If President Sisi wants to see reconciliation and recovery in Egypt, transparency must take priority over reputation and job-security
Sworn in as president in a lavish ceremony, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was resolute to convey the image of a strong state and to establish clear expectations of his presidency. Now governing and no longer ruling from behind the scenes, he is expected to tackle the country’s acute problems; the highest in priority being human rights, national reconciliation, economic recovery, security and stability and foreign relations. Despite Sisi’s media-manufactured and inflated popularity, his presidency will be a rough one and is not likely to score high on these critical issues.
Since the July coup, Egypt has witnessed unprecedented human rights violations. Over the past 10 months, more than three thousand protesters have been killed, sixteen thousand injured and forty one thousand have been detained. The legal system has shown complete disregard for the rule of law, with kangaroo trials and mass death sentences that broke world records. Independent human rights organizations have reported cases of systematic torture in police stations and state prisons. Sisi himself has granted officers complete impunity if they killed or injured peaceful protesters.
As president, Sisi is obliged to give the issue of human rights his complete attention. But this is unlikely. This specific issue presents him with a serious dilemma. The release of thousands who suffered in his prisons will undermine his legitimacy. Once out, they will share their horrendous experiences and reveal the brutal nature of his regime. At the same time, the current levels of human rights violations are untenable.
Human rights will continue to decline under Sisi, leaving millions of Egyptians forever scarred .
Over the past three years, Egyptians have been severely polarized and divided. This polarization escalated violently, after the July coup with the bloody repression of anti-coup protesters. Promoting a fascist narrative, top officials, pro-coup intellectuals and media propagandists insisted on projecting Egyptians as “two peoples” engaged in a deep state of “war of attrition.” This state of polarization needs to end soon and make way for much needed national reconciliation.
Obviously, the reconciliation process entails accountability for human rights violations and guarantees to prevent their recurrence. Sisi repeatedly asserted in several interviews and speeches that “there is no room for reconciliation with ‘offenders’” during his term. Stressing the same exclusionary narrative, he claimed not all Egyptians support reconciliation and that he has a mandate to speak on their behalf. Independent polls show the opposite. The majority of Egyptians still support democracy over a strong leader and that 43 percent do not support the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi.
National reconciliation is key to resolving Egypt’s current crisis. It is a requisite for stability and for providing the right environment for economic recovery. So far, Sisi has not shown a strong commitment or even willingness to initiate reconciliation.
For years, Egyptians have tolerated repression, so long as the state was able to provide basic needs and services. When the state failed to provide peoples’ basic needs and plunged into corruption, its legitimacy became questionable. That was one of the main lessons of the January 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak.
Sisi’s key to economic success is simple. He needs to do exactly the opposite of Mubarak: fight corruption and adopt “radical” economic structural reforms. These will enable him to face the country’s chronic economic problems, namely unemployment, low growth rates, budget deficit and low investment rates.
It is doubtful that Sisi is willing to take these measures. Sisi is the product of Mubarak’s state and does not seem to be bothered by the issue of corruption.
He declared more than once that “we should give the corrupt another chance and try to get the best out of them.” On another occasion, he advised Egyptians to only “whisper softly in the ears of corrupt officials and not make a big deal.” In the Egyptian lexicon this is a clear signal that corruption will be tolerated under Sisi. Ironically, he forewarned poor Egyptians that they must be ready to sacrifice one or two generations for the country to move forward.
Sisi has neither the legitimacy nor the will to undertake these risky reforms. Sisi represents the counter-revolution and not revolutionary reform, and he will find it extremely difficult to go against the “old state” that he represents. Sisi came to protect this old state, not to change it. Similar to Mubarak, he will certainly use Gulf money to make quick economic gains: housing for the youth and projects for low income families. But the impact of these stunts will not be long-lasting and most of these investments will be channeled through the military itself or the donor Gulf companies to avoid corrupt state bureaucracy.
Security and stability
Restoring security and stability cannot be achieved with continued human rights abuses, political polarization, and low economic growth. The key to security and stability lies in addressing the political roots of the crisis and the “criminal” ramifications of using thugs against political opponents. Expectedly, Sisi is striving to end the 11-month protests against him and his coup. This will not take place unless there is true inclusion and national reconciliation. He rejects both vehemently.
The phenomenon of thugs has become part of the state security operation and structure. Reportedly, an army of 300,000 thousand has become a parallel force with illegal activities and actions. These abhorrent actions include sexual harassment and gang rape, armed theft, and sometimes killing. More often than not, the state overlooks their violations, as they have rendered valuable services while the counter-revolution was in the making. These services could be useful to Sisi in the future.
The lack of a political will to provide a political settlement will undermine the possibility of restoring security and stability in the near future. Both will also require that Sisi moves from an exclusionary to an inclusionary course, and that he cracks down on the same thugs upon which his security forces often rely.
Egypt is a central state in the region and should exercise tangible influence regarding strategic decisions that affect it. The vulnerable economic situation, coupled with Sisi’s strategic choice of allies, will prevent Egypt from performing such a role. Under Sisi, Egypt is expected to perform proxy functions for the benefit of regional or international contractors, particularly its Gulf States, bank rollers and traditional western backers like the US and the EU.
Sisi himself expressed a desire to play the role of the policeman in the region. He pledged that in the case of a threat to Arab national security, “we will be there in a blink of an eye.” Sisi volunteered to commit Egypt to fight “terrorism” in Libya and in the region, to be in “Algeria within three days”, to tighten the siege against Hamas, to support the Gulf States against Iran and protect against any spillover from the mess in Syria. After a while, Egypt’s relationship with the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, is likely to get strained as Sisi’s ambitions grow and as he becomes a financial liability.
Sisi’s success as president depends on tackling the issues of human rights, national reconciliation, economic recovery, and restoring security and stability. The fact that the deep state and its alliances brought him to dismantle the January revolution – not to reform the state – will present him with a serious dilemma. Ironically, like Morsi, he will be neither able to confront the deep state nor will he succeed in pleasing large segments of the people. To move on all of these fronts, he needs to confront Mubarak’s state and restructure its institutions.
Photo credit: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at his swearing in ceremony in early June (AA)
This piece was originally published in the Middle East Eye