A Pharaoh in the Making: Sisi Seeks Long-term Job Security

Not overlooking the Arab leaders’ trend of remaining in power come hell or high water, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is seeking to extend his tenure through the initiative of his supporters in the rubber-stamp Egyptian parliament. On February 3, one-fifth of the almost 600 members of the House of Representatives proposed to amend the country’s 2014 constitution so Sisi could run for two six-year terms when his current tenure expires in 2022. The Egyptian president is currently serving his second four-year term for which he was re-elected in 2018 with 97 percent of the votes cast. It is anticipated that the proposed amendments will garner the two-thirds parliamentary majority that the constitution requires, setting Sisi on a course of remaining president until 2034. In addition, it is expected that the amendments will also be approved by a popular referendum. To be sure, the securing of Sisi’s position would be quite in line with recent Arab republican tradition.

Sisi has generally been coy in public about his political ambitions, changing the constitution, and remaining in power. Before the 2014 elections––during an interim period stipulated by a roadmap after the July 2013 military coup he led against the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi––Sisi kept referring cryptically to the will of the Egyptian people as the decisive factor in his quest for public office. But a campaign orchestrated by his supporters made sure he received the public’s support. This changed into a sure bet when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gave him the go-ahead to run for president in 2014, as if he needed the body’s permission. His run for a second term in March 2018 was also couched in populist rhetoric, although he worked hard to eliminate competition. But while preparing for that run, he said that he did not want to contest the 2022 elections or make any changes in the constitution.

However, this time around is different as Sisi appears to be more comfortable following the elimination of all credible opposition and the imposition of limits on public political discussions and challenges to his authority. It was reported that since last autumn, Sisi’s presidential office has been orchestrating the proposition, timing, and content of the constitutional amendments in the pliant parliament with Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS). Mahmoud el-Sisi, the president’s son, is reported to have led the discussions and arrangements while the head of GIS, Abbas Kamel, participated in the joint meetings. These efforts have been seconded by outside supporters, such as the lawyer Ayman Abdel-Hakim Ramadan who filed suit last December challenging the two-term limit on Sisi and declaring that he wanted the president to rule for life. Hearings for that suit have been postponed by the court until February 24, ostensibly to allow the gathering of supporting evidence but presumably to await the culmination of the parliamentary maneuver.

Included in the proposed amendments is one that gives the armed forces the responsibility “for protecting the civil state,” a phrase that will most likely lead to giving the military institution unfettered control of the state—as if it doesn’t already have a decisive role in the person of the president. This specific change will consecrate the military institution as a pillar of the regime, one that came into being specifically as an antidote to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is an unquestioned economic actor because it controls a sizeable portion of the economy. While the 2014 constitution preserved the status and role of the armed forces in Egyptian politics, this change will give Egyptian officers the full right to determine the identity of the state and the foundations for long-term state-society relations.

Naturally, the proposed amendments quickly garnered vocal support from pro-regime outlets and personalities. A common thread was the expected emphasis on security at a time when the country is mired in a difficult fight against extremists and affected by the challenges of regional instability. Important to regime supporters, however, is the fact that consolidating Sisi’s regime and the strong state helps prevent the possible return and re-ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood. Never mind that the Sisi regime has presided over a devastating war against the civilians of the Sinai Peninsula and the killing, imprisonment, exile, and disappearance of tens of thousands of activists and civil society actors. To regime sycophants, changing the constitution in a more authoritarian fashion is justified as a surefire way to secure a much-vaunted stability, which, in fact, the regime itself has threatened.

What is disturbing also is the expected silence from the Trump Administration about the Sisi regime’s reversion to increased authoritarianism, which the amendments are sure to codify. As the administration goes full-throttle in its support of the Venezuelan opposition to President Nicolás Maduro, it has been reluctant to criticize the state of human rights in Egypt. In fact, it has released funds to Egypt that were held up by Congress. Indeed, President Donald Trump has expressed his support for authoritarians around the world, including Sisi. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently visited Cairo and asserted that relations with Egypt are deep and broad. But if the Trump Administration is willfully blind to rights violations in Egypt, the French government is simply disingenuous about its criticism of the state of affairs there. In a recent visit to Cairo, French President Emmanuel Macron is reported to have told Sisi that human rights cannot be sacrificed for the sake of stability and security; but he still found it acceptable to be open to selling Egypt 12 fighter jets.

Finally, if Sisi wants to secure his employment for at least the next decade and a half, he is in good company. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is seeking to run for a third five-year term in his country’s presidential elections in 2020, despite his obvious failure in running the country and assuring his people’s economic wellbeing. Incidentally, Bashir has been in power since 1989 after he led a coup against a democratic government. But even more ironic is the news that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika––who has been in office since 1999 but who suffered a stroke in 2013 that incapacitated him and prevented his public appearances––might run for a fifth term in the coming April 2019 elections.

Before all of these chief executives, Arab history over the last 50 years has seen many examples of presidents who loved the chair and worked hard to make it more like a throne: Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, Hussein, the Assads, Abbas, Saleh, and Qadhafi. One indeed wonders if Sisi would be audacious enough to just declare himself pharaoh and be done with the charade.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here