Sisi’s Control of Egypt Is Absolute

Hellyer, The Atlantic, Apr 1, 2018

While his
election victory came as no surprise, consolidating further political control while
addressing economic and security challenges could be a challenge.
walk by a poster of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the upcoming
presidential election, in Cairo, Egypt March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El
It would
be a significant stretch to call Egypt’s recent election competitive.
There were only two candidates on the ballot: current President Abdel Fattah
el-Sisi, and one of Sisi’s supporters. It would also be difficult to describe
the environment in Egypt in the run up to the polls as free and fair, when
several candidates dropped out of the race, citing the closed
environment. Two of them were actually detained
by the authorities.
figures reported from Egypt’s state media on March 29 indicated that around 42
percent of the public turned out to vote during the elections, which were held
from March 26 to March 28, as compared to the state’s reported
47.5 percent in 2014, the last presidential election. Of those voters, 92
percent voted for Sisi, with a number of news reports indicating strong state efforts
to mobilize voters. Opposition groups claimed the exercise was unfair.
Indeed, spoiled ballots reportedly exceeded the number of ballots cast for
Sisi’s challenger by more than two to one—an even greater share than in 2014.
than look at this as another step in some kind of pluralistic democratic
transition in Egypt, it may be more fruitful to look to what comes next
The best
way to think about Sisi’s new term, his second, is as an extension of his
first. Because of strong support within most state institutions for the
incumbent, there was no doubt either inside or outside Egypt that he would
remain president. Few expect any policy resets, like a call to open up space in
civil society or developing larger social security nets for the country’s most
vulnerable. The priorities for Sisi’s second term remain the same as the first:
the economy and security.
A second
term for Sisi also means he will begin to seriously consider who will follow
him. He could groom a successor—who that would be is anyone’s guess at the
moment. Or he could accept that someone he does not support could take the
reins. That’s also rather difficult to imagine, given that the current
administration has narrowed the space in Egypt for creating a genuine political
alternative. Sisi may also just run for a third term. That would require an
amendment to the constitution, which limits presidents to two terms; that, in
turn, would require a public referendum.
As things
stand now, Sisi would seem to have sufficient support from Egypt’s business
elite, along with a substantial proportion of the networks of former President
Hosni Mubarak. The opposition to Sisi beyond the state apparatus is also too
weak to oppose such a move. Opposition from different actors such as
disaffected former supporters, pro-revolutionary activists and political
groups, and pro-Muslim Brotherhood stalwarts, does exist. But it is an open
question as to whether they can muster enough support to thwart any move to
change the constitution.
Yet, Sisi
shouldn’t be too comfortable. The low voter turnout, despite his vigorous
attempts to mobilize voters, suggested a significant level of public apathy.
That should concern Cairo. In the medium to long term, such apathy can disrupt
a healthy political system. Dissent exists in any political environment—but for
it to be absorbed, it requires channels of political expression. If those
avenues don’t exist, the consequences can be far more uncontrollable.
abroad, there are certainly foreign-policy issues that should trouble the Sisi
regime, including the Libyan quagmire, and the construction of the Renaissance
Dam in Ethiopia, which is due to be completed later this year and could have
serious consequences for Egypt’s access to Nile waters. Fortunately for Sisi,
President Donald Trump has supported him, and that’s unlikely to change—even
though there are some outstanding issues that need addressing. In particular,
Washington is unimpressed with Egypt’s friendly relationship
with North Korea. The Trump administration also wants to see Sisi lift its
restrictions on foreign NGOs in Egypt, which has led to several American NGO
workers being convicted in Egyptian courts.
bumps in the road currently exist, they’re likely to be smoothed over. Trump’s
rhetoric towards Sisi has been flattering. And his latest national security
adviser, John Bolton, is also supportive of Sisi. In Washington, Egypt is
largely perceived as a linchpin of stability in a rather unstable region, a
country that remains committed to the peace deal with Israel—an animating
feature of U.S. support for Cairo for decades.
When it
comes to Sisi’s relationship with Europe, it’s a mixed bag. But, as with the
United States, all troubles are overcome by Egypt’s cooperation on curbing
migration and taking on groups like the Islamic State. On both issues, most
European governments see Cairo as being on the “right side”—even while all
those governments regularly receive, and many publish, human rights reports
pertaining to abuses allegedly committed by Cairo. Gulf countries such as the
United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have had disagreements with Egypt over
the conflicts in Yemen and Syria. But, by and large, relations are good.
external partners of Cairo be more interested in encouraging different postures
and policies, ones that might in turn create a more sustainable and just order?
It’s an important question, but no state expressed such interest in encouraging
such things in Sisi’s first term, and it’s doubtful that will change in his
second. It’s doubtful that will change in his second term, unless there are
significant changes domestically in Egypt.