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Sisi and the Hungarian prime minister: Peas in an authoritarian pod

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrived in Cairo on Tuesday for his first, three-day state visit to Egypt. He is returning a visit that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made a year ago to Hungary, which resulted in an effusion of statements from both leaders expressing their mutual support.

Orban’s praise of Sisi was missing the slight peppering of, “We will continue to support you, but it would be nice if you respected human rights,” with which Sisi’s allies in Britain and the United States usually temper their speeches.

In fact, at a joint press conference, Orban went so far as to indirectly state that democracy might not be that important in Egypt.

“We are not teachers of democracy. Decisions must be made by each nation concerning their own affairs,” said Orban. “Without Egypt, there is no stability in the Arab region, and since distances are short in the modern world, we can say that there is no stability either in Europe without a stable Egypt,” reported Hungary Today.   

At the same press conference, Sisi stated, “I have to thank Hungary for its positive behavior toward Egypt, despite the negative positions of other countries which ignore the challenges we’re facing.”

Egyptian authorities have often bristled at international allegations of human rights abuses, accusing critics of applying a double standard or of trying to destabilize Egypt, or simply dismissing the criticisms as invalid.

Orban and Sisi’s reciprocal admiration was not limited to words. The two countries signed a number of economic agreements, and Sisi even received an honorary doctorate from Budapest University during his visit to Hungary. But more than a just substantive economic or trade alliance, the Egypt-Hungary relationship also seems to be based on a marriage of minds.

Orban seemed pleased with Sisi’s military background. “We are not averse to military men turned political leaders,” he said during Sisi’s visit. Orban recalled past occasions where “assertive soldiers took over power from us, civilian weaklings, in order to save the country.” 

The two leaders’ unmitigated support for each other is unsurprising when taken in the context of their preferred methods of rule. Orban has almost single-handedly been responsible for what the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called “Hungary’s authoritarian slide since 2010.”

Sisi has racked up his own array of dubious distinctions from human rights groups. HRW stated that since he came to office in 2013, Egypt’s human rights situation has rapidly deteriorated.

The two presidents have at times instituted startlingly similar policies. From their treatment of civil society organizations to their attitudes toward those who try to question them, here is a list of the ways in which Sisi and Orban are two birds of an authoritarian feather.

Both crack down on freedom of the press

After Orban came into power in 2010, he and his party Fidesz immediately began passing laws that have been criticized as seriously damaging to media freedoms.

Under Orban, a new regulatory body was created with the power to “to issue or suspend licenses, monitor media content and issue fines and levies in cases of content violations,” according to Freedom House. The president appoints the body’s leader.

His government also passed legislation that includes very broad definitions of prohibited content. Language that insults “human dignity” or discriminates against “any majority” or “any church or religious group” is now banned.

The Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the media representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression have all heavily criticized Hungary’s legislation. But the Hungarian government has largely dismissed their criticisms, or accused other European countries of holding double standards.

Media violations that have occurred since Orban’s election include the 2014 firing of the editor-in-chief of Origo, an independent news website, after it published a story on the state secretary’s alleged misuse of public funds. Hundreds of journalists demonstrated against his dismissal, and 30 reporters resigned from Origo in protest.  

That same year, the Hungarian parliament passed legislation imposing taxes on media advertising that, according to HRW, primarily targeted one of the only independent TV stations in Hungary, RTL Klub.

Egypt has similarly been widely criticized for cracking down on freedom of expression under Sisi’s presidency.

The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Egypt the second worst in the world when it comes to jailing journalists, only following China.

The Journalists Syndicate’s Liberties Committee released a statement in February documenting 782 violations committed against journalists in 2015. Abuses included arrests, raids, detentions, imprisonment, trumped-up charges, the obstruction of their work, the destruction of equipment and punitive measures against attempts to document these violations. The majority of the infractions were carried out by the Interior Ministry or other state institutions.

Sisi’s government entered an ongoing conflict with the Journalists Syndicate when security forces raided its headquarters to arrest two journalists accused of spreading false news through their coverage of the April 25 protests against Egypt’s sovereign transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia.

Most recently, Journalists Syndicate head Yehia Qallash and board members Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rahim were referred to trial on charges of harboring the two journalists and propagating false news about their arrest.

On top of these attacks on the press, the Egyptian Parliament is currently considering a draft media law that includes the creation of national bodies to oversee media. The bill also stipulates that electronic media organizations would need written permission from national bodies in order to operate.

Both use finances as a pretext to attack civil society

In 2014, police forces raided the offices of two Hungarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that administer foreign donor money for civil society organizations. The police confiscated the NGO workers’ laptops and servers. The NGOs were accused of “misappropriation and unauthorized financial activity” by “an unknown perpetrator.”

The raids followed surprise financial inspections of the same NGOs. One the NGOs that was raided, Ökotárs, was previously accused of having political affiliations with an opposition political party. The NGOs also administer finances for a number of prominent human rights and anti-corruption organizations.

Following the raids, the NGOs and several of their affiliates were investigated for “financial fraud” in a move that was characterized by HRW as an “assault” on civil society.

Using financial pretenses to target civil society is a tactic familiar to the Egyptian government.

This year, authorities reopened a 2011 case against a number of local NGOs and civil society organizations. The organizations were accused of receiving foreign funding or operating illegally.

In 2013, 42 defendants in the original case — including 17 foreigners — were sentenced to one to five years in prison. The court also ordered the closure of several local branches of international NGOs, including Freedom House and the National Democratic institute.

In March 2016, the case was reopened when a ruling was issued to freeze the assets of human rights activists pending investigations into charges that they received foreign funding for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information. A court is set to review the ruling, but the hearings have been delayed multiple times. Several human rights advocates in the case were banned from travel in February.

Other implicated people and entities include the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Nazra for Feminist Studies, Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and human rights lawyer Negad al-Borai, head of the United Group.

Like in Hungary, there have also been police raids. Two police sergeants were dispatched to Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence to enforce a closure order based on claims of violations from the Health Ministry.

The decision to reopen the 2011 case, along with other recent moves against civil society actors, has been condemned by international and domestic human rights organizations.

Both have very understanding parliaments

The Hungarian parliament is led by Orban’s party, Fidesz. In both 2010 and 2014, Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in the parliament, giving it the power to pass a wide range of laws without facing any meaningful opposition. In many ways, the majority of the violations that have occurred under Orban’s rule were enabled by this Fidesz majority.

During Fidesz’s time as a supermajority, the Hungarian parliament ratified a new constitution and passed over 1,000 new laws, many of which were criticized as authoritarian and inhumane. They include the media laws mentioned above, as well as changes to the constitution that enshrine discrimination against women, LGBT individuals and people with disabilities. Under Orban’s leadership, Fidesz even passed a law that criminalized homelessness. 

Egypt’s case is a bit different. There are a number of political parties in the Egyptian Parliament, none of which constitute a supermajority. However, in the elections, the pro-Sisi For the Love of Egypt coalition swept all of the seats it contested. And in the seated Parliament, the pro-Sisi Alliance to Support Egypt coalition is the largest and most cohesive bloc.

In March, Mada Masr published a report showing how security and intelligence agencies attempted to engineer a Parliament that would maintain its loyalty to the president above all else. These attempts have not been entirely successful, with the Alliance to Support Egypt’s numbers shrinking from 400 to 250 deputies.  

While Parliament passed the vast majority of the edicts that Sisi issued before the legislative body’s election, it also dragged its heels at approving the civil service law, which is still in dispute.

Nevertheless, loyalty to the presidency is as key in the Egyptian Parliament as it is in its Hungarian counterpart. For instance, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal recently warned parliamentarians to avoid criticizing monetary policy in the media, or they would face disciplinary action.

“Some may say that this is a violation of freedom of expression,” he stated, “but freedom of expression should be responsible, and harming the state’s interests is not considered freedom of expression.”

There are several other ways that Sisi and Orban mimic each other in authoritarianism — they both love spending time with fellow strongman Vladimir Putin, for one. They both like to talk about existential terrors threatening the nation whenever critics bring up details like human rights. But if one went through every single authoritarian tendency that bonds together the two men together, the list might never end.