Egypt's Abdel Fattah el Sisi — since taking power five years ago—has managed to consolidate a lot of power in very little time. Is he Egypt's next Hosni Mubarak?
Last March, Egypt held presidential elections for the second time since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi on June 30, 2013. To no one’s surprise, the incumbent Abdel Fattah el Sisi was able to crush his opponent.
Perhaps “opponent” is a taxonomically misleading way to classify someone who only months earlier had founded a group that supported Sisi’s presidential bid. He was a complete unknown before the elections, and retreated into infamy’s abyss directly after (and completely unworthy of mentioning by name now).
As a “candidate” he never provided anything resembling a political platform, never criticised or countered a policy by his counterpart. He thought himself unworthy of debating the president who he repeatedly said he could not compare to. And he all but acknowledged that he will be voting for Sisi.
But he played a role assigned to him, a necessary role. Ironically, he briefly surfaced this week—five years since Sisi took power—announcing his intention to create a “patriotic opposition front.” That would be, of course, an opposition that supports the president.
After all, most hints of opposition had been uprooted before the election. Opponents had either been court marshalled, detained or had “dropped out” under mysterious circumstances.
This regime was, and is, wary of being compared to Gamal Abdel Nasser, who rather than holding elections, would routinely receive a 99 percent ‘yes’ vote in plebiscites. The 2018 “elections” punctuated the immediate future of Egypt’s democratic process, or lack thereof. Any hope that Egyptian reformists have of affecting change through a political process, have been extinguished.
Oddly, many of the groups that had played important roles in the 25 January Revolution and other grassroots organisations made an honest attempt to engage with the elections, despite wide calls to boycott.
One group created a “Presidential Team” but later backed out. Other various exploratory committees were launched and one legitimate campaign emerged from it pushing for the candidacy of famed human rights lawyer and activist Khaled Ali. They eventually pulled out.
Other civilian opposition groups expressed a willingness to work with groups they may have considered adversaries in the past in order to affect change through political coalition building.
Former military Chief of Staff, Sami Anan, had announced his candidacy while deputising an outspoken independent academic and reformist, an anti-corruption judge. Anan was imprisoned after being publicly accused by the military of harming law and order by his candidacy declaration. This is despite his deep ties to the Mubarak regime.
Ultimately, there would be no coalition building and there would not be “others”. There would only be one group in power and one president. From that group, cardboard cutout “oppositions” will emerge here and there, but as the 2018 elections showed, even the fake opposition will not be allowed to utter a word of opposition. This is the situation of the Egyptian polity since 3 July 2013.
Fit to rule
The president claimed plausible deniability when asked about the lack of opposition saying that it's not his fault that the political forces in the country are not developed enough and ready to take on the responsibility, as he is.
This is the kind of justification this regime uses for any imposition of authoritarian and unitary will: pluralism is a recipe for discord, and the fragile state of the country demands strong leadership to be able to shepherd the country to safety.
If anyone is wondering where they have heard this notion before, the answer is easy: nearly any life-long autocrat will say this, especially if they are from the Middle East.
So how long does the current president intend on occupying his position? The short answer to this is that the past four years have taught us to not hold our breaths. During this period, the number of prisons and its occupants have multiplied, and are full of individuals that strived for change beyond the pale of the security-minded state that has been in power essentially since 1960.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its members have certainly been the first under the yoke of the purge. After 30 June 2013—and the Rabaa Massacre in August of the same year when nearly one thousand people were killed—the MB have been declared Public Enemy No. 1 and their active members were rounded up in incredibly high numbers.
Politically, the Brotherhood made mistakes and errors in judgement during their time in power. The country became more divided and some extremist groups and criminal organisations felt empowered during the MB’s time in power, and its lax security apparatus.
Then there was the clear overreach of the president in vastly increasing his powers through constitutional amendments. Morsi’s presidency was both a comedy of errors, and a series of unwise and ultimately failed political gambles.
After their fall, the MB was made to be the perceived “face of terrorism” and Public Enemy Number No 1. And despite the fact that many of the terrorist attacks were by groups that detested the MB - they were made the centre-piece of the war on terrorism and the first group to be dismantled.
The second priority in consolidating power involved a near-erasure of the memory of the 25 January Revolution to discourage any similar forms of protest. This year, specifically, saw a new and broad range of known figures from the revolution face new charges and potentially long prison sentences. Political pluralism seems to be out of the picture.
Sisi’s staying power is also heavily rooted in the support of institutions that have for the last 64 years engineered methods to keep presidents in power for extended periods of time.
Economic stability brings longevity
Presently Egypt needs a national dialogue and a diverse group of opinion, both to ensure sound policy, and convince the public that the institutions and government are finally working for their sake.
After assuming the presidency, Sisi began implementing a series of economic policy initiatives and grand mega-projects that would require severe austerity measures and inflation.
The IMF loan agreement launched in 2016 would remove all energy subsidies and greatly decrease government spending. Egypt was indeed approaching a fiscal crisis and a breaking point due to dwindling foreign reserves, and a drastic solution was necessary. However, historically high inflation rates have been placing an immense burden on lower and middle income families.
If this regime does not find ways to implement safety nets and enhanced social solidarity with many families, the risk of an unsustainable scenario for a significant percentage of the population, is very high.
Prolonged deterioration of household living standards could possibly lead to “bread riots” like Egypt experienced in the late 70s. Attracting investment to the country would also be crucial to maintaining support of the major private sector players.
Since 2015, this has been a major policy point, but only limited gains have been made so far. If history teaches us anything, a stabilised economy can guarantee a prolonged time in power.
Friends in high places
The one thing in favour of this regime so far is its ability to develop relations rapidly with global powers (and superpowers). Despite frequent questions in Western media about the human rights situation, world leaders like Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel have all decided to foster close relationships without addressing the elephant in the room.
Further, Sisi has also developed good relations with Russia, ingratiating himself with Putin as well, while being an important ally to Saudi Arabia. In fact Sisi had risked his political survival in Egypt in order to appease the Saudi claim to being the rightful sovereigns of two islands that had been sovereign Egyptian land for at least one century.
The Sauds as well as Western superpowers (even China) have found comfort in this president as a viable partner — for geopolitical, economic and security (War on Terror) advantages.
Given the notorious instability in the region, most global powers tend to support partners who help further their own interests, out of fear that an alternative regime would have a high likelihood of adopting different foreign policy priorities.
Perceptible changes in the world order—especially during the Trump presidency—means that an ally that can cooperate on issues like intelligence sharing or coordinating economic policy is a chance most countries would jump at.
Objectively, foreign policy has been one of the more successful endeavors of Sisi. But the forces at play in Egypt economically and politically mean that this regime still has more substantial maneuvering to do before achieving its evident goal of maintaining power for as long as possible.
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