The Egyptian presidential election of March 2018 posed a simple challenge for incumbent President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. He needed a convincing victory (by authoritarian standards) against superficially credible opposition, with voter turnout exceeding that of his first election in 2014, to claim a mandate for his own personal leadership, implement unpopular economic reforms, and deal severely with a rash of security threats.
Instead, he got none of the above. While Sisi was “reelected” with 97 percent of the vote, he did so only after several legitimate candidates were hounded to quit the race, leaving Sisi to scrounge for a single opponent willing to have his name on the ballot (he settled for a longtime supporter who insisted he was not running “to challenge the president”). Official turnout was a mere 40 percent (probably closer to 35 percent, if that), well below the 47.5 percent of voters who cast ballots in 2014. In the runup to the vote, many Egyptian political observers even ceased to call the proceedings an “election” and opted to describe the event as a “referendum,” harking back to the days of yes-or-no votes on the continuation of former President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. All in all, the election proved something of an embarrassment for President Sisi, returning him to office with a shaky mandate and questions about the future of his rule.
Sisi has responded by doubling down on repression, essentially criminalizing any expressions of dissent or criticism, and prompting worry that he is moving Egypt from the ranks of authoritarian powers to a totalitarian model. The president’s actions suggest he is increasingly worried about his ability to hold onto office, amid concerns about his personal popularity and his base of support within the military.
A Serious Human Rights Situation Grows Worse
The latest crackdown began during the electoral campaign. Authorities intensified censorship measures, “arresting journalists on ‘fake news’ and national security charges, enforcing fines, and raiding and shutting down and blocking news websites,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Another wave of arrests targeting activists, bloggers, civil society organizers, and others commenced shortly after the March election and picked up speed this spring; by some accounts, as many as 30 prominent critics of the government have been arrested, although the figure cannot be verified. Those taken into custody include Wael Abbas, a prominent journalist who has reported on police brutality; Hazem Abdel-Azim, a former deputy government minister under Mubarak and former supporter of al-Sisi, now turned critic; and well-known activists Amal Fathy and Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, blogger Shady Abu Zeid, and the labor lawyer Haytham Mohamadeen. Several of those scooped up in the recent campaign of arrests have frequently criticized the government over the last few years while remaining out of jail—until now. They join many other activists already in custody, among the tens of thousands of political prisoners (whose existence Sisi denies) rounded up since the 2013 coup that put him in the presidential palace.
The Egyptian foreign ministry has insisted in a statement that “no citizen in Egypt is arrested … for directing criticism at the Egyptian government, but for committing crimes punishable by law.” While perhaps technically true, the fact remains that Egypt criminalizes many forms of political speech under murky statutes banning “fake news,” “harming Egypt’s reputation abroad,” and defaming the president or other government institutions and leaders—meaning that any political speech may be deemed criminal depending on the whims of the authorities. To mitigate the impression of a purge, though, Sisi pardoned over 300 prisoners during Ramadan of this year, many of whom had been charged with political crimes.
The government’s ongoing assault against civil society leaders has had an even more far-reaching effect. In 2011, it launched a campaign of invective and investigation against international civil society groups and the organizations they supported, then a series of raids and arrests targeting their personnel. With these actions the government effectively harassed organizations supporting human rights and democratic governance and bullied them into silence. The crackdown has since been expanded to cover all civil society organizations in Egypt, including those focused solely on providing services to marginalized citizens. A harsh NGO law, ratified by the Sisi regime in June 2017, brought all NGOs under microscopic surveillance and control of the government. The regime justified the law on grounds of safeguarding national sovereignty, but it has sharply limited associational life and independent advocacy, especially in areas outside Cairo, thus concentrating more power in the hands of the state and shutting down alternative voices.
Sisi has also moved to solidify his personal hold on power by placing more loyalists in positions of authority. In January, he orchestrated a shakeup of his top national security advisors on policy grounds, but also perhaps because he was sensing some opposition to his leadership within the military. In the latest cabinet reshuffle—the most extensive since Sisi’s election in 2014—12 cabinet ministries changed hands, including defense, interior, agriculture, trade, and finance. Many of the incoming ministers boast close personal or professional ties to Sisi. New defense minister Mohamed Ahmed Zaki formerly headed the Republican Guard, which is responsible for presidential security; Mahmoud Tawfik, the interior minister, previously served as Sisi’s national security service chief.
In another sign of determination to strengthen his grip, Sisi has permitted allies in parliament to broach discussion of extending constitutional limits on presidential terms or abolish term limits altogether, in open emulation of the recent Chinese move to extend President Xi Jinping’s one-man rule indefinitely. Having previously insisted he would respect the constitutionally mandated limit of two, four-year presidential terms, in keeping with the “values I embrace and principles I am keen on,” Sisi has been notably silent on the growing campaign to extend his tenure in office. Close observers of Egyptian politics believe Sisi would easily win a national referendum on the necessary constitutional changes.
Staying the Course is Working… for Now
There is no doubt that the post-election challenges Egypt faces are serious, and for now, the government’s efforts to address them have been met with apparent satisfaction among the public.
The regime and its supporters have maintained that restrictive measures on rights and moves to solidify the president’s hold on power are essential to maintaining internal stability in the face of economic challenges and a raging insurrection in the Sinai Peninsula, one that has brought terrorism to other parts of the country.
Regarding the economy, recent decisions by the government have had painful consequences on large numbers of Egyptians, and upcoming moves are expected to impose more. In mid-June, the oil ministry raised the price of gasoline by up to 50 percent; electricity subsidies were also cut and the price of household gas canisters, taxi fares, and Cairo subway tokens saw sharp increases, in keeping with austerity requirements of the three-year, $12 billion IMF loan package Egypt agreed to in 2016. Further economic reforms are expected—as are political outcry and potential unrest. The protests that erupted in Jordan early in June over government tax hikes and other reforms suggested by the IMF served as a warning to Cairo as to the risks of moving ahead with its own reform package.
Cairo’s battle against Islamist extremists in the Sinai is also demanding a great deal of Sisi’s political capital, with no end in sight. In November 2017, the president ordered a campaign to eradicate terrorism in the Sinai within three months, but by his own admission in April, the war is far from over.
The Reality Behind the Repression
While these concerns are legitimate, Sisi’s moves to tighten his grip over the government have more to do with alarm about his shaky popularity among average Egyptians and the strength of his support within the military—facts of life that the election fiasco only served to reinforce. There are warning signs for him on both fronts. Polling conducted in 2016 suggested that Sisi’s popularity with the public, while still high, had dropped sharply, especially among the youth; economic factors were the primary cause. Warring pro- and anti-Sisi hashtags lit up the Egyptian Twittersphere this month, as tens of thousands expressed dismay about the recent price hikes and lack of basic freedoms. As of June 23, posts with the hashtag “#Sisi-leave” outnumbered those tagged “#myleaderisSisiandproud” by 279,000 to 48,000.
The president’s support among the military is likewise an open question. Two potentially tough opponents with strong roots in the military, former general and presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq and former Army Chief of Staff Sami Anan, indicated their intention to challenge Sisi before being forced out of the running. But the fact they were willing to run at all strongly suggests they had quiet support from within the army, a deeply disturbing prospect from Sisi’s point of view. Moreover, Egypt’s increasing reliance on Israeli airstrikes to prosecute its campaign against Islamic State militants in the Sinai cannot do much to bolster Sisi’s nationalist credentials within the military. Likewise, the decision to cede two strategic islands in the Red Sea, Sanafir and Tiran, to Saudi Arabia incited public ire and likely raised eyebrows within the military, too.
Sisi may also be a bit concerned about the strength of his support from the United States. Despite President Trump’s apparent approval of Sisi’s authoritarian ways, congratulations for Sisi’s “reelection,” and characterization of the Egyptian president as a “fantastic guy,” the US administration occasionally chides Sisi on human rights issues. It has canceled $95.7 million in military aid and continues to withhold another $195 million due to ongoing concerns about abuses. Meanwhile, a coterie of critics from the US Congress continues to focus attention on Egypt’s human rights violations, including the conviction of 43 employees of US- and German-based NGOs in a politically motivated trial that accused them of illegally providing “foreign funding” to Egyptian organizations. The government’s decision to permit a retrial of the defendants in Case 173 suggests a desire to repair the damage this caused with Washington and thereby address another possible worry for Sisi.
Forecast: Cloudy with a Chance of Storms
Without a firm handle on how to implement economic reform while avoiding unrest, and embarrassed by the fiasco of the electoral campaign and indications of eroding public and military support, a vulnerable President Sisi can do little else than surround himself with loyalists, try to root out his enemies and critics, and pursue his draconian crackdown on dissent. Such repression has often been disguised as part of the greater struggle against terrorism, making it easier to hide regime excesses, eliminate opponents, and delegitimize dissent under the guise of preserving “national unity.” (Sisi has often attacked any form of political change as a threat to stability, as when he publicly asserted earlier this year that “social justice slogans are pretty and shiny but not doable, and so calling for social justice results in the destruction of our country.”) As the budding campaign to eliminate term limits suggests, Sisi finds hope in the Chinese model of a modernized despotism with a thriving economy, buoyed no doubt by the apparent success of a worldwide authoritarian resurgence that the Trump Administration has seemed to ignore, or has even encouraged.
Still, the United States should discourage Egypt’s drift toward deeper repression by speaking up more often about human rights abuses in general and the condemning efforts to silence all dissenting voices in particular, as Vice President Mike Pence apparently did in a call to Sisi on May 24. Both public and private pressure are necessary to prevent this key US ally from veering further into a dangerous and destabilizing course.
Sisi’s internal political problems are very real, and the challenges to his personal rule are likely to intensify and gain more support. Even if he succeeds in delivering economic improvement and defeating terrorism, Sisi’s approach to these challenges will remain centered on repression, thus promising bleak political prospects for Egyptians for some years to come.