On September 23, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pardoned two journalists from the news network Al Jazeera, ending an embarrassing episode that had haunted Egypt’s military-led regime for nearly two years. Egyptian officials portrayed the decision as part of a routine prisoner release ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, in which Sisi pardoned about 100 political prisoners for health and humanitarian reasons. It also came days before Sisi traveled to New York to take part in the United Nations General Assembly.
Prisoner releases and pardons are common throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds ahead of the two major religious holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. They are particularly important in regimes dominated by military strongmen and kings, where judicial independence and rule of law are virtually nonexistent. “While these pardons come as a great relief, it is ludicrous that some of these people were ever behind bars in the first place,” Amnesty International said in a statement after Sisi pardoned the two journalists, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, along with several political activists.
The pardons showed how fully Sisi has transitioned into the role of strongman, and how far the Middle East has moved from the early promise of the 2011 Arab uprisings, which toppled then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other dictators. Sisi is the latest in a line of military strongmen to rule Egypt, since the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the British-backed monarchy in 1952. And like the strongmen of an earlier generation, Sisi wanted to look magnanimous before going on the world stage.
For a short while, it seemed that the era of rule by strongmen was coming to an end. In October 2011, the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi was captured hiding in a drainage pipe near his hometown of Sirte, and he was beaten and shot dead by rebels, bringing his 42 years in power to an ignoble end. His contemporaries were the likes of Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, military men from poor families and hardscrabble towns who fought their way to the top, riding the wave of revolutionary sentiment that swept the Middle East in the 1960s and ’70s. Their inspiration was Egypt’s Nasser and his Free Officers Movement, who pledged to rid the Arab world of the vestiges of colonial rule. Nasser’s rousing speeches, heard across the region via the newly invented transistor radio, kindled visions of Arab unity. It was a time of upheaval, in which the merchant and feudal elites—the allies of the old European colonial powers—were losing their grip. At first, Saddam, Qaddafi, and Assad appeared to embody a promising new era of reform. But these leaders and others quickly suppressed any opposition, executed their critics, and squandered national resources.
By 2011, one by one, the strongmen began to teeter and fall. A new generation of revolutionaries had fostered a revitalized sense of pan-Arab identity united around demands for broad political and social rights. As the protests that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, each uprising was inspired by the others. A vanguard of civilian leaders emerged from the revolts, and although they drew on some of the old Arab nationalist doctrine—anti-colonial rhetoric and resistance to Israel—they were well aware of the failures of the strongmen and their generation. The protesters no longer accepted a social contract in which they effectively made peace with government repression, arbitrary laws, state-run media and censorship, and single-party rule, in exchange for security and stability. Instead, they demanded justice, freedom, and dignity. “The people should not fear their government,” read a popular placard in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution. “Governments should fear their people.”