The recent referendum in Egypt extends President Abdel Fattah el Sisi's tenure - but more importantly, it is a complete capture of Egypt's institutions.
"The rich don’t need to even pretend there’s democracy in Egypt."
My friend, another Egyptian reduced to anonymity out of fear, says this with almost humorous resignation.
"This is why they’re offering the poor people food just to come out…there’s not even a requirement to vote…just to turn up at the polling station for the cameras’.
There’s been another ‘democratic ceremony’ in Egypt.
The regime’s constitutional amendments have passed with an alleged 89 percent (88.8 to be exact) of the vote, not that there was ever any doubt of the outcome of the referendum.
The food, namely meagre portions of oil, rice and macaroni, or even cash payments for some lucky Egyptians, or the threat of force for some of the less fortunate, serve only as incentives for the largely disinterested poorer classes to provide camera fodder for regime propaganda.
This result for the regime has nothing to do with the will of the people of Egypt – it was already decided for them. Not only was the voted fixed, but the regime blocked by force any attempt to run a significant campaign against the amendments. The last thing they want is political activity to erupt during a mockery of a referendum, the outcome of which further obliterates any hope for progressive reform in Egypt.
To attribute democracy to this, or any ‘electoral’ event that has happened in Egypt since the brutal and ongoing coup against not just a democratic government but democracy itself, is an exercise in the absurd.
The regime’s goals in this pantomime referendum relate to the term limits of the presidency, the authority of the presidency over the judiciary and the authority of the Egyptian Armed Forces over, well, everything.
To translate this into the language of counter-revolution: it means that President Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi will now be able to stay in power until 2030, six years more than the terms stated in the constitution and will have complete control over all aspects of the state, with even the few slight cracks in the great wall of tyrannical power paved over.
Through a combination of blacklisting and professional and even not-so-professional persecution, the judiciary in Egypt was already packed full of Sisi loyalists. But there was constitutional room within the judicial system for potential sites of resistance to the regime.
Those sites, already so meagre, will be nullified entirely now the spectacle of the mock referendum is finished, and the regime’s will has been ratified.
The president will now have unprecedented powers over the judiciary, placing him as head of the Higher Council of Judicial Authorities, allowing him the power to appoint and dismiss the head of public prosecutions and leading members of the judiciary in every legal field.
Most notably, the president alone will have the power to appoint the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), which is the judicial body that is supposed to hold the president to account.
The amendments also seek to constitutionally cement the role of the military over Egypt’s allegedly civil governance. Article 200 of the constitution, which defines the role of the military solely as a security organisation that exists to ‘preserve [Egypt’s] security and territories’, have now been amended to expand their role to ‘preserve the constitution and democracy’, as well as ‘upholding the gains of the people’.
It’s not hard to discern that Egypt is a praetorian kleptocracy – a state of mass but centralised corruption ruled by a military caste - and this has been the case for many decades. It was a reality long before this referendum, with the military controlling much of the Egyptian economy and its ‘civil regime’ regulating the entire economic sphere through a system of patronage, but the amendment, for the first time, sets it in stone.
Though it uses beautiful words and expressions like ‘democracy’ and ‘gains of the people’, it means that the Armed Forces’ role as the ruling force of the totalitarian state is now official.
The last outcome of the amendments is the reintroduction of an Upper House in Egypt’s parliament. Though the lower house is already packed full of Sisi loyalists (only 22 of its 596 members voted against the constitutional amendments), the new senate will provide a new layer of loyalists.
If you envision the regime as a mafia, by creating a senate the regime is opening up the books to a whole new layer of loyal soldiers who will serve as the ultra-corrupt vanguard of the 'made men' in the civil sphere.
The next question is, why now?
Some, including the noted columnist Abdullah El Sennawy, believe that the regime is doing this out of a position of weakness. Some see it as it getting ready to weather the storm to come, a storm that it has most recently seen sweep away former President Omer al Bashir in Sudan and former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria.
I think this is over-optimistic. While these amendments certainly do serve to protect the regime from any potential unrest, this is more a case of the regime immunising itself against potential problems by entrenching itself deeper into the social fabric of Egypt. There is nothing to indicate mass protests breaking out in Egypt.
One huge problem remains for the regime: what do they do without Sisi?
As hard as it might be for people to believe, Sisi is the regime’s greatest asset. He fundamentally unites the ruling forces of the state and continues to enjoy a diminished but significant bloc of popularity among the people. They look at the potential popularity of even old Mubarak-era figures who oppose the current status quo in the country, and it worries them greatly – precisely because they come from within the broad ruling classes.
This is why they have to ensure Sisi can stay in power for as long as possible, while ensuring that the judiciary, as a legal body that can, in theory, undermine and oppose the regime, can pose no problems for Sisi and his potential chosen successor.
The senate, packed full of ultra-loyal servants of the military, will serve as an additional check on any potential disquiet within the lower house should any large scale change occur within the Egyptian regime or Egypt itself.
I’ve written before that what’s happening in Egypt ought to be considered more of a continuous coup, but one could amend that statement to say it’s more like a coup within a coup within a coup – a Russian doll regime that is active primarily to secure its power from enemies without and within.
A fake referendum it may have been, but there’s nothing artificial about the tyranny it has now served to further normalise, with the West quietly nodding along.
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