Democracy at last? Egyptians elect Al-Sisi

“He will be sworn in to implement no specific programme because he offered none during the presidential campaign, but instead will implement what top political commentator Mohamed Hassanein Heikal has qualified as “a clear mission of attending to the major crisis that the country is facing”.

The solutions to the crisis that almost all political and social groups agree the country is facing vary from one group to the other. For some, they require an immediate economic stimulus and enhanced attention to security. “We desperately and above everything else need an end to the present state of chaos and a focus on the economy to save the country from going down the drain,” said Mona, a 55-year-old banker.

For others, the key requirement is a prompt end to the social tensions, which, in the account of many observers, started on the eve of the second round of the 2012 presidential elections with the choice between Ahmed Shafik, prime minister of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak during the 25 January Revolution, supported by Mubarak’s disbanded political party and much of the establishment, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, who was later elected and then ousted.

This week, Al-Sisi, a former chief of the army who carried out the ouster of Morsi a year ago following nationwide protests, will enter the presidential palace for what according to the constitution is a first term of four years, renewable only once, with an awareness, so his associates say, that the divisions in society go beyond former Mubarak supporters versus the Muslim Brotherhood.

The competing fractions include at least one more group that subscribes to neither side. This, some observers believe, undermined the turnout in the presidential elections, causing panic for the government and in the media supporting Al-Sisi.”


Presidential words: In his inaugural speech that Al-Sisi was finalising as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, the new president, according to one informed non-official source, is planning to address all of the above: the aspirations for stability and economic revival and the divisions within society.

“What Al-Sisi will say in this speech will not be very different from what he shared during the press interviews that he gave during his presidential campaign, but it will be said in a cohesive and uninterrupted format to make sure that a few key messages are delivered,” the source said.

According to the source, the key messages that Al-Sisi is planning to offer will address almost all the groups who will be watching with either hope and pride or concern and dismay. Al-Sisi, the source suggested, is expected to reaffirm his recognition of the 25 January Revolution demands of ‘bread, freedom, human dignity and social justice’. Al-Sisi will also say that in the new republic that his presidency is set to launch will pursue stability and prosperity and watch out for all challenges.

Al-Sisi will call on the nation, to join hands in moves to “rebuild Egypt on a basis that the nation can agree to and in a way that will allow the country to reach a well-desrved prosperity.”

He is going to be telling people that we are starting a new page  and it is up to the will of the entire nation to decide the future,  the same source said.

He added that this would mean that the rupture with Mubarak’s rule would not necessarily mean that “anyone who had a role in or was related to the policies committee” of Mubarak’s former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) would be excluded from the public sphere or from Al-Sisi’s team. Tolerance would also be extended to “non-violent Muslim Brotherhood members who subscribe, say, to the Freedom and Justice Party,” the political arm of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Sisi is currently working on designing his team – a presidential board of advisors has been considered but not finally decided – and a “limited cabinet reshuffle that would most probably allow” Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb to keep his job and will change some seven members of the current cabinet pending the parliamentary elections scheduled for winter this year.

Towards a new republic: Al-Sisi has been careful not to exaggerate hopes for the start of a new republic with the launch of his rule, although he has been making ample reference to taking stock of past experience and of acknowledging the association that some have made between him and former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

For those who wish to see the glass half-full, Al-Sisi will bring about a new republic in which common rules of citizenship will prevail and where the rule of law will apply. For those who wish to see it as half-empty, Al-Sisi, himself having been chief of military intelligence and a member of the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) during Mubarak’s last months in office, will bring about a new phase of Mubarak-style rule.

“It is hard to tell if we are standing on the threshold of a new republic in the real sense of the word, which would mean the introduction of a whole new system where constitutional legitimacy is emphasised and where the state establishment and not the top executive is actually ruling,” said Ayman Al-Sayyad, a commentator and journalist.

“It is too early to tell, but if we are to judge by the way things were run during the interim phase following the ouster of Morsi, starting with 3 July, then one might have serious reason to worry that we are not going to be moving forward in the positive sense. However, it is very hard to see that the president can avoid recognising that the people still want the things they said they wanted when they took to the streets during the 25 January Revolution,” Al-Sayyad argued.

The reasons prompting Al-Sayyad to apply caution to his analysis have to do with fears of jumping the gun. Al-Sayyad also feared that the new president may not be able to avoid the pitfalls that have prevailed since the announcement of Egypt as a republic was made by the Free Officers on 18 June 1953, almost 61 years to the day to Al-Sisi’s first day in office as president.

“Without getting in the details, the main cause for concern has to do with the absence of political will that we have seen with respect to the text and the spirit of the constitution that was adopted following the ouster of Morsi,” Al-Sayyad added. However, he did not make reference to the criticisms, made especially by the younger generation who are sceptical about the political transformation, of the demonstrations law that has put many limitations on the right to protest, as specified in the constitution.

Some 20,000 people have been arrested, according to human rights groups, for “essentially political reasons,” and there are signs of growing limitations on the freedom of expression, one example being the suspension this week of the satirical show fronted by comedian Bassem Youssef.

Al-Sayyad’s worst apprehension was that the political choices of the past six decades might be reconstructed in the parliamentary elections law, a text that is still subject to finalisation but that has been widely criticised for failing to guarantee the strong presence of political parties in the next parliament.

This, he argued, could “further undermine the role of parliament as stipulated in the constitution” since a parliament with no political majority would not be able to assume its role of nominating the cabinet and choosing the prime minister who practically shares responsibilities with the president.

“If the draft parliamentary elections law that we have seen is adopted as it is, then we will be back to a weak parliament and a mode of rule whereby the president’s instructions determine the entire state. This would not be a break with the norms of the republic as we have known them, and it would not amount to the introduction of a democratic republic as is the aspiration of many.”

Maybe later: Novelist Youssef Al-Qaid, an admirer of Nasser and a critic of both his successors, presidents Anwar Al-Sadat and Mubarak, is willing to acknowledge that the worst mistake that Nasser made, and that has so far been a trait of the Egyptian republic, was one-man rule.

Under Nasser, one-man rule was supported by the Free Officers who ousted former King Farouk on 23 July 1952, Al-Qaid said, whose work documents social changes over the last six decades. Under Sadat, power was shared by a limited group of aides and associates who executed Sadat’s Open Door economic policy, while under Mubarak it was the business community that “wagged the tail of the younger son of the president [Gamal Mubarak], who was being groomed for succession to his father.”

Under the rule of Morsi, both Al-Qaid and political science professor Sherif Younis agree, this one-man rule was replaced by what Younis called “the man representing the group” and what Al-Qaid termed “the man at the front with the group ruling from behind.” Both men made reference to the influence of the supreme guide and guidance bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood over Morsi.

“Over the past 60 years, the state, in the sense of the establishment, has been marginalised for the sake of the power of the president, and during Morsi’s one year in office it was marginalised in favour of the guidance bureau, with the republic being perceived as the beginning of a wider Islamic state,” Al-Qaid said.

Today, he added, the members of the guidance bureau were in jail, the state was weakened, and the republic, “in good shape under Nasser but later deteriorating until we reached Mubarak’s family succession scheme,” was at a crossroads.

According to Younis, the republic could, depending on the choices made by Al-Sisi, either become democratic, “which has not been the case since its establishment in June 1953,” or continue to be authoritarian in essence, though this could still mean the development of “a new republic of sorts”.

“A few days before the presidential elections, Al-Sisi said he hoped to see about 40 million of the 50 million plus eligible voters at the polling stations. These were not the words of a man who thinks the people can continue to be excluded even given the popularity which we know he has,” Younis argued.

He added that in this appeal to the voters to go to the ballot boxes Al-Sisi had offered “a sharp contrast to Nasser who in 1964 decided to delay the then scheduled presidential elections for one year given that 1964 was a busy year with two Arab summits and internal political engagements.”

However, Younis was of the opinion that it would be highly unlikely for Al-Sisi to switch Egypt from an authoritarian republic to a democratic one in a short space of time. “This is not something that can be done immediately,” no matter what Al-Sisi’s intentions, he said.

The switch, he argued, would need to be about expanding the sense of political engagement beyond both the state establishment and political activists. “To have a democratic republic there has to be an active and engaged political sphere as represented in political parties. You cannot achieve it without influential political parties, but influential political parties were banned at the beginning of the republic on the grounds that they were reactionary, conspiratorial and anti-revolutionary. They might well have been, but their elimination dried up the political sphere.”

Attempts to revive the political parties under both Sadat and Mubarak, argued Al-Qaid, were cosmetic and were only done to serve the political and economic agenda of the president and his entourage of vested interest groups.

Under Morsi, Younis argued, the establishment of the FJP was equally cosmetic “because in the same way that the president himself did not have a will of his own away from the guidance bureau of the Brotherhood, the party did not have a serious political will of its own and was only a mask for the group.”

Today, political party sources speak of a possible merger of several parties into a larger group reminiscent of the former NDP and being made up of the notables of rural Egypt and business tycoons. Such parties include the Free Egyptians, founded by businessman Naguib Sawiris, The National Movement of Ahmed Shafik, the Conference Party founded by Amr Moussa, chairman of the committee that drafted the new constitution, and Misr Baladi (Egypt my Country) founded by Ahmed Gamaleddine, a former minister of interior who served with Al-Sisi under Morsi.

Should the merger fail, the same sources argue, there will be either a succession of minor mergers, with the Free Egyptians and the National Movement getting together and the Conference Party and Misr Baladi doing the same, or simply coordination amongst the blocs. The Wafd Party, the oldest liberal party of the pre-1952 era, and the Tagammu, the traditional leftist party, are also said by some of their members to be pondering joining the merger or mergers.

While such arrangements might allow the president, who will not head any political party, to have a solid parliamentary backing when it comes to cabinet nominations and legislation, they would not necessarily, in the reading of many political commentators, encourage the kind of political engagement that Younis specified as a pre-requisite for moves towards a genuinely democratic republic.

This means, say the members of smaller and newer parties like the Socialist Democratic Party, that there is a need to expand the share of the political parties in the new electoral law to no less than 40 per cent.

Short of this, Younis argues, Al-Sisi will ascend to power “on the basis of the legitimacy of the revolutions of 25 January and 30 June and against the backdrop of the failed republic that was started some six decades ago with the practical impossibility of restoring the old norms as some have hoped and without a clear avenue to build the democratic republic that was promised 61 years ago but that never even started to happen.”



About angelajoya

Assistant Professor, Middle East Political Economy, at the University of Oregon. Currently writing on the Egyptian revolution and the Syrian crisis.
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