It’s sad to think that the youngest generation may never get to witness the relatively free, Westernized, tourist-friendly Egypt that most adults above the age of 25 knew for most of their lives. That is, if they the younger generation is even paying attention to what is going on in the nation that was once the jewel of Northern Africa. These days, it seems as if few are tuning into the continuing decline of Egypt towards a dictatorship at the hands of president-in-name Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
El-Sisi came to power in the wake of the chaos that was the Arab Spring. What was hailed as a revolution of modernization where the people’s voices were heard has left many of the affected nations in far worse positions, and Egypt is no exception. While former President Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne were seen by many of the Egyptian people as strong-armed in their leadership style – a sentiment that, along with the attempted establishment of a familial dynasty, led to their overthrow in January 2011 – they look like benevolent rulers compared to the regimes that have followed their ouster.
The void left by Mubarak paved the way for a smattering of candidates with incoherent agendas and platforms, and the most organized of them all, Mohamed Morsi, was a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is decidedly extreme by Egypt’s societal standards. The protests that led to Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 would again emerge as it became clear that the Morsi government was seeking to move Egypt in a more Islamic, theocratic direction than the majority of Egyptians would tolerate. So, by July 2013, nationwide protests had again sprung up, and chief general of the Egyptian army, el-Sisi, led a coup, arresting Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders while temporarily suspending the Egyptian constitution.
Unfortunately that coup, initially seen as a welcome reprieve from tightening religious mores upon what was once a relatively free nation, would be an early taste of el-Sisi’s modus operandi. While el-Sisi’s disarming way of communicating differed from other generals who led coups and eventually, perhaps inevitably, took their nation’s top leadership role on a lasting basis – think Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, etc. – his actions fell in stark contrast to his unassuming demeanor. The killing of 200-plus Morsi supporters in Cairo by authorities acting on behalf of el-Sisi left witnesses shocked and appalled, and it is reminiscent of the tactics the Egyptian president has continued to implement in maintaining power since the coup.
The vacuum left as the result of what now seems to be an extremely hasty removal of the Mubarak regime – supporters even called for his re-election as he was released from prison in 2013 – has led to the installation of el-Sisi, and it’s appearing more and more that it is a de facto installation of a dictator. El-Sisi’s first election, in 2014, was marked by the suppression of all opposition, which was not a difficult feat considering his military background. Anytime a victor wins 97% of the vote in a supposedly democratic nation, as el-Sisi did in that first election, red flags should arise. But it was el-Sisi’s second election, held this March, in which his strong-armed tactics were on even greater display.
In the first go-round, el-Sisi was still riding a relative wave of support due to his ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood. Making matters easier for him, legitimate, power-threatening opponents were few and far between. But this year, legitimate opponents had arisen as Egypt has remained economically stagnant and el-Sisi has gained a reputation as a strongman. That is, until el-Sisi’s government ensured that the most viable of the lot were either locked up or intimidated into dropping out of contention.
‘For instance, Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh, a 2012 presidential candidate, was detailed along with fifteen party members and placed on the official terrorism list. Sami Anan, el-Sisi’s predecessor as army chief of staff, was arrested, and a top member of his campaign, Hisham Geneina, el-Sisi’s former anti-corruption chief, was sentenced to five years in prison.’ (Cato Institute)
This thinning of the herd rendered the remaining competitor, of all things, an el-Sisi supporter ‘who said he was “not here to challenge the president” (and was pushed into the race by el-Sisi’s minions).’
Perhaps predictably, el-Sisi once again garnered a borderline unbelievable 97% of the vote. It’s not a figure that occurs in any true democracy, especially not twice in two election cycles.
El-Sisi denies that he had anything to do with the poor fates that befell his opponents. According to his spokesperson, “neither Sisi’s morals nor his dignity let him prevent any other person from running.”
You buying that?
To be fair, the installation of a strongman who is a former top man in the military is nothing new for Egypt, recent history aside. From Nasser to Sadat and Mubarak, the military has traditionally played a central role in choosing the presidential successor, and that successor tends to remain largely uncontested until the next general in line determines it is time to step down. Until Mubarak began to indicate that he would attempt to install his son and lay the seeds of a dynasty, the general-to-general succession has generally kept Egypt a relatively stable nation.
Perhaps that is el-Sisi’s thinking, but his return to tactics more fitting of a general than a president comes at a period only a few years after a true democratic election was held. Though the Muslim Brotherhood was far from the desirable victor, the election results were legitimate, which is more than can be claimed about el-Sisi’s two victories.
And, times are different. Egypt’s economy and tourism industry are in shambles, unlike the times when strongmen were able to maintain order in a relatively prosperous country, by African and Middle Eastern standards. Now, el-Sisi is employing old-school tactics in a new age. Whether his approach leads to the restoration of a stable Egypt remains to be seen. Previous generals have not been so much tasked with reviving a country as maintaining the status quo.
If el-Sisi’s government does not show tangible results in terms of improving the lives of Egyptians, he could find himself the next former general to be ousted by an ambitious military leader who decides his time is up.