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tahrir square feb 2011

Tahrir square in February 2011

There were no doubts that the Egyptian presidential elections of March 26 would have confirmed the victory of General Abdel Fattah al Sisi and his “right” to a second term in office.

After all, following the military coup that ousted president Morsi on July 3, 2013, thus reinstating the military dictatorship that governed the country since Nasser’s time, every election in Egypt is just an empty ritual with a known victor.

Everyone knows that the administration of power in Egypt is in the hands of the military. The brief parentheses of the Muslim Brothers was just dictated by the social circumstances after the beginning of the Arab Spring and the popular uprisings. After a technical stretch to recover from the surprise, everything went back to normal. In the Egyptian political comedy, tragedies turn to farce. The military coup d’état was transformed, in the imagination of the military leaders, into a revolution.

The opposition cannot run for election

Al Sisi didn’t have any valid contender in the elections. The real opposition was blocked by preposterous bureaucratic issues or by intimidation. Others yet were arrested before they could present their candidacy. There was a systematic elimination of any and all antagonists to the General.

The Muslim Brothers were removed from the elections with a presidential decree. Just to make things clear and transparent, one of the candidates closest to the Brothers, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fattah, was arrested.

Another former military, Sami Annan, was also arrested. The official motivation was that he had failed to ask for an authorization from the military to run for office and that he had appeared on television wearing a uniform.

For the former Prime Minister and General, Ahmed Shafiq, a man with close ties to the deposed president Mubarak, the intimidation came from the United Arab Emirates, one of Al Sisi’s main sponsors, where Ahmed had sojourned before being invited to leave. Ahmed got the message and withdrew his candidacy.

Mohammed Anwar Sadat, the nephew of the murdered Egyptian president, had members of his staff arrested and was refused the use of hotels, conference halls and appearances on television. He also got the message and withdrew from the competition.

Lawyer Khalid Ali, an activist for human rights, ended up in prison during a demonstration. He was sentenced to three months behind bars for having “offended public decency”. Another withdrawn candidacy.

Colonel Ahmed Konsowa, another military would-be candidate, is facing 6 years behind bars for expressing views that were contrary to the decor of the military ordering.

In the end, there was but one adversary left, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, practically unknown, who was authorized to run for office against the General at the last minute as the leader of the “Al Ghad” (“Tomorrow”) party, which backed President Al Sisi himself.

moussa mustafa moussa

Moussa Mustafa Moussa

The violation of human rights

Amid such an electoral context, one that was heavily influenced by intimidation and arrests, by the recurrent introduction of measures that limit individual freedom – from 2013 until today – various international organizations have pointed their finger at the regime. One of them was Human Rights Watch, another was the representative for human rights of the UN, the Jordanian prince Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, who accursed the regime of threatening the opposition. Obviously, the continued abuses by the police with torture, indiscriminate arrests, forced closures of newspapers and arrest of journalists, closing of websites hostile to the regime, depict a regression of the already precarious social and political system in the country, with numerous violations of civil rights, but especially violations of human rights.

The prisons are filled with opposition members; in the order of tens of thousands. In practice, paradoxically, the brief period of participated democracy that followed the demonstration in Tahrir Square during the so-called Arab Spring, which ended with the arrival of the Muslim Brothers, now serves as a pretext for an even greater oppression by the regime, hidden behind the facade of the “justified” necessity of the fight against terrorism.

The situation

The country’s economic situation is particularly difficult and has even worsened since Al Sisi’s rise to power. The poverty rate reached 28% of the population. The local currency has lost 35% of its value after the exchange with foreign currencies was unblocked. There was an attempt to liberalize the economy by withdrawing subsidies to consumer goods and basic commodities, with had a negative impact on the population. This contraction of expenditure did not involve the military sector, which saw weapon expenses hiking strongly and budgets reach the ceiling.

The promises

Al Sisi promised to develop the Sinai even though, with terrorism currently running rampant in the deserted peninsula, the task seems nearly impossible.

He then promised to do away with bureaucracy, to cut taxes and to stimulate investments. It is not clear with what money he intends to do all of the above. Maybe with the money received from the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with which Egypt is solidly lined up on various middle eastern issues. Or maybe with the cash from the International Monetary Fund, which lately disbursed 12 billion dollars in aid.

Another recurring promise is to modernize the country, which is certainly a priority, but it clashes with the lack of funds and the ground-low level of infrastructure and services.

The fight against corruption is another strong suit of the regime’s propaganda, although the corruption finds room mostly inside the regime’s folds.

A democracy that doesn’t exist

It is the fourth time in Egyptian history that presidential elections are held. Among these, this is the second time with Al Sisi as president.

There was an election under Mubarak in 2005 (participated by 27% of voters), one in June 2012, won by the leader of the Muslim Brothers, Mohammed Morsi, with over 51% of votes (participated by 52% of voters). This last election was perhaps the only real competition between opposing candidates that saw a significant participation by voters. Seen the Egyptian electoral context of late, the result seemed like a hint in the direction of participated democracy.

But the Egyptian elections were not held to decide whether Al Sisi would win. This was already an ascertained fact. The only reason for holding said elections was to see how many of the 60 million voters, out of a 100-million-strong population, would actually cast a ballot.

The so-called alternative candidacy of Mustafa Moussa was just a facade. In the traditional manipulation of votes, those attributed to Moussa (roughly 3%) just served the purpose of showing that an opposition did exist (in 2014, the opposition reached exactly the same result).

The Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition of 8 parties, had invited the population to boycott the elections. But one must take into account the fact that to not vote means to show hostility towards the government. Many just voted out of fear.

Excluding the effect of manipulations, the participation was “officially” less than 42%, which is even less than in 2014, when there was an “official” 47% of Egyptians casting their votes. The plebiscite that the regime hoped for and that would have legitimized Al Sisi’s hold to power, did not occur.

Al Sisi and the military and economic establishment

Al Sisi doesn’t govern with his own, personal, power but with the power granted to him by Egypt’s military leaders. There were recently rumors of a possible coup d’état to oust him. This happens every time that popular malcontent grows and people tend to target the president while saving the military castes. Al Sisi’s power is tied to the power of the military and of the security services that allow him to exercise power seen that the president never founded his own, personal, political party. In practice, the General answers to the Supreme Military Council.

Although Al Sisi removed the Chief of Staff and the head of General Services, placing his own trusted men and family members in key roles, the support that he enjoys from the military is not so solid as it would seem.

After all, the military and civil industries, the health sector, the construction sector, public investments and general services – in short, much of the country’s economy – is in the hands of the military. Even the widening of the Suez canal was carried out by the army. But when the economy falters, it is not just do to popular malcontent, but also to military malcontent.

al sisi trump

Al Sisi with King Salman, Melania and Donald Trump

A useful military dictatorship

The stability of Egypt, albeit to the detriment of democracy and human rights, is convenient to many countries. Egypt and its policy, its military prowess, its demographic weight in the Arab world, plays a central role in issues of security and terrorism in the Middle Eastern and North African theater.
Egypt is a force to be reckoned with both in the relationships with Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. It talks and mediates with Hamas, it opposes the military expansion of Iran, it is involved in the war in Yemen, it has close ties with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries, it is an essential partner in the US Middle Eastern policy, it enjoys backing by France and is on the front line of the fight against the ISIS, both in the Sinai and in Libya. In a strongly conflicting theater, Egypt guarantees the balance of interests of many regional and international actors. So if Egypt is governed by a military regime, if there are violations of human rights and the total absence of democracy, so be it.

The future?

The Egyptian population, which was never instructed or sensitized on the concept of democracy (they have never had a taste of it) and of human rights, is more inclined to accept a dictatorship if it produces social stability coupled with economic prosperity.

So the parameter used to evaluate Egypt’s system is not democracy but rather the bettering of the population’s living standard. Terrorism is fueled by social malcontent and, if this happens in the most populous Arab country, it represents a huge problem.

We must not be surprised if Al Sisi, after a second and final term, according to Egypt’s constitution, will try to change regulations to become, like his predecessors, president for life. That is, if he isn’t ousted in the meanwhile by another military coup.

Al Sisi presents himself as a savior of his people and a man who can solve the economic and security problems in the country: He even stated that democracy is a luxury item that Egypt cannot afford for the time being.

So far, the General has only saved the power of the military elite, which ran the risk of extinction with the advent of the Muslim Brothers.

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