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This article will explain how Abdel Fattah al-Sisi further consolidated power after completing his first term in office, which prompted a mixed response from the Egyptians. Eliminating his opponents in the race for the presidency in the 2018 elections was the first step.
Author: Khaled Mahmoud
Edited by: Erik Prins
In the presidential elections held in March 2018, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won a second term after obtaining 97.08 per cent of the votes. His only competitor at the time, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, received 656,534 votes.
However, the voter turnout, which was the main focus of the elections and an indication of Sisi’s popularity, reached 41.05 per cent, which is lower than the 2014 elections (47 per cent).
Eventually, Sisi would portray himself as the strongman who would bring Egypt stability, albeit in the face of declining popularity and an economic crisis. Eliminating his opponents in the race for the presidency in the 2018 elections was the first step.
A Bone-Crushing Battle
The political climate in Egypt during Sisi’s second presidential election in 2018 was markedly different from 2014. Most of those who announced running for the presidential post were violently deterred.
Although several candidates declared their intention to run against Sisi, the majority were excluded from the elections on various grounds. It was an indication that Egypt would not see the same level of political participation it had during the 2012 elections when, for the first time in their history, Egyptians were anxiously waiting for the election results .
As the campaign progressed, these potential competitors fell behind one after the other while Sisi moved steadily towards winning a second term.
Human rights organisations voiced concerns over the authorities’ exclusion of significant contenders in the elections. Among them were two former senior army leaders: retired Lieutenant General Sami Anan (who was subjected to a military court trial), and Ahmed Shafik, the former prime minister and air force commander (who was placed under house arrest). Military officer Ahmed Konsowa faced a trial for not obtaining prior permission, while human rights lawyer Khaled Ali and former parliament member Mohamed Anwar Sadat voluntarily withdrew from the race.
All potential competitors were subjected to direct and indirect arm twists that pushed them to withdraw. According to Mohamed Soliman, a Huffington Fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, the regime did not tolerate any opposition threatening Sisi’s second term.
During the elections, Sisi’s competitors withdrew, citing personal reasons, political pressures, legal problems, and unfair competition. In some cases, they were even arrested for alleged violations of candidacy rules.
Ironically, the only candidate allowed to submit his documents in the final moments before the deadline was Moussa Mostafa Moussa, the leader of the El-Ghad Party, loyal to Sisi’s government.
Before that, Moussa had been member of a campaign supporting Sisi’s re-election for a second term. He had only decided to run after being persuaded by pro-government MPs.
Just minutes before the candidacy deadline, Moussa became Sisi’s only competitor after submitting his candidacy papers to the National Elections Authority. Many of his potential competitors had withdrawn from the race and calls for boycotting the ballots emerged.
In an attempt to encourage voters to participate, Sisi even called on them to vote against him, stating that it was better for all eligible voters to participate and for one-third of them to say “no” because “it conveys a beautiful image of Egypt too.”
However, the situation became even more ridiculous when the country’s Grand Mufti joined the fray in response to calls for a boycott and called on the Egyptians to participate in the elections, to “display popular participation before the world’s eyes and show the freedom and unity Egyptians have”.
The situation reminded the Egyptians of a similar scenario during the era of former President Hosni Mubarak. At that time, the Egyptians mocked the president’s posters and propaganda calling for his re-election in the absence of any real competition.
This bitter joke reflected Egypt’s equally bitter political reality, where real politics had dried up, allowing Sisi to achieve a sweeping victory in an electoral race that saw the largest percentage of invalid votes in the country’s history.
Sisi’s victory confirmed his control over the country as he was the only player of a game, the rules of which he set.
Although Egypt has a history of forming political parties and parliamentary bodies, it has largely been symbolic. Following the July 1952 revolution, all presidential incumbents did not go for less than full consensus.
The Parliament in His Pocket
President Sisi consolidated his control over the parliament through the Nation’s Future Party loyal to him. The party won most seats in the 596-seat parliament during the several-week-long elections that concluded in December 2020. However, the elections saw a voter turnout of only 29 per cent.
The party confirmed its dominance by winning approximately 75 per cent of the contested seats. As a result, its number of seats increased from 57 seats in the previous council to 315.
Despite his earlier promise to not change the constitution and not run for a third presidential term, Sisi went back on his word. In April 2019 constitutional amendments were passed that would enable him to remain in power until 2030. The amendments were approved through a popular referendum, in which 44.33 per cent of 27 million eligible voters participated, with 88.83 per cent in favour and 11.17 per cent against.
The parliament later gave Sisi more authority by amending the constitution to prolong his presidential term, allowing him to remain in power.
After one-fifth of the parliament members proposed the amendments, including the former spokesperson for the Tamarod movement, which has since transformed into a platform to support Sisi, the presidential term was extended from four to six years. Furthermore, a transitional article was added, which allows Sisi to run for two new terms of six years each after his second presidential term ends in 2022. This would enable him to remain in power until 2034.
According to Dr Mohamed Fadel, the Egyptian parliament is in a “pitiable status” filled with “independents” with no political affiliations, becoming a venue for sycophants.
The 2019 Protests
On September 20, 2019, small protests erupted in multiple cities across Egypt, causing significant confusion among decision-makers, according to Amr al-Shobaki, an expert on political and parliamentary affairs at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Despite the ruling elite’s dismissal of the notion of another protest movement, stringent security measures were put in place to avert such a scenario.
The protests were called for by Mohamed Ali, a former contractor who had worked with the army. Ali had made allegations of corruption, which the authorities denied. Egyptians, suffering from the economic crisis and rising poverty, responded by calling for an end to corruption and Sisi’s ouster.
Human rights organisations reported that the authorities launched the largest crackdown campaign in the country’s history, arresting more than 2,300 people, most of whom were investigated as part of a single case.
Amnesty International has raised concerns about this being the largest criminal case related to demonstrations in Egypt’s history.
Although the call for these protests was made by a former Egyptian contractor and artist who is not popular or credible, it caught the attention of some members of the US Congress. It exposed the mistake of US policy towards Sisi, considering him “the great leader who pulled Egypt out of a turmoil.”
In response, Sisi emphasised that “the state and the people are one and the same”, referring to the protests and how the state dealt with the protestors. He made his statement after a video clip about human rights was displayed, which entails that Egypt’s security and stability are among the most important rights of its people.
Sisi’s Plummeting Popularity
Sisi appears unconcerned about his declining popularity among the Egyptians, preferring to focus on maintaining the pace of his mega projects, despite the escalating economic crisis and the declining value of the Egyptian pound. That situation eroded much of his popular support compared to before he took power in 2014.
The current dictatorship in Egypt is unique, according to a study published by Rowaq magazine. “Unlike Nasser, Sisi need not grapple with any strong partners or competitors controlling the sovereign agencies, nor is his regime beset by structural rifts like that of Mubarak, which was weakened by conflicts within the security apparatus,” stated the researchers.
There is no criticism in Egyptian media due to government censorship before articles are printed. Mohamed Abdel Hafeez, a member of the Journalists Syndicate, confirmed that government inspectors in publishing houses are tasked with censoring articles and have prevented the publication of pieces that oppose the 2019 constitutional amendments.
According to a report by the Tahrir Institute For Middle East Policy, the increasing repression in Egypt could potentially lead to an outburst of spontaneous and chaotic protests.
Nevertheless, pro-regime media volunteers have boldly claimed that the current president is more popular among citizens than any former president, without any evidence to support their statement. They attribute his popularity to utilising his reputation and popularity among the Egyptians to carry out his economic reform programme.
Some believe that in light of the prevailing state of frustration in the country, the political leadership and the president should focus on finding a way to turn this frustration into a positive force in the coming period.
According to the Egyptian Interior Minister, effective popular support has contributed to declining crime rates.
Sisi himself acknowledged that the future will be different and warned that the upcoming parliament might see inquiries into the army’s economy. He called on the military institutions to avoid internal differences and to be, in his words, “one cohesive and understanding bloc” in anticipation of what is to come.
Sisi complained that the revolution “disassembled” all the rules and restrictions in Egypt before 2011. He cited that before ’25 January’, it was impossible to “mention anything about the armed forces without a warrant from military intelligence.”
The Economic situation
President Sisi has focused on achieving the development path proposed by Farouk al-Baz, an Egyptian geologist at NASA. This strategy entails expanding railways, building an eight-lane highway, and providing water and electricity lines. Moreover, sophisticated cities and towns will be constructed on 10.5 million feddans of unutilised land west of the Nile River.
However, some believe that the main problem in the country is the military’s overwhelming control over the economy. The military’s empire has expanded to encompass an array of industries, ranging from petrol stations to mineral water, olives, fish farming, and carmaking.
As per the agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the end of 2022, the government has committed to withdrawing the state and armed forces from non-strategic sectors. The IMF has urged the Egyptian authorities to end preferential treatment for state-owned enterprises, including those owned by the military. These enterprises will be required to submit financial accounts to the Ministry of Finance on a biannual basis. The ministry should ensure open access to these data, along with information on the subsidies to state-owned enterprises.
Such a step is seen as a strike at the heart of Egypt’s power structure, as it may involve selling off some state-owned companies to raise money and strip military-owned companies of tax breaks and other privileges, enabling private businesses to compete.
The country is experiencing high inflation rates and rising prices of essential goods and services. The government, headed by Madbouly since 2018, has faced criticism for its inability to manage the economic situation.
Some have observed changes in Sisi’s behaviour and language apparently attempting to counter the significant economic pressures Egypt is currently experiencing, including the country’s substantial debt because of Sisi’s building sprees.
Sisi is betting on the fact that he has not engaged in any external ventures or wars. He places most of the blame for the economic crisis on the political situation in Egypt that followed the ousting of the late President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. He asserts that the coronavirus pandemic and the Russian-Ukrainian war have complicated matters for his administration.
The currency’s devaluation and the enormous strain on the economy and Egyptian citizens is expected to represent the government’s most pressing challenge in 2023, according to Mirette Mabrouk, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Over the past few years, Sisi has sought to restructure state-owned companies and assets by injecting them with private funds rather than selling majority stakes or transferring management to private sector shareholders.
However, he has finally begun to realise the gravity of his chosen path. After ignoring criticisms about the priorities of his mega projects, Sisi made a significant concession to contain the controversy surrounding them. Finance Minister Mohamed Maait announced launching a social dialogue on the new budget for 2023/2024 to determine public spending priorities, following what he described as “presidential directives”.
Sisi’s recent move appeared to be a publicity stunt to indicate that he is now attempting to backtrack from his earlier choice of sacrificing his popularity to pursue difficult reforms without considering the Egyptians’ priorities.
Lack of Popular Support
Sisi has long warned against measuring popular satisfaction regarding economic reforms solely based on their direct impact on citizens. Instead, he believes that popular support should serve as a mobilisation for an ideological path to build the state, after Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during World War II.
Sisi believes that his government lacks a sufficient “popular base.” During one of his speeches in 2022, he stated: “The credibility of the political leadership and government have not been strong enough to serve as a foundation for embarking on a difficult and arduous roadmap that requires years of hard work.”
According to Sisi, decision-makers and security agencies are concerned about popular reactions to the economic reforms undertaken by the state.
In the meantime, the economy seems to have become more “free”, while society’s right to oversee its property has been taken away, according to a report by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
According to the IMF, the Egyptian authorities “took bold policy actions to unwind prior policy distortions, including a shift to a flexible exchange rate while taking measures to help shield the Egyptian population from a mounting cost-of-living crisis.”
By the end of 2022, many of these good intentions had disappeared as the cost of living increased rapidly, and the escalating economic crisis fueled anger throughout the country.
Regardless, Sisi remains a strong defender of his national projects and ambitious plans, viewing them as necessary components rather than mere luxuries.
Sisi has also previously defended his continued construction of presidential palaces, stating that they are for the new state he is establishing, not for his personal use.
Egypt’s foreign policy has focused on promoting itself internationally as a bulwark against terrorism and illegal migration flows.
Cairo has been leveraging dual threats of irregular migration and terrorism to normalise and expand relations with Europe and the United States.
Sisi was aware of Western and US reservations about him as soon as he took power. However, he overcame these reservations and successfully avoided possible stagnation in the relations with the US or the EU, as was the case at the beginning of his first term.
Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, believes that Egypt’s economic freefall provides an opening for US assistance and leverage, given Sisi’s willingness to “shift his problematic stances on human rights and foreign policy.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Cairo in January 2023 may have been proof of this. It was seen as an opportunity to make concrete and lasting improvements in human rights to further enhance bilateral relations. This matter is a priority for members of the US Congress and is in the interest of the Egyptians.
However, the United States’ usual exploitation of human rights as a means of political and media pressure on Cairo proved to be limited. Blinken did not comment on the fact that Egypt ignored calls from the US and other governments to release political prisoners.
He has long prided himself on Egypt’s zero-tolerance policy toward refugee camps on Egyptian soil and illegal land or sea crossings from its borders.
He has promoted the idea that Egypt stands as an impregnable wall thwarting any attempts to cross the Mediterranean to southern Europe.
Egypt in the region
Sisi’s value as a strategic ally for the US and Europe has been boosted by regional developments, particularly in such a politically unstable region.
Sisi’s policy on international relations was evident during the 2019 Libyan crisis, as well as in the current situation in occupied Palestine, where he put pressure on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Cairo’s ties with Qatar and Turkey were hostile at the start of his rule. However, Sisi found a way to remedy his relationship with Qatar and meet with its Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and exchange visits with him, signalling a relative end to their disputes.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River has been one of the most troubling challenges Sisi has to confront. His strategy has fluctuated between threats and appeals to the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, to no avail.
Sisi’s policy revolves around full alignment with Sudan and developing a network of economic and military alliances in Central and East Africa and the African Horn to maintain geopolitical pressure and project power and influence in the Nile Basin, alongside diplomatic efforts towards a political solution.
While the Egyptian Foreign Ministry always brags about alleged success in addressing complex regional and international challenges, there is a necessity for a well-defined and clear vision to guide the development and implementation of Egyptian foreign policy, according to Hagar Gamal, a political science researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Studies.
At first, these countries provided aid to Egypt due to fears that a potential economic crisis could result in the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they consider a significant threat. Nonetheless, this aid later became a point of contention and added strain to Egypt’s foreign policy.
With the Muslim Brotherhood out of the picture, Saudi Arabia has marked the end of unconditional financial aid, indicating the Gulf creditors want large stakes in some of Egypt’s well-performing economic assets.
February 2023, this new Saudi stance brought about a dispute between media outlets in Cairo and Riyadh, which Sisi has resolved. He declared that he would not tolerate an insult to “the Saudi brothers” and called on all parties to avoid slipping into discord.
Relying on Gulf funds has limited the freedom of Egyptian decision-makers, who have their plates full addressing Egypt’s economic issues, evident in different perspectives between Egypt and the Gulf on issues such as Yemen, Libya, and Sudan.
Despite Cairo’s push for its independence in decision-making and foreign policy, its current economic crisis has become the biggest dilemma that prevents Egypt from following a foreign policy that protects its vital interests.
Despite starting as one of the most popular presidents in Egypt since Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sisi’s popularity has significantly declined over the past eight years.
Egypt is currently led solely by Sisi, with no vice president in place. It is worth mentioning that 15 of the 18 people appointed as vice president during Egypt’s history were service members before the post was abolished under the 2012 constitution.
While he presents himself as the strongman who brought stability to the country, the rising frustration necessitates him to be cautious out of concern for an unexpected popular reaction.
Sisi risks falling off the cliff through monopolising power, in the absence of a thriving political and partisan life, excluding the opposition, and taming the media under the regime’s control.
The popular credit that propelled Sisi to power is deteriorating under the dual burden of the economic crisis and his reluctance to implement the IMF’s demands (lifting the military’s tight grip on key economic and financial sectors).
Sisi, aspiring for a new presidential term in 2024, does not fear a popular uprising or a new revolution arising from public frustration. However, he still needs to realise when the current economic crisis would be unbearable.
In Egypt, the president controls the news as well as decision-making without any checks or balances, while individual tendencies and personal characteristics dominate the country’s political climate. Despite the sorry state of affairs, there is no indication that the president intends to change this political system, which raises concerns about whether the country will see any positive developments during Sisi’s future term.