Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Abdelfattah al-Sisi and the Military Coup

Egypt- Morsi
Supporters of Muhammad Morsi protest against the constitution referendum, 3 January 2014 / Photo HH

Modifying Morsi’s Constitution

Soon after the military coup, on 3 July 2013, that ousted Muhammad Morsi, the first elected president in Egypt, the army and the coalition it formed announced a roadmap for transition that was supposed to last nine months, beginning with the suspension of the constitution.

The first step was modifying the constitution passed during Morsi’s reign, which was often contested as nondemocratic and unrepresentative because most non-Islamist representatives withdrew from the committee that assembled it.

With no parliament, the interim president appointed a 10-member committee of legal experts to make suggestions for modifications. They passed these on to another (appointed) 50-member committee, headed by failed presidential candidate Amr Mousa, which was responsible for drafting a new constitution.

The committee was appointed on 1 September 2013 and handed the final draft constitution to interim president Adly Mansour on 3 December 2013, who called for a public referendum on the constitution in mid-January.

Unlike the committee that drafted the 2012 constitution when Morsi was in power, the new committee was seen to be more representative of the various parties and sects of Egypt, with involvement of the various churches, Al-Azhar University, the judiciary, and most political parties. Unlike the previous one, none of the members withdrew from the committee, even when, as the draft was being finalized, conflict broke out over a change in wording that was made by Mousa but not shared with the members of the committee.

The new constitution removed some of the stricter Islamic articles that had been introduced in the Islamist-backed constitution, such as a contentious article that extended the sources of Islamic jurisdiction and their impact on lawmaking. It also gave more rights to disabled people and women but did not go as far as many campaigners had hoped.

On the other hand, it strengthened the military and police further and retained military trials, which many activists had campaigned strongly against. In fact, one clause states that, for the next two presidential electoral cycles, the minister of defence is to be appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, not by the president or prime minister. Article 207 forms a new Supreme Council of Police, which will be involved in any new laws proposed regarding the police, dashing the hopes of many activists who were still calling for broad police reforms.

Constitutional referendum

Elections Egypt 2014, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi / Photo Facebook
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi / Photo Facebook

In the month before the referendum, the media launched a huge campaign urging people to vote “yes” for the constitution, painting it as a patriotic duty and an important step in fighting terrorism. With the banned Muslim Brotherhood refusing to accept the new constitution, the vote was hailed as a call of support for the roadmap, the army, and Abdel Fatah Sisi, the minister of defence and strongman who led the ouster of Morsi.

The voting, which took place on 14 and 15 January 2014 (and one week earlier for voters overseas), showed resounding support for the constitution. An overwhelming 98.1% voted in favour of it.The turnout was 38.6%, which was low but greater than the 33% that voted in the referendum on Morsi’s constitution.

Media and politicians stressed that passing the constitution would bring about much needed stability in a country that had been in turmoil for three years and would end economic woes; these arguments prompted nearly 20 million voters to cast a “yes” vote. The vote was seen also as a call for Sisi to run for the presidency in the upcoming elections, after he hinted before the referendum that he would view a strong “yes” vote as a message from the people to him to do so.

The atmosphere during the referendum was jubilant in most of the polling stations, with speakers blaring patriotic songs in support of the army, women dancing to the music, and thousands waving posters of Sisi.

However, most young people boycotted the referendum, frustrated and alienated by the general anti-revolutionary vibes being spread by the media. They were clearly missing from the long lines at voting stations, unlike in previous referendums and elections.

“I decided to boycott the referendum and probably all upcoming elections because I’m back to feeling that my voice, and that of my generation, will not change anything in a cooked election,” said Karim El-Degwi, an activist who took part in the January 2011 uprising against Mubarak. “I refuse to give legitimacy to the current regime with all its brutality and repression and, like many other young people, I feel a sense of total despair that we can bring about reform or really change this country for the better for various reasons.”

Additionally, many activists and human rights groups argued the vote was neither fair nor democratic, due to a fabricated fear of anyone casting a “no” vote and to the suppression of freedom of expression. One week before the referendum, at least seven young activists from the centrist opposition party Stronger Egypt were arrested in three different incidents for carrying and hanging posters calling for a “no” vote, with charges such as “distributing fliers, attempting to overthrow the regime”.

Hundreds of Islamist and secular activists were arrested in the run-up to the referendum, with many facing broad and intense defamation campaigns in the media for their stances against the constitution, and streets across Egypt were flooded with billboards and signs calling for a “yes” vote.

There were also several reports of people being harassed or attacked, by voters waiting at polling stations, for voting against the constitution, which further increased, indirectly, the atmosphere of fear. According to Human Rights Watch, 11 people were killed across the country in clashes between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and security forces.

Transparency International, an anti-corruption monitoring group that sent an observer delegation to the referendum, released a statement saying that “media coverage in state and private media was largely one-sided. Public officials openly took position for a yes vote in the referendum” and that “politically motivated violence, intimidation and repression from state and non-state actors limited and conditioned citizens’ political and electoral participation.”

Although in this period Egypt was officially led by interim president Adly Mansour and a coalition supported by the army, the popularity and dominance of strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (particularly his role in the ousting of Morsi) paved the way for him to be elected as president of Egypt in the presidential elections that were organised in May 2014.

2014 Presidential elections

Elections Egypt 2014, Supporters of candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi celebrate on Tahrir Square in Cairo, 28 May 2014 / Photo eyevine / HH
Supporters of candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi celebrate on Tahrir Square in Cairo, 28 May 2014 / Photo eyevine / HH

With the constitution vote behind it, the Egyptian government moved on to the next phase of the roadmap laid out after the coup that removed Muhammad Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president—new presidential elections.

After Morsi’s ouster in June 2013, interim president Adly Mansour officially ran the country. In early March, he issued the presidential-elections law and called on Egyptians to cast their votes on 26–27 May 2014.

Unlike the 2012 elections that brought Morsi to power, there were only two candidates running for the country’s highest office: former Egyptian defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the coup that removed Morsi, and Hamdeen Sabahi, the Nasserite founder of the Egyptian Popular Current political party.

Long before the elections, people took part in large demonstrations calling on al-Sisi to run for the presidency, under a campaign called “complete your favor.” He remained enigmatic about his plans, however, and announced only a week before the electoral commission began accepting proposals from candidates, on 31 March 2014, that he would run for the presidency.

Sabahi, who came in third in the 2012 elections, announced his bid for the presidency on 8 February 2014, even though many young people associated with the 2011 revolution called on him to boycott the election, saying that it would be unfair and biased and the results predetermined and that he would only be giving it legitimacy by participating. With the backing of a handful of small political parties, however, he insisted on running, positioning himself as the candidate of the revolution.

All other prominent politicians refused to participate in the elections. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the founder of the Strong Egypt party, announced that he would not run for presidency and that his party would boycott the elections due to the “lack of democracy.” Khalid Ali, a labor lawyer popular with young revolutionaries, also announced that he would boycott the elections, calling it a “farce.” On the other hand, Ahmed Shafiq, who was Morsi’s main contender for the 2012 elections, and Amr Moussa, who headed the committee that drafted the 2013 constitution, both announced that they would not run and would instead support al-Sisi’s campaign.

Several youth movements launched a campaign calling on Muhammad ElBaradei, who played a pivotal role in the 2011 revolution, to run for president, but that did not happen.

2014 Elections | Public Campaign

Elections Egypt 2014, Supporters of candidate Hamdeen Sabahi gather during a rally in central Cairo, 23 May 2014, Photo eyevine/ HH
Supporters of candidate Hamdeen Sabahi gather during a rally in central Cairo, 23 May 2014, Photo eyevine/ HH

Many public figures and political parties, ranging from the left to the right, quickly announced their support for al-Sisi. Even the Islamist Salafist Nour party announced its support for the former defense minister, as did former president Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed after the 2011 revolution.

Al-Sisi announced he did not want “a traditional campaign” and that he refused to spend a large amount of money on it, but soon after campaigning began, large billboards sprang up all over Egypt calling on people to vote for him. In contrast, Sabahi had a only few small posters pasted to walls along streets.

Almost all private TV channels and talk shows across the country showed a strong bias towards al-Sisi, some even stressing that voting for him was the only patriotic choice, questioning the motives of Sabahi and his supporters. Al-Sisi did not engage directly in any campaigning on the ground, choosing instead to make TV appearances hosted by people that were known to to be strong supporters of his campaign. By contrast, Sabahi got much less air time but was involved in heavy campaigning across the country.

2014 Elections | Voting days

Even though al-Sisi, in his last TV appearance, called on Egyptians to vote en masse, asking for a voter turnout of more than 80 percent, the reality was much different. On the first day of voting, there were hardly any lines outside the polling stations. Several election judges commented that they sat in the polling stations for hours and saw only a handful of voters. It was a stark contrast with the numerous votes over the preceding three years. The very low turnout worried officials, and the prime minister quickly announced that the second day of voting would be a public holiday and threatened non-voters with a large fine, hoping to increase the turnout. The media also launched a strong campaign urging people to vote, calling it their patriotic duty and attacking and degrading those who refused to go to the polls.

As in the referendum on the new constitution, many revolutionary youth groups announced they would boycott the elections. Many young people refused to vote, feeling alienated by the strong security crackdown, the regression of freedom since the coup, and the media’s increasingly anti-revolutionary stance and rhetoric.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which the regime had declared a terrorist organization, launched a campaign calling on people to boycott the elections.

The second day saw a slight increase in the turnout but still far from what the government had hoped for. This prompted the electoral committee to extend voting hours until 10:00 p.m. and then to extend voting to a third day. This decision was seen as a way to help Sisi’s image and to increase support for the elections, both of which would have been harmed by a low turnout, but the decision was opposed by the campaigns of both candidates.

Even though the third day had a similar turnout, the final official results were surprising. After the vote counting, the electoral committee announced a 47.5 percent turnout, comparable to the 52 percent turnout in the 2012 elections, but critics contested the figure, given the short lines at the polling stations and the measures that the government took to encourage people to vote.

Al-Sisi won the expected landslide, garnering 23.78 million votes (96.9 percent), more than ten million more than Morsi won in the 2012 election. Sabahi only won 3.1 percent of the vote, less even than the 4.07 percent of invalid votes.

Several rights groups challenged the validity of the elections, especially given the climate created by the heavy security crackdowns on dissent. During the elections, Sabahi’s campaign criticized the elections, saying several of its members were arrested during the voting. Upon conceding defeat, Sabahi said the official turnout figures were inflated and “an insult to the intelligence of Egyptians.”

Democracy International, which was one of only six international organizations allowed to monitor the elections process, withdrew after the second day, criticizing the government’s partisanship and the lack of fairness and independence of the electoral committee.

Whether the official count of the votes is accurate or not, it falls far short of the 80 percent turnout called for by al-Sisi in his last televised appearance in his run for the presidency. His supporters argue that this reflects his popularity, saying that people were so sure that he would win that many decided to stay home rather than braving long voting lines in the scorching summer heat, but his detractors see this as a sign of his waning popularity. Many Egyptians have been critical of his unclear plans for the economy and his lack of a presidential program during his campaign.

After three years of economic turmoil and a lack of security, many people had very high expectations of al-Sisi’s presidency. Unless he delivers tangible results early on, his position might not be secure, especially considering that mass street protests removed his predecessor after less than a year in office.

Al-Sisi's growing international legitimacy

international affairs egypt el-sisi rising international legitimacy
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he arrives at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 03 June 2015. Photo APAImages/REX Shutterstock

The popularly backed military coup that ousted President Muhammad Morsi in July 2013 resulted in a sharp decline in the North African nation’s relations with the West.

US President Barack Obama stopped short of calling the event a coup, which would have put an end to US aid, but he was quoted by the White House Press Office as saying that “traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual”. Delivery of military aid and equipment was halted for several months, however.

British Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the military intervention while Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called it “a major setback for democracy in Egypt”, warning that it could “seriously damage” the country’s democratic transition. Even the African Union suspended Egypt’s membership following the overthrow of the government.

In light of this international opposition, the new regime looked towards Russia and China, finding in them powerful allies. However, the tide began to turn in Egypt’s favour. Since becoming president in June 2014, former general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has travelled to several Western countries in the hope of rebuilding relations.

Al-Sisi’s main message has been a promise of “stability and security” and fierce opposition to Islamist militants at home and abroad. The Foreign Ministry quickly set about drumming up support for the new leader. His first 100 days in office were celebrated with a report released through the Egyptian Embassy in Washington highlighting his achievements, which range from the new Suez Canal project to reducing the budget deficit.

In September 2014, al-Sisi made his first visit to the US, where he addressed the UN General Assembly in New York. He was not invited to Washington DC, but the trip nevertheless provided an important public relations opportunity. An extensive media campaign saw billboards all over New York City welcome the president with the slogan “The new Egypt: Peace, prosperity and growth”. Many people viewed it as an attempt by the regime to bolster its image, shifting attention away from the deteriorating human rights situation and focusing instead on the economy and political stability.

Al-Sisi’s lukewarm reception by the United States was in stark contrast to Russia. On his first official visit to Moscow in August 2014, he was welcomed by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin who announced support for the new Egyptian regime. When Putin later visited Cairo in February 2015, he was greeted on a red carpet flanked by soldiers in full military dress. These warmer ties resulted in an agreement for Russia to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant as well as discussions on how to cut the dollar from bilateral trading, in a clear snub to the West.

In a bid to garner greater support in Europe, al-Sisi began his first tour of the continent by visiting France, Italy and Vatican City in November 2014. He was well received. Italy hailed him as a “strategic partner” of Europe and France agreed a deal for the sale of fighter jets. This despite calls by Amnesty International to suspend all transfers of arms to Egypt in view of the country’s “alarming” human rights record. El-Sisi also hoped to gain support for a unified position against militants in Libya, but here his efforts failed.

El-Sisi’s biggest test, however, came when he was invited to Berlin in early June 2015. While he was welcomed by President Joachim Gauck with full military honours, other German politicians openly condemned the visit. Norbert Lammer, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, cancelled his scheduled meeting with the Egyptian leader, telling the German media outlet Deutsche Welle that he did not “know what the president of an elected parliament and the president of a country that is regrettably not led democratically have to talk about”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was careful not to whitewash el-Sisi’s human rights record and reiterated Germany’s opposition to the death sentence, but she also stressed the importance of dialogue with the Arab world’s most populous country.

Al-Sisi travelled with a large entourage of journalists, media personnel and supporters intended to represent “an assembly of the people”. Efforts to plan and control the visit broke down, however, when a young journalist at a joint press conference began screaming that he was a “murderer”. Al-Sisi and Merkel were rushed out of the room amid chants of “down with military rule”.

Although the incident brought embarrassment for al-Sisi, his visit was also seen as a sign of his increasing legitimacy in the West, which has eyed the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya with concern. Many Western governments originally opposed to the coup that brought al-Sisi to power have begun to see him as a necessary partner in the fight against a new common enemy. Human rights groups, however, are worried this necessity will lead to a further crackdown on political dissent in the country

Fanack Water Palestine