In late March, former army general Abdel Fattah El-Sisi hung on to the Presidency in Egypt, with “only” 97% of the vote. After the detention or disqualification of other candidates, his lone competitor, Moussa Moustafa Mousa, barely reached 3%. Spoiled votes accounted for roughly 5% of the ballot papers, most of them hoping that famous football player Mohamed Salah — now leading Liverpool in England — could return to lead Egypt.
Although confirmed by a lower turnout than in 2014, El-Sisi is reinstalled almost five years after the coup that removed the Government of Mohamed Morsi — who is now imprisoned for life. What path for Egypt in the next 4 years?
A Continuity of Repression
Sisi’s power will ensure continuity with past repressive methods. Freedom of expression has dramatically declined, with hundreds of web sites, blogs and VPN service providers shut down by the authorities and dozens of journalists either arrested or prevented from doing their jobs. According to a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is #3 in the world for number of detained journalists (20), preceded only by Turkey and China. Reporting from North Sinai, where the Egyptian army has been involved in a long battle against terrorist groups since 2011, has become an almost impossible task.
The government has been playing the terrorism card to legitimate the continuation of the state of emergency, to justify the brutality of national security personnel, and to silence any kind of opposition. Far from being isolated cases, forced disappearances, tortures, and unlawful detentions have become consolidated practices.
Local and international organizations say about 106.000 people are behind bars, with 60,000 of them considered political prisoners. In 2015, at least 475 people were killed by the police and 700 were tortured, according to the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. Death sentences, which had been suspended in 2011, resumed in 2014 and are on the increase.
An Economic Achilles’ Heel
But the regime’s Achilles heel is the economy. GDP has grown, from a 2.9% increase in 2013/2014 to an expected level of 5.2% in 2017/2018, and foreign reserves are even exceeding the pre-2011 level. But public debt is soaring, and so is inflation: it is at 30.7%, with some goods and services rising in price by more than 100%.
The $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in August 2016 was intended to jump-start an economy battered by years of turmoil that have driven away investors and tourists. But the immediate 48% devaluation of the Egyptian currency and a cut on subsidies, both recommended by the IMF, have affected the poorest in Egyptian society.
The excessive concentration of capital on mega-infrastructure projects – such as a new capital, the enlargement of the Suez Canal, and the recent $10 billion investment deal with Saudi Arabia for the construction of a mega-city in South Sinai – have proved insufficient to ameliorate living conditions of low-income groups, especially the 25% of the population under the poverty line. Shortages of medicines and food contrast sharply with regime-fashioned success propaganda.
A “Constitutional” Control
Trying to hold the line against any economic turmoil and a repeat of the 2011 Revolution, El-Sisi has sought to amend the 2014 Constitution.
In 2015 the general said that the Constitution had been written with good intentions but “nations cannot be built with good intentions alone”. Two years later, Ismail Nasreddine, an independent MP, began to revise the good intentions with a bill extending the presidential term from four to six years. From there, it’s a further jump to ending term limits so Sisi can rule for life — overturning one of the few political gains of the 2011 uprising.
Amending the constitution is not an easy task. Article 226 says, “Texts pertaining to the re-election of the President of the Republic or the principles of freedom and equality stipulated in this Constitution may not be amended, unless the amendment brings more guarantees.” The “solution”? Set aside the current constitution and approve a new one with a different Presidential term through two popular referenda: one to cancel the current Constitution and another to ratify the update.
Despite his landslide victory in the staged election, Sisi’s popularity has been diminishing throughout the last four years. This downturn is not likely affect his ability to push through a new Constitution, but it is still a risk upon the popular will.
So for now, the regime may seek change not through referenda, but rather through a Parliament-led initiative. While an opponent might rise within the judiciary to try and block this, “Sisi has an upper hand all over the main powerful state institutions to such a point that it is not possible to talk about separation of powers in Egypt,” says Hassan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University
A One-Man Race?
Rumors say Sisi might tighten the circle of rule further through another constitutional amendment, this one enabling him to dismiss the Minister of Defense. The current Constitution protects the Minister from being sacked directly by the President, ironically through an amendment in 2013 to protect El-Sisi from being removed by Mohamed Morsi.
Sisi has not yet sought the amendment, but he has entrenched his authority by appointing his Chief of Staff as the director of the General Intelligence Service — because he does not trust some of his comrades and he desires to further narrow the country’s power circle”, evaluates Nafaa. The detention in late January of Sami Anan, the former army chief of staff and would-be Pesidential candidate, was another Sisi message to the military.
It is this one-man show that has overtaken the claims for democracy, dignity, and justice in 2011. But how long can it run?
Extensive use of repression, decisions about the army, the muzzle on media and NGOs, and the prevention of a competitive electoral climate — for now, Sisi has the lead.
But the ever-present economic issues and the shifting fortunes of rule could also rework a scene from The Dictator. Admiral General Aladeen of Wadiya sprints ahead in the first 10 meters by jumping the start and shooting at anyone trying to getting close to him.
In Egypt after the landslide, the other 90 meters remain.