Sisi and Widodo are perfecting ways to criminalise not just the actions, but also thoughts of their political opponents, so as to make any challenge against them impossible. Interestingly, they do this under the canopy of democracy.


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil El-Sisi sees himself as the saviour of his country. Therefore, when in September street protests broke out asking him to step down, he was furious. Within two weeks, he detained over 2,300 persons, including hundreds who were picked up in their homes. The detainees include 111 minors, aged between 11 and 17 years, and 68 women.

The Sisi government, which said as at September 26, that it had processed 1,000 people for trial, vowed that it “will confront with utmost firmness and determination attempts at undermining stability and social peace.”

Such massive sweep of the streets by Sisi, is not uncommon since he seized power in a 2013 coup. The following year, he had resigned from the army to contest elections in which he was declared winner with 97 per cent of the votes. In the 2018 elections, he had not bothered to exact much energy as he simply ensured that he had no opponent to contend with. Before the current crackdown, he had detained over sixty thousand persons, including foreigners.

Sisi has focused on professionals, including doctors and journalists, to break them and send a message to the rest of society. One of his most infamous shows was the December 29, 2013 detention of three Al Jazeera journalists; Australian, Peter Greste; and Egyptian, Baher Mohamed. Just for carrying stories critical of the regime, the journalists were accused of belonging to a terrorist organisation, aiding and funding the group, broadcasting false news and operating without licenses.

They were held until 2015, when Greste was released and deported in February, and later Sisi granted pardon to the two others.

They were luckier than their other Al Jazeera colleague, Mahmoud Hussein. Based in Qatar, he had on December 20, 2016 arrived Egypt to visit his family. He has been in detention since then!

Unfortunately, international institutions that should have called him to order are courting him. When he initially came to power, the African Union (AU) rejected him. Today, he is the chair of that same continental organisation. The United States, which claims to be the bastion of democracy and champion of human rights, rolled out the red carpet to receive him in 2017…


Tragically, the rest of the world simply watches as Sisi transforms Egypt into a giant prison. He had rejected appeals for the proper medical treatment of former prime minister, Mohammed Morsi and allowed him to die. He had also joined some Gulf States to demand that Al Jazeera be scrapped.

Unfortunately, international institutions that should have called him to order are courting him. When he initially came to power, the African Union (AU) rejected him. Today, he is the chair of that same continental organisation. The United States, which claims to be the bastion of democracy and champion of human rights, rolled out the red carpet to receive him in 2017, rather than chide him for the wide human rights abuses he is perpetuating. President Donald Trump, in inviting Sisi to visit, had praised him, arguing that Sisi has: “done a tremendous job under trying circumstance”.

In the history of dictators and fascists like Spain’s Francisco Franco, Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini, the leaders of the so called free world had always accepted them and turned against them only when their interests were threatened. Principles do not seem to count. The same they are doing to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman whose hands drip with the blood of journalist, Kamal Kashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

Expectedly, Sisi argues he is in the right and that the tens of thousands he has detained or sentenced for politically disagreeing with him, are terrorists. In January, he told the American CBS’s 60 Minutes programme: “I said there are no political prisoners in Egypt. Whenever there is a minority trying to impose their extremist ideology, we have to intervene regardless of their numbers.”

As the Egyptians were protesting, so were the Indonesians. The latter protest was against a new criminal code that eats away at their fundamental human rights. Anybody with a scant knowledge of Indonesia would realise that the protests, mainly led by students, can be a matter of life or death.

In 1965, there were alleged attempted coups on September 30 and October 1 by Indonesian leftist elements. The army, led by General Suharto, countered these moves, leading to the massacre of members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), alleged leftists and the ethnic Chinese. Over one million persons were murdered in that crackdown. Suharto then unseated President Sukarno and ruled for 31 years. The new laws want to criminalise political thought and affiliation, which would give fascists in Indonesia a legal basis to repress radical political thoughts and movements.

With rape being difficult to prove, a victim can be accused of pre-marital sex, and unauthorised abortions carry a four-year jail term. The proposed laws expand the sharia code and those of blasphemy. You also go to jail if you insult the president or vice president. With that, the freedom of expression is curtailed.


A second incidence in Indonesian history, involves a former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, alias Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, who was Jakarta’s first non-Muslim governor in half a century.

Ahok was accused of blasphemy over comments he made during a pre-election campaign. In a speech during campaigns in September 2016, he had argued that claims by some Islamic leaders that Muslims were forbidden from voting for a non-Muslim leader, was an attempt to hoodwink voters. This was regarded by the majority Muslim leaders as blasphemy and he was jailed for two years in 2017. He left prison this year after 20 months. The new laws canvassed by President Widodo are seen as further strengthening the blasphemy laws in a country with other official religions.

The new criminal code, which was finalised by a parliamentary taskforce on September 15, would outlaw pre-marital and extra-marital sex, and cohabitation for unmarried couples. Under Article 419, “living together as husband and wife without being married” carries a punishment of up to six months imprisonment. It also regulates sex education and the use of contraceptives.

With rape being difficult to prove, a victim can be accused of pre-marital sex, and unauthorised abortions carry a four-year jail term. The proposed laws expand the sharia code and those of blasphemy. You also go to jail if you insult the president or vice president. With that, the freedom of expression is curtailed.

Jail also awaits anybody espousing or associating with Marxist-Leninist thought or organisations. This means that tertiary institutions can only teach capitalism or conservative politics. Effectively, radical thoughts are to be outlawed. Also outlawed is “Black Magic”, a concept that can cover a wide range activities. Also, anybody who attacks the “integrity or objectivity” of judges, or publishes any material that can influence the judiciary’s objectivity, goes to jail.

Sisi and Widodo are perfecting ways to criminalise not just the actions, but also thoughts of their political opponents, so as to make any challenge against them impossible. Interestingly, they do this under the canopy of democracy.

Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of African workers, is a human rights activist, journalist and author.

Picture credit: ANTARA FOTO/Yudhi Mahatmanz.