What to expect from El-Sisi’s second term?
Increased repression, encroachment into commercial activity and widespread discontent. In the run up to the election, Maged Mandour outlines what we can expect from El-Sisi’s next term
With the advent of the Egyptian Presidential election (26-28 March), more accurately described as a de-facto referendum, one can start to piece together the primary features of El-Sisi’s next term. The behaviour of the regime before the elections, during which a number of presidential candidates either dropped out or were forced to withdraw through a combination of intimidation and direct repression, is a good indicator of the level of tolerance that the regime is likely to exercise toward the opposition, even within its own ranks. The eliminated candidates included Ahmed Shafiq, the ex-Prime Minister and air force commander who was forced to withdraw and remains under house arrest; Sami Annan, the ex-Chief of Staff who was arrested and is currently in military prison; and Ahmed Konsowa, an army colonel who is currently serving a six-year sentence for declaring his candidacy while in active service. These flagrant interventions by the regime in the electoral process caused the prominent Human Rights lawyer, Khaled Ali to withdraw his candidacy. This was followed by the arrest of Abdel Monem Abou El Fothouh, the head of the ‘Strong Egypt’ Party, after he gave a number of TV interviews critical of the regime. He was added to the terrorist list and is accused of liaising with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Given the behaviour already observed, one could argue that the expected level of repression in El-Sisi’s second term is bound to increase. The regime has already started to move against the legal opposition parties that have no connection to the Brotherhood. Apart from arresting its head, the regime also arrested the Secretary of the ‘Strong Egypt’ Party, Mohamed El Qassas, and the party is currently under threat of dissolution. Moreover, Islam Maraei, the Secretary General of the Social Democratic Party, was arrested from his home on 15 June 2017 and sentenced to three years in jail. This was preceded by a wave of arrests targeting members of the opposition parties, with charges including insulting the President and spreading false news. In addition to the above, in February 2018 the office of the Attorney General issued a statement warning against ‘the forces of Evil’. This terminology was used by the President and has no legal definition. The statement instructed the different District Attorneys and General Councils to monitor and arrest those ‘forces’, in true Orwellian fashion.
The expected increase in repression and restrictions against the legal opposition will continue to stifle political life in the country. El-Sisi, unlike Mubarak, does not have a mass civilian party that would allow him to ‘crowd out’, rather than repress, the legal opposition. This leaves the regime with limited options when dealing with the opposition, since its ability to stage-manage the political environment, in a manner that would maintain a democratic veneer, is limited.
The military elite has demonstrated a high level of cohesion around El-Sisi as their candidate of choice. This manifested itself in their reactions to the candidacy of Shafiq and Annan, both ex-military brass. Shafiq was quickly placed under house arrest and pressured to withdraw, while Annan, the ex-Chief of Staff, was rebuked by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in a short statement in which he was accused of violating military rules and attempting to create ‘discord between the people and the military’.
The swiftness and harshness of the reaction to the candidacy of both men reveals the level of support that El-Sisi commands amongst the top brass, despite signs of an internal struggle between El-Sisi and the powerful General Intelligence Service (GIS) – which some speculate was the cause of a recent reshuffle of the GIS leadership. The reasons for struggle are difficult to discern, however El-Sisi’s desire to consolidate control over all the organs of the state is likely at the root of this conflict, especially considering that the GIS had grown very powerful and independent under the leadership of the late Omar Suleiman. Nevertheless, El-Sisi will undoubtedly rely heavily on military support, thereby suppressing the establishment of a civilian ruling party, to the detriment of the political process.
In the realm of the economy, if the current trend continues one would expect an increased role for the military establishment, which has aggressively expanded its commercial activity over the past four years to the detriment of the private sector. The most notable example of which is the prominent role that the military has played in major infrastructure projects, like the new Suez Canal and the new administrative capital. This expansion will continue the trend of marginalising civilian elites, both in the economic and political spheres. When combined with a continuation of the neoliberal economic policies advocated by the IMF, which are likely to increase the pressure on the lower and middle classes, these policies are bound to fuel discontent, a critical element in the mass protests that erupted in 2011.
To counter the growing insurgency in the country, which has lately claimed a number of devastating attacks – the most memorable of which claimed the lives of 305 worshipers in a Sinai mosque in November 2017, El-Sisi has relied on the use of heavy weaponry, airstrikes and collective punishment techniques; this strategy, which shows no signs of adaptation to include methods of asymmetric warfare, has largely proven ineffective. The latest example is the ‘Comprehensive Operation’ launched in February 2018, after El-Sisi issued a directive to the armed forces to use brute force to cleanse Sinai after the mosque attack. If this approach is not adapted, if repression is not reduced and the Sinai tribal elites continue to be excluded from the counter-insurgency strategy (mostly due to a reluctance to arm the tribes and the military’s inability to protect the local population from reprisals by the insurgents), then the insurgency is likely to continue to grow.
Thus, one can argue that El-Sisi’s second term is expected to be more repressive than his first. The regime is expected to move more decisively against the legal opposition, lowering the chances of internal reform and increasing political polarisation. When combined with the increased role of the military, in both the economic and political spheres, the chances for developing a reformist wing within the establishment remain limited. In the realm of security, the insurgency will, most likely, evolve, becoming more lethal as the regime continues to alienate and repress the local population. Finally, if the current economic policy – which enriches the military elites at the expense of the middle and lower classes as well as the civilian elites – continues, then it will fuel mass discontent, a critical element in the eruption of the mass protests that began in 2011. As such, one would expect increased acts of resistance, which will likely be met with a robust, violent response by the regime. Resistance is likely to stem from the working class (due to deteriorating living conditions), as well as university students and other grassroots movements that the regime has not completely subdued. Such a response will either succeed in repressing the resistance for a short period, or fuel it further, leading to an increasingly radicalised opposition and prolonged periods of instability and mass protests.
Maged Mandour is a Political Analyst who writes openDemocracy’s ‘Chronicles of the Arab Revolt’ column, which covers the affairs of the Arab world with a special focus on social change in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. He is also a writer for Sada, the online journal for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him @MagedMandour
This article appears in the Egypt issue of The Middle East in London.
Mandour, Maged. ‘What to expect from El-Sisi’s second term?’ The Middle East in London 14, no. 3 (April–May 2018); 5-6.