Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, now President of Egypt (File)

Originally posted on March 12 and now co-published in partnership with The Conversation:

In 2013 Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, in the coup replacing Egypt’s elected President Mohammed Morsi, said:

The armed forces have realized that the Egyptian people, who are calling on us to come to their support, are not in fact calling on us to assume power. Rather, they have called on us to perform public service and to secure essential protection of the demands of their revolution.

Six years later, the Egyptian Parliament is on the verge of endorsing Sisi’s rule until 2034, losing sight of the revolutionary demands which prompted millions of Egyptians to end the 29-year rule of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.

Contrary to those hopes in 2011, Egypt is turning even more authoritarian. Tens of thousands of citizens are languishing in overcrowded prisons where the most basic principles of human rights are neglected. Freedom of expression, media independence, and opposition movements are curbed in the name of State stability. Tortures, unjustified detentions, police assaults, and death sentences are the State’s strategic tools to silence protesters and those reluctant to accept the new authoritarianism.

The Imprisonment of Amal Fathy in Egypt

Contrary to those hopes in 2011, Egypt is turning even more authoritarian. Click To Tweet

“A New Phenomenon”

On February 14, 485 of 596 Egyptian MPs approved sweeping constitutional amendments to allow Sisi’s extension of power. The modifications to the national charter will lengthen the current four-year Presidential term to six years, expand the role of the army as a State supervisory body, and give the President the constitutional right to appoint judges and the prosecutor general. Although the new constitution retains the limit of two Presidential terms, Sisi — who was re-elected for the second time in March 2018 — will be granted a personal exception. The proposed amendments will be reviewed by the parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Committee within 60 days before another House of Representatives vote, followed by a national referendum.

“This is totally a new phenomenon,” Ahmed Samih, Director of the Egyptian NGO Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, tells me. “Neither Nasser nor the other presidents who followed him have been able to manipulate the State and the army to such a point as al-Sisi has done in the last 5 years”.

Moreover, they have adopted different techniques to keep the country under control. “While Nasser, and in part Sadat, addressed public opinion attention toward the fight against Israel, Sisi does not have an external enemy and his struggle is thoroughly focused on repressing the Egyptian people”, argues Samih.

Rule Through Repression

Throughout his stay on power, the Egyptian former army general has endorsed widespread draconian laws affecting freedom of expression and political rights. He has trampled on human and civil rights by detaining thousands among activists, journalists, students, bloggers, and political opponents, including the former Army Chief of Staff Sami Anan. He has curbed the independence of the judiciary system by stressing the judges’ pivotal role in fighting terrorists, Islamists, and any hint of opposition. He has hindered academic autonomy by reintroducing the direct appointment of university heads and deans, stripping the Egyptian faculties off a right they had gained at the end of 2011.

New legal dispositions, such as the anti-protest law (2013), the counter-terrorism law (2015), the NGOs law (2017), and the cybercrime law (2018) have substanitally increased Egyptian authorities’ power to prevent demonstrations, to hinder civil society organizations activities, to surveil, repress, and detain political opponents conveying their messages either on the web or in public spaces. Amendments to the nationality law proposed in 2017 may revoke Egyptian nationality to those citizens living abroad working with a foreign agency deemed to undermine the social or economic order of the state by force of by unlawful means.

These laws have been harshly criticized by human and civil rights international organisations for being excessively vague and loose in defining what constitutes a danger for the Egyptian socio-economic order. Moreover, legal and extra-legal measures – including torture, unfair trials, and forced disappearances – have been actively implemented by Egyptian police, intelligence services, and the military to ensure no one will obstruct Sisi from keeping his grip on power and militarizing every aspect of the life of Egyptian people.

“While Nasser, and in part Sadat, addressed public opinion attention toward the fight against Israel, Sisi does not have an external enemy and his struggle is thoroughly focused on repressing the Egyptian people”, argues Samih. Click To Tweet

Removing the Judiciary

Sisi’s power has been further enhanced by the approval of the recent constitutional amendments. A statement signed by at least 11 Egyptian civil society organisations – including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom, and the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies – explains, “The amendments eliminate all remnants of judicial independence by immunising exceptional legislation from judicial review while constitutionalising the president’s unilateral authority to appoint judicial leadership (notably the public prosecutor and chief justice of the supreme court) and annul the judiciary’s financial independence”.

Through these amendments, the constitutional separation of power will be destroyed and pave the way to an excessive concentration of authority in the President’s hands. Sisi has proved several times his reluctance to follow constitutional precepts – as in Egypt’s sale of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia without calling a popular referendum, as required by the Constitution. He has said the document was “written with good intentions, but good intentions are not enough”.

The recent Parliamentary vote crystallized this Egypt of authoritarianism and repression. Far from checking power, legislators gave away their responsibility as a democratic mechanism of the system. Only 16 MPs stood against the modifications.

Among them was Ahmed Tantawy, who emphasized how the approval of the new articles dangerously concentrated power in one man’s hands and represented “a setback and a return to what is worse than the pre-25 January [2011] system”. Other opponents, such as Khaled Youssef and Haitham al-Hariri, were subjected to harsh defamatory media campaigns — in both cases, using the pretext of a sexual affair as a pretext to whip up a public scandal over “moral indecency”.

Sisi still relies on the support of many Egyptians who see him as the last bastion against the spread of political and economic instability. However, others who previously looked to him are now disillusioned.

According to Samih, even staunch Sisi supporters are fading away amid the repression and State control and a stagnant economy struggling to recover tourism. The implementation of mega-projects benefit the army sector and its limited circles of private sub-contractors, but do not ease the living conditions of millions of Egyptians who live under the poverty line. “Also,” Samih says, “many Egyptian families involved in specific economic sectors, such as fishing, have been kicked out from the business, as the army has now gained an upper hand in their activities.”

The chances that disillusionment will lead to Sisi’s departure — or even a check on his ambitions — are slim. Even the military, often seen as the repository of power, is neutered by one of its own. During the last three years, Sisi implemented a series of reshuffles within the executive and a purge among army generals which have buttressed his undisputed authority. The detention of the former Army Chief of Staff, Sami Anan; the replacement of the once-powerful head of the Egyptian intelligence service, Khaled Fawzi, with a Sisi ally; the removal of the Defense Minister; and the appointment of Sisi’s sons – Mahmoud and Hassan – to key positions within the General Intelligence Directorate: all are clear signs of Sisi’s intention to out-Mubarak Mubarak, transforming his Presidency into a one-man rule where neither the Parliament nor the military will have many chances to oppose him.

Samih summarizes:

In the past, journalists and international organisations were prone to describe Egypt as a country controlled by the army. However, it’s very clear now that Sisi is leading the army and the country at the same time. Click To Tweet

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