicting a mass sexual assault in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during a rally celebrating the inauguration of Egypt’s new president Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi has triggered a rare national discussion of endemic gender-based violence.

The shaky video, posted to YouTube on Sunday, shows a woman in the square, stripped naked, her body visibly injured, shoved and pulled by a crowd of men, while a uniformed police officer also struggles with the crowd. The incident prompted debates on television and radio and spilled onto the front pages of nearly all Egypt’s major daily newspapers. “Execute them,” roared a red-letter headline in Tuesday’s edition of the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper, in reference to the perpetrators. Seven men were arrested in connection with the attack. The woman, identified by police as a 19-year-old student, was hospitalized after the attack. At least three other women were assaulted in the crowd, according to local monitors.

The immediate reaction to the video response by political elites and members of the media provoked further public outrage. Some government supporters blamed the assault on the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice website, meanwhile, attributed the attack to the “moral decadence” of Sisi’s supporters in Tahrir Square. Maha Bahnassy, a TV presenter for the pro-government Tahrir channel, provoked a furor for giggling on air during another journalist’s report on sexual assaults on Sunday. “Well, they are happy,” Bahnassy said during the broadcast. “The people are having fun.”

The public fury surrounding the incident drew unprecedented attention to the longstanding problems of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, all of which have come to the fore since Egypt’s 2011 uprising that ended the three-decade presidency of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Women stood alongside men on the front lines of the uprising, but the turmoil that followed placed women’s bodies in harm’s way. Sexual assaults by crowds of men became a consistent, if horrifying, component of the giant protests in Tahrir Square. Security forces also participated in well-documented cases of physical attacks and sexual assaults on women. In one iconic video now emblematic of state violence against women, riot police stomped on the chest of a woman, bare except for a blue bra.

The attack also posed a conundrum for Egypt’s newly-minted president, Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, the former armed forces chief who removed elected President Mohamed Morsi from power last year. One of Sisi’s first appearances in the public eye came in 2011 when he defended one instance of sexual assault, the use of so-called “virginity tests” by soldiers on women detainees. During his presidential campaign, Sisi vowed to clamp down on sexual assaults, and before his inauguration interim president Adly Mansour issued a decree criminalizing physical and verbal sexual harassment and imposing six-month-to-five-year prison terms on those convicted of such acts.

In one of his first acts since he assumed the presidency, Sisi’s office released a statement saying he ordered Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim to “vigorously enforce the law and take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment, an unacceptable form of conduct, alien to the best principles of Egyptian culture.” The statement also said “every family bears a responsibility to disseminate and instill within its children core moral principles and correct behavior.”

Veterans of the long struggle for women’s rights in Egypt responded skeptically. “It’s not a matter of law,” said Nawal El Saadawi, a physician and a preeminent Egyptian feminist writer and activist. “We have many laws against sexual assault and attacking women and all that, but it’s never put in force, even the new law that came a few days ago. We cannot eradicate such a very deep assault against women just by law.”

Saadawi said political mobilization was the only way to compel the government to act decisively against sexual assault, blaming the state for clamping down on independent women’s political organizations. “The government will never listen to us unless we have power,” she said. “The government of Sisi and the government of Mubarak and Sadat, they listened to Salafis, they listened to Islamic groups because they were organized and they were powerful. That’s why I don’t ask anything from Sisi or Sadat or anybody.”

Nihal Saad Zaghloul, an activist with an anti-sexual harassment and assault group called Imprint, attributed the public outpouring around the recent case to the fact that police intervened and that the video surfaced. “The problem is, and it’s very sad, that not many people believed this for the past three years that [mass sexual assaults have] been happening. People only believed it when they saw in in action.”

“It made sort of a big bang, and we’ve been trying to talk about it for the past three years. It happened on the 30th of June but people decided to be quiet because they didn’t want to ruin the image of the revolution,” Zaghloul said, referring to the day of mass protests against Morsi in 2013 that triggered his removal by the military.

“People have always claimed that the rapes in Tahrir were stories made up by protesters or [carried out by] a fifth column trying to spoil the image of Egypt, but now there is an actual video with a close-up of the victim,” said Amina Tarraf, an activist and researcher on women’s affairs. “This video changed something in people’s perceptions of rape and assault and how women are vulnerable in the public sphere,” she said. “It’s woken up the people.”

TIME Egypt

Bassem Youssef Abruptly Cancels Egyptian Satire Show Before Sisi Declared President

Bassem Youssef, the Arab world’s most important political humorist following Egypt’s 2011 uprising, abruptly announced Monday the end of his television show as the country prepared to declare former field marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi as president.

The cancellation of Youssef’s wildly popular show El Bernameg (“The Program”) underscored Egypt’s constriction of freedom of expression since the military removed elected President Mohamed Morsi last year. Since Morsi’s ouster, authorities put an end to the freewheeling media atmosphere that arose in the wake of the 2011 uprising. The interim government shuttered Islamist media, jailed Egyptian and foreign journalists and banned unauthorized protests. The crackdown on political opponents initially targeted thousands of Morsi’s primarily Islamist supporters, but it’s now affected many who, like Youssef, were staunch critics of Morsi.

In a news conference Monday at the downtown Cairo theater where his show used to be recorded, Youssef did not explain exactly why the show would not return to the airwaves, but suggested government pressure was to blame. “The Program doesn’t have a space,” he said. “It’s not allowed.”

He also insinuated that he refused to continue to air the show while watering down its caustic style of political satire. Youssef modeled his show on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, savaging politicians and media figures of all stripes. He said the network, Saudi-owned MBC Masr, had tried to keep the show on air. “I thank MBC Masr for hosting us and I can’t blame it for the pressures it had been put under. It was more than it could handle.”

The backstory to The Program’s cancellation remains murky, but experts say a system of de facto media constraints has remerged in Egypt since 2013, in which self-censorship and back-room pressure on media outlets are the norm. Mainstream writers, editors, anchors and network executives are believed to constantly self-police a set of constantly-shifting “red lines” that delineate what can and cannot be said.

“The pressure is never official,” said Rasha Abdulla, a professor of journalism and mass communication at The American University in Cairo. “All you need is a phone call or a word in passing.”

“We don’t know the exact mechanism, but it’s happening, and the results are very clear,” Abdulla said. “You have a very monotone media, a single-voiced media, with absolutely no opposition voices in the media. If they are, they are extremely mild.”

Since The Program first aired in 2011, Youssef has sparred with a series of governments and mocked a range of opponents. Youssef finally crossed one too many lines in April 2013, when prosecutors under the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Morsi issued an arrest warrant for him. A satirist to the core, Youssef appeared at Egypt’s High Court wearing an enormous version of a cylindrical black graduation hat Morsi had worn in Pakistan. He was released the same day on bail.

Youssef cheered the protests that prompted the military to remove Morsi, but when he returned to the airwaves months later, he appeared chastened by the shrunken space for government criticism. He did not directly mock Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who pushed the Muslim Brotherhood from power and who last week was elected Egypt’s president in a pro forma election. Instead, in one episode, Youssef took aim at the cult of personality around Sisi, joking, for example, about the phenomenon of cakes and sweets stamped with Sisi’s face.

However, according to a former member of Youssef’s staff, the show’s approach to Sisi was set to change as Sisi assumed the presidency. Staffers were informed of the cancellation last Monay, just as the staff were preparing an episode, never recorded, that confronted Sisi explicitly. The episode was never recorded.

“The red lines conversely inspire creativity,” said Jonathan Guyer, a senior editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and a writer who studies Egyptian political satire. “This happened under Mubarak. Because nobody was publishing drawings of Mubarak, everyone found a workaround to draw Mubarak. I wouldn’t be surprised if the people on his team find a way to work around or make their own series.”

TIME Egypt

Here’s Why Egypt Extended Presidential Elections to a Third Day

Low turnout could prove a stumbling block to the ambitions of former military commander Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who remains all but certain to win despite the delay

Egyptian authorities announced a one-day extension of voting in the country’s presidential election on Tuesday in an attempt to boost low turnout in an election expected to result in a landslide for former military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

Sisi, who overthrew elected President Mohamed Morsi from power last year, had called for a high turnout in hopes of securing a political mandate. The reports of low participation threatened to undercut the credibility of Sisi’s otherwise inexorable march to the presidency. His sole challenger, left-winger Hamdeen Sabahi, came third in the 2012 election and was not expected to pose a threat to Sisi’s campaign.

But political fatigue, perceptions that the outcome was pre-determined, widespread boycotts, and scorching hot weather may yet pose a threat to Sisi’s standing; all drove down turnout in the election, which began on Monday and had been scheduled to end at 10 P.M. on Tuesday.

The last-minute extension, announced by the Presidential Election Commission, also followed several other measures intended to increase turnout. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb declared Tuesday a national holiday. One member of the Election Commission claimed judges would enforce an obscure rule that imposes a 500 Egyptian pound ($70) fine for not voting without a valid excuse.

“The reports I’m seeing in terms of the turnout suggest something is not going as planned as far as the interim authorities are concerned. They certainly seem to be taken aback, and what we’re seeing is them scrambling to try and deal with that,” said Aziz El-Kaissouni, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“A large component of that is political apathy, and a very good question is, why bother go out and vote when you know the result beforehand,” he said. “‘Why should I take several hours out of my work day, or my holiday as it may be, and stand in line in the sweltering heat when we know exactly what the outcome is?’”

In Cairo on Tuesday, some polling stations bustled with voters. Others were deserted. A half hour after the polls opened in a school in Giza, a single man stood in the voting booth. The judge in charge of the room gestured with a pen toward the ballot box. Only about 600 of the district’s approximately 4,000 registered voters had participated so far. “It’s still early,” he said.

In the neighborhood of Imbaba, historically a redoubt of Islamism and political opposition, a steady trickle of voters came and went from two polling places. At one school, the judge descended to the courtyard to help a 100-year-old woman who could not climb the stairs to the voting booths. “Do you want Sisi or Sabahi?” he asked. The woman pointed to Sisi.

The overwhelming majority of voters interviewed expressed support for Sisi. Alia Mohamed, 23, an elementary school teacher said she backed the former army chief. “Honestly, he’s the best person to hold the country.” Some people in her neighborhood opposed Sisi, she said, “but they’re sitting at home.”

On Tuesday evening, as the heat began to ease, turnout picked up at a large school in another section of Giza, a hub for four different electoral districts. A row of armored personnel carriers lined the street outside. A small crowd waving Egyptian flags, and a few Sisi posters, rallied outside the entrance. Speakers pumped patriotic music. Armed soldiers and police, some wearing black face-masks, guarded the demonstration.

A small but vocal minority of voters expressed support for Sabahi. In upscale Mohandessin, a woman who declined to give her name due to an institutional affiliation, said she voted for Sisi’s rival “just to make a point that it was not a landslide.” She said she was skeptical of Sisi. “That’s not what people died for three years ago,” she said, referring to the 2011 uprising that ended the 30-year autocratic rule of president Hosni Mubarak.

Among Sisi’s supporters, jitters about low turnout spilled over on Monday night’s talk shows, with several hosts angrily condemning voters for lackluster participation. “I’m willing to cut my veins for the country right now on air for people to go down and vote,” said an anchor on the show Al Qahera Al Youm.

“Egypt is entering a phase of authoritarian restoration that’s not simply Mubarak 2.0. Mubarak inherited power from Sadat in a relatively smooth transition, with no serious rivals or an upsurge from below,” said Mona El-Ghobashy, a political scientist at Barnard and expert on Egyptian politics. “Sisi takes the reins in a far more challenging political environment.”

“Unlike Mubarak, he’s keen to organize periodic mass spectacles endorsing his person and his policies, to appropriate and channel the authentic mass mobilization made possible by the uprising,” she said. “But as the embarrassingly low turnout for the elections shows, there are limits to how much Sisi can script mass public support. Even his core constituency will tire of being trotted out every few months to perform its adoration, absent an improvement in daily life conditions.”

TIME Egypt

Egypt Votes in Anticipation of al-Sisi Victory

Egypt Presidential Election 2014
A supporter of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi displays a photo of his candidate outside a polling station after voting in the Egyptian city of Port Said on May 26, 2014. Cliff Cheney—Zuma Press

In Port Said, where riots in 2012 exposed the weakness of then-president Mohamed Morsi, many Egyptians voting in this week's election were eager for the stern leadership offered by former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Few voters entered or exited the Port Said Girls Junior High School. To the left of the entrance sat an army officer wearing tan fatigues and sunglasses. To the right stood a DJ, his equipment stamped with the words “LOVE STORY.” His speakers blared pop and classical patriotic songs. “Orders,” the officer said when asked why the music was playing. “The governor’s.”

A minute later, the DJ played ‘Bushret Kheir’ (A Good Omen), a catchy jingle urging Egyptians to participate in the presidential election. “You can take photos of citizens. Don’t take photos of the music,” the officer also said.

Released less than two weeks ago, ‘Bushret Kheir’ has swept Egypt in recent days, racking up more than nine million hits on YouTube. The song is written by Emirati composer Amr Mostafa, who is known for backing Egypt’s overthrown president Hosni Mubarak and calling the 2011 uprising against him a foreign conspiracy backed by the Coca-Cola and Pepsi corporations. The song could be heard throughout Port Said on Monday, the first of two days of voting in Egypt’s presidential election. The tune blasted from passing cars, from speakers mounted on trucks, and from sound systems placed outside at least two other polling stations.

Everywhere the face of one man stared down on the city. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former military chief who last July toppled elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Throughout the city, Sisi loomed down from huge banners hanging from lampposts, many of the signs printed by private companies. His likeness was plastered to the hoods of cars and shop windows.

Sisi’s victory is widely regarded as inevitable. Following Morsi’s ouster and arrest, Sisi became the presumed strongman of an interim government that launched an immense crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other political opponents, banning unsanctioned protests, shuttering key Islamist media, killing more than a thousand and jailing more than 20,000 others. With most Islamists removed from the formal political process, Sisi’s promise of stability and economic recovery has resonated with voters exhausted after more than three years of unrest. Sisi also enjoys the overwhelming support of Egypt’s media and rockstar-like popularity among large sections of the public demanding law and order.

“To tell you the truth, Sisi doesn’t even need to campaign. He’s very popular,” said Ahmed Ayad, 45, a member of the Sisi Youth Committee in Cairo. Sisi’s de facto campaign has been organized by small parties and independent groups. The Youth Committee is one such group, headquartered in a yellow two-story villa guarded by armed private security men in the suburban Cairo district of Heliopolis. Sisi’s popularity, said Ayad, “reflects a hope for a better future that is organized and assertive.”

Nowhere is the yearning for stability more palpable than in Port Said, a city of 600,000 at the mouth of the Suez Canal. Since the 2011 uprising, the city has convulsed with more than its share of unrest. In Feb. 2012, a riot following a match between Port Said’s football clubal-Masry and the popular Cairo team al-Ahly left more than 70 dead. A year later, a court in Cairo sentenced 21 Port Said fans to death, catalyzing another round of protests which killed more than 40 others. With the police unable to regain control of the city, Morsi declared a state of emergency and, in a moment of foreboding, deployed the army to Port Said and two other cities along the Suez Canal.

The months of instability, and the economic toll they wrought, still sting in the minds of Port Said residents. During Monday’s election, voters brimmed with elation at voting for Sisi, a man who they said represented their aspirations for a brighter and more prosperous future.

Adjacent to the stadium where the 2012 riots took place, voters filed into a polling station set up inside the Port Said Sporting Club. A group of women holding Sisi posters and waving Egyptian flags cheered and danced along to ‘Bushret Kheir’. “Egypt is my mother and Sisi is my father!” shouted one woman, her hands smeared purple from the ink used to identify those who had already voted. Standing beside the cheering women was Tarek Ammar, the chairman of the club and a retired police major general. He said he was neutral in the election. “The citizens of Port Said, do not want anything like the events that took place in the stadium,” He said. “The solution to this problem is the state.”

In a nearby neighborhood, soldiers and police in full riot gear held back throngs of women pressing to enter the Port Said Girls High School. Parting the crowd on the way out of the polling station, a student named Rana Muhamad, 19, escorted her mother, Wafaa Ahmed Khalil, 44, a French teacher who traveled from Cairo to vote, in spite of a broken ankle in a cast. “I love him,” she said. “Basically, he’s a gentleman.” Khalil said he backs Sisi “because of safety and security, and also foreign relations. He’s a respected face from the military. Everything will be good.”

Every voter interviewed at seven polling stations in Port Said proclaimed support for Sisi. But not everyone is happy with the former field marshal’s ascent to the presidency. The proprietor of a fish restaurant facing the Mediterranean offered, along with sea bass and shrimp, “grilled Sisi, God willing.” The man asked not to be named. “After we talk, I’ll be arrested,” he said, crossing his wrists to signal handcuffs. In the 2012 election, he said he voted for moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in the first round, and reluctantly backed Morsi in the second round. He is boycotting the current election. “There is repression now,” he said, “and I’m afraid of what’s coming next.”

TIME Egypt

Egypt Election Boycotts Can’t Stop Sisi’s Inevitable March to Presidency

Egyptian Army chief Field Marshal al-Sisi arrives for a meeting with Russian President Putin at Novo-Ogaryovo
Egyptian Army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrives for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, February 13, 2014. Maxim Shemetov—Reuters

Although many Egyptians consider this weekend's presidential election an undemocratic farce, little stands in the way of the former military commander's ascendancy to the nation's highest office

Two years ago, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a medical doctor and moderate Islamist politician, was a serious contender for Egypt’s presidency. Today, as Egypt lurches toward its second presidential contest in as many years, and its first since the military overthrew elected president Mohamed Morsi last July, Aboul Fotouh has refused to run again.

“This isn’t a democratic election,” he told TIME last week. “It’s more like a referendum with two names, and one of the candidates represents state institutions and the military.”

That candidate is Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the former commander of the armed forces who ousted and imprisoned Morsi, led a sweeping clampdown on Islamists under the guise of a “war against terrorism” and is now poised to prevail in the upcoming presidential election. “There’s no real competition because he’s had the support of the media since July 3,” Abul Fotouh said of the former military chief.

With a Sisi victory regarded as a near-certainty, the stage is set for an electoral anticlimax. Sisi’s only challenger, longtime Nasserist activist Hamdeen Sabahi, is polling in the single digits and struggling to overcome the cult of personality surrounding Sisi, who has positioned himself as the candidate of law and order and the man who rescued Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that alienated much of the public while in power and has been demonized in the media since the military takeover.

The upcoming election also comes in the aftermath of the deadliest period of political violence in Egypt’s recent history. In the wake of Morsi’s ouster, the military-backed government has arrested as many as 21,000 people including dissidents and journalists, outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, and killed more than 1,000 people during clashes with demonstrators. Islamist news organizations have been shut down, and a new law bans street demonstrations that take place without a government permit.

As a result, several distinct political blocs are refusing to participate in the election to protest the crackdown. The Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed president Morsi, who at one time were the largest organized force in Egyptian politics, are boycotting the election outright on the pretense that the position of president is “not currently vacant.” Many ordinary Egyptians plan to sit out the poll out of exhaustion and disgust with politics after more than three years of upheaval — a sea change from the colorful, chaotic, and unpredictable presidential campaign of 2012, when Aboul Fotouh ran as an independent.

The 62-year-old was a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the same group to which Morsi belongs. A voice of political pluralism, he was expelled from the organization in 2011 over his bid for the presidency. His campaign promised reform and assembled a rainbow coalition of Islamists and secular activists. In the first round of voting, he came in fourth, but still garnered more than four million votes, or more than 17% of the total.

Despite spending most of his career in Islamist politics, Aboul Fotouh condemned Morsi’s polarizing style of politics as president, and backed the protests against him. But the former candidate rues what has happened since Morsi was deposed. “In this security atmosphere, this republic of fear, true political, democratic hope isn’t possible,” he said. “This repression has to stop, this use of the security apparatus to oppress people, or else there will be another revolutionary explosion, dangerous for the country.”

Numerous activists, veterans of the protests against both Mubarak and Morsi, also regard the election as a pageant. Ali Hassan Ali, 51, campaigned after Mubarak’s departure to try and convict police and security officials responsible for the deaths of protesters. Today he is part of a group of activists urging what he calls a “positive boycott.” The idea is for people to show up at the polls, but write on their ballots that they reject the premise of the current election. “The goal of the boycott is to continue the revolution,” said Ali. “There is a large group of revolutionaries who reject this electoral process, because it is at its core the result of a military coup.”

The April Sixth Youth Movement, a group that was instrumental in helping to launch the protests against Mubarak, has also called for an election boycott weeks after the group’s activities were banned by a court order. “It became clear that this is theater and that Sabahi is joining just to make Sisi’s propaganda look good,” said Ramy El Swissy, co-founder of the movement and member of its political office, speaking in a separate interview. “There’s no such thing as a free election after a coup.”

Sabahi has not let such doubts dampen his candidacy, embarking on an upbeat multi-city campaign swing on May 16, through Nile Delta en route to Alexandria. His aides insist that the campaign is serious, noting that Sabahi came from behind in 2012 to finish third behind Morsi and Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. “We’re sure that Sabahi can win this election,” said Emad Atef, a member of Sabahi’s campaign committee.

But even Atef acknowledged the problem of voter fatigue. Since 2011, Egyptians have voted in three constitutional referendums, three phases of parliamentary voting, and a presidential election. “They’re tired of politics,” he said. “The political process hasn’t made any kind of real change in the last three years.”

That may be why many Egyptians, yearning for stability and hoping for an economic and social recovery, welcome the firm leadership that Sisi represents. “Sisi is a strong man. He has a military background. He knows there is terrorism in the country, that the entire Brotherhood is a terrorist organization. They killed people, police, and soldiers,” said Zeinab Abdel Halim, a grocer on a leafy corner in a middle class section of the Cairo neighborhood of Mohandiseen.

But millions of others remain disaffected. “If someone speaks against Sisi, they’re terrified. Everyone’s scared,” said Abdallah Mohamed Said, a taxi driver from the working class district of Shubra. “I’m not voting. There’s no point. Egypt is finished.”

The aura of inevitability gathering around Sisi has both drained the suspense from the current election cycle and moved the argument ahead to how Sisi will tackle Egypt’s stagnant economy, creaking infrastructure, and persistent Sinai-based armed insurgency, and whether the political crackdown will continue. The winner of the election “will be the president,” said Aboul Fotouh, sitting in his New Cairo office. “Their authority will be a reality,” he said, “de facto.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser