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Egypt’s farcical election and the long Arab winter


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Egyptians will have one last chance to head to the polls on Wednesday, the last of three days of balloting in the country’s presidential election. However long it takes to tabulate the result, the winner is not in doubt. President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi will secure a fresh mandate after his government detained, intimidated or otherwise sidelined any real challengers ahead of the vote.

By doing so, Sissi has extinguished the last glimmers of the democratic hope unleashed by mass protests in 2011. Under his watch, some analysts argue, Egypt is backsliding to a state of autocracy even worse than the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, whose three-decade dictatorship was brought to an end by those protests.

“Sissi’s expected victory appears likely to tighten his grip on the government, politics and society, making him perhaps the most controlling leader in Egypt’s modern history,” my colleagues Sudarsan Raghavan and Heba Farouk Mahfouz reported from Cairo. “But it will also raise the expectations of Egypt’s more than 100 million people, most of them living in poverty. While the economy is showing signs of a rebound, severe austerity measures, rising prices and lowered subsidies have worsened the lives of a majority of Egyptians, including the middle class.”

Much like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Sissi cares greatly about turnout. In the wake of the 2013 military coup that brought him to power, Sissi successfully styled himself as the savior of the nation, the steady hand who would bring stability back to the country while ruthlessly quashing Islamist dissent. But in recent years, as terror threats persisted and the economy still struggled, his mystique has worn thin. A strong showing at the polls would help buttress his legitimacy.

Sissi and his supporters employed rather conspicuous methods to get out the vote. “Sissi and his team aren’t counting on the power of his charisma to mobilize turnout,” said Timothy Kaldas, a Cairo-based analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, to the Wall Street Journal. Instead, he said, the government turned to “Mubarak-era infrastructure to get people to the polls.”

That included rather tactless forms of coercion. “In the southwestern New Valley province, the governor announced a contest in which public services valued at more than $113,000 would be provided to three districts with the highest voter turnout, as long as more than three-quarters of the voters cast ballots in those areas,” reported the Journal’s Jared Malsin. “The regional government plans to build a new playground, nursery or event hall in the top three districts, the state news agency said.” Similar promises were proffered in other parts of the country.

But even as Sissi sought to mobilize public support, his regime has presided over a far-reaching clampdown on civil society and opposition. “Over the past year, the repression has deepened,” my colleagues reported. “Hundreds of websites viewed as critical of the regime have been blocked, and travel bans and other repressive measures have been imposed on activists. Numerous opponents have been jailed or ‘forcibly disappeared,’ while extrajudicial killings are increasing, human rights groups say.”

“The human rights community in Egypt and abroad has long tracked the role of military intelligence in state killings, torture and disappearances,” wrote analyst Mona El-Ghobashy. “The broader public remains in the dark, cowed or captive to the official creed that the state protects the population.”

Still, criticism from the international community is muted at best. The Egyptian president has vociferous backing from the royal houses of the Persian Gulf; the Saudis and Emiratis reviled the upheavals that allowed populist Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood to win power and have helped shore up Sissi’s position. President Trump has also been a conspicuous cheerleader for Sissi, praising him for his tough view on extremists while eschewing the pro-democracy or rule-of-law rhetoric of his predecessors.

In short, things couldn’t be further removed from the 2011 Arab Spring, which began with protests in Tunisia but turned into an epochal event when anti-Mubarak demonstrators took over Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Even Sissi’s main “opponent” condemns the revolution.

“The ‘Arab Spring’ has resulted in a catastrophe in the region,” said Moussa Mostafa Moussa, an obscure political figure who supported Sissi before agreeing to run against him, in an interview with Russia’s state-sponsored Sputnik News. For good measure, he blamed the uprising on Washington: “This huge U.S. project was implemented by the team [of former Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. Its aim was to overthrow the leadership of all the Arab countries and to divide the states into smaller countries.”

After the election, Sissi may tighten his grip even further. The vote, wrote Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, “is a procedural hurdle to clear before the much more consequential effort of constitutional change. Amending the constitution to formalize Egypt’s autocracy has previously been suggested by parliamentarians and allies of the regime.”

But that may prove to be a more difficult challenge for Sissi than winning reelection. “Debate over constitutional changes also represents perhaps the only opportunity to organize domestic and international opposition to the Sissi regime’s increasingly aggressive efforts to concentrate power in the president,” Hanna wrote. “Just as Mubarak’s efforts to engineer the succession of his son helped fuel the broad resentment that led to his downfall, the effort to establish Sissi as a president for life could potentially trigger serious opposition across sectors of Egyptian society and among Egypt’s international patrons.”

If it does not, Hanna warns of dark times ahead: “If the preservation of its republican character is not sufficient to stir Egypt from its current authoritarian resurgence, it could well be locked in the destabilizing familiar old compact in which only death, coup or uprising can produce a political transition.”

“In Egypt, there is no democracy,” said Abdelrahman, a Cairene taxi driver, to my colleagues. “Democracy in Egypt only comes with the gun.”

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