By Khaled Diab
Bad as things are now, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, despite his dictatorial tendencies, may unwittingly preside over Egypt's transition to democracy.
Thursday 26 June 2014
Egypt is witnessing a new dawn of freedom – at least it is, according to Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. “Our two glorious revolutions have paved the way to an era devoted to strength, not hostility… which defends the rule of law, enhancing the judiciary and security, while maintaining rights and freedoms,” al-Sisi told the jubilant audience at his inaugural address.
So “iconic” is this moment that al-Sisi called on Egyptian artists to create masterpieces that would “travel the world and commemorate all the martyrs”.
So what is this unique model that will honour the sacrifices of all those who suffered, and those who paid the ultimate price, over the past three years to build a better, fairer and freer Egypt?
Having analysed his speech and his behaviour to date, the only singular element in al-Sisi's vision of liberty is that it has our new president at its heart.
In a speech which lasted close to an hour, I only noticed one mention of “democracy”. “You proved that your ability does not stop at toppling tyrannical and failed regimes but you also translated it into a democratic will through the ballot box,” he said.
This, I feel, encapsulates al-Sisi's attitude towards democracy: the will of the people is welcome as long as it limits itself to giving him a licence to act as he sees fit. In the past, Egypt's dictators had rubber-stamp parliaments. What I call “democra-Sisi” takes this to the next level by mobilising the electorate to rubber stamp the president's will and provide him with a sheen of popular legitimacy.
This was reflected in his populist calls last summer for the public to take to the streets and give him a mandate to fight what he called “terrorism and violence”. He echoed the same sentiment when he rather aloofly told Egyptians before the elections that he expected an 80% turnout – as if he could order citizens to do his bidding, as if they were subordinate soldiers in the military.
Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has often been compared to Nasser. I have joked that he does share something in common with the legendary Egyptian president: they are the only two Egyptian presidents not named Muhammad.
But in reality there are some likenesses between the two men. In addition to their respective wars on the Muslim Brotherhood and deep suspicion of the Islamist movement, al-Sisi seems to pursue a Nasserist-light conception of freedom.
In rhetoric at least, he focuses a lot on national, social and cultural freedom to the detriment of political and personal freedom. “Egypt must be open in its international relations,” al-Sisi emphasised. “But the era of subordination is over.” To the rest of the region, the president promised that Egypt would regain her status “as an older sister”.
Unlike his Islamist predecessor, al-Sisi praised the role of Egyptian women, albeit to a predominantly middle-aged male audience. “I will do all I can to ensure that [Egyptian women] are represented fairly in the representative councils and in executive positions,” he promised.
But so far this has only been rhetorical, as reflected by his appointment of just four women to his early-worm first government, unchanged from the previous cabinet, drawing criticism from the National Council of Women.
The president also pledged more for the country's marginalised youth who “lit the fuse of revolution” and for the downtrodden poor who “have endured so much and seen their suffering multiply”.
How al-Sisi intends to square this with his previous statements calling on the poor to tighten their belts further, not to mention his pro-business agenda and his efforts to rehabilitate Egypt's “patriotic and honourable” businessmen was unclear, especially since he presented no electoral programme during the elections.
Nevertheless, he promised all Egyptians that they would “reap the fruits during this presidential term and we will accomplish the unprecedented”. How? Through vague pledges to invest in industry, tourism and agriculture, as well as renewable energy. Though I think that his pledge to install energy-saving bulbs in every home is unambitious – he should work to place solar boilers on every roof.
Perhaps through mass philanthropy? Hoping to lead by example, the president pledge to give away half his salary and half his wealth to Egypt and called on others to follow his example. Whether many will take up his call remains to be seen. But a more effective mechanism would be to pursue, rather than rehabilitate, all those corrupt tycoons, and put in place a fair and effective tax system.
His recent pormises go contrary to his previous efforts to lower expectations of what can be achieved to avoid the pitfall into which his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, fell by promising change within 100 days.
And it is likely to prove an equally poisonous chalice, especially when Egyptians discover no meaningful alteration to their well-being, coupled with the expected return of the disgraced Mubarak business elite.
But al-Sisi has an ace up his sleeve: the national security card. “There will be no co-operation with and no appeasement of those who wish to undermine the state's prestige,” he vowed. “And the near future will witness the Egyptian state regaining its prestige.”
And this week's multiple attacks on the metro, which killed one, is not only a worrying portent but can provide the regime with the opportunity to crack down even more heavily.
“I will not permit the emergence of a parallel leadership to rival the state. There will not be a second leadership. There will be only one leadership,” he warned ominously later in the speech, for good measure.
Ostensibly, al-Sisi possesses the tools to make this no idle threat, as already demonstrated when he ran Egypt from the background as its uncrowned king. The new president exercises apparent control over both the military and civilian arms of the state, and has tamed much of the mainstream media to his will – and so it would be natural to expect him to consolidate his grip to such an extent that he could become an elected dictator for life.
But counterintuitive as it may sound, al-Sisi may, despite his dictatorial tendencies, unwittingly and inadvertently preside over Egypt's transition to democracy.
Although a snap public holiday and a third day of voting were announced to mobilise the vote, not to mention the hysteria in the visual media urging citizens to exercise their democratic duty, the turnout remained relatively low.
This has given the new president a much lower mandate than he had hoped for. More importantly, the decision of millions of voters to stay home and not join in the love fest has punctured his image as the popular saviour the Egyptian masses were awaiting.
This weak support base – which is bound to get weaker when his well-oiled propaganda machine is no longer able to counter the reality of his probable failure to resolve Egypt's myriad problems and the vested interests his regime is likely to serve – is likely embolden his critics, activists and even the currently docile mainstream media.
This week's ludicurous verdict in the Al Jazeera trial, based on non-existent evidence, is extremely troubling. But if it's intention was to cow the media and critics of the regime, the effectiveness of this kind of extremely punitive exercise seems to have succumbed to the law of diminishing marginal returns.
While the pro-Sisi fan club in the visual media cheered on, the print and alternative media, as well as Egypt's courageous human rights activists, refused to be intimidated and took a more critical position, with some journalists lamenting the degeneration of the country's once-respected judiciary, while veteran human rights activist Negad Borai condemned the judiciary for losing its sense of “justice, consicence and humanity“.
Rather than be cowed, social media has been swept by a tidal wave of contempt and satire, with every action, remark made and idea fielded by al-Sisi mocked mercilessly. If al-Sisi hoped to restore the state's “prestige” and “aura” through his person, then he is far from declaring mission accomplished.
This refusal by growing numbers to tow the party line leaves al-Sisi with some stark choices. One option would be to muster what is left of the might of a state massively weakened by more than three years of revolutionary upheaval and decades of mismanagement to brutally repress dissent. But with the state already in top gear when it comes to repression and brutality, this is an unsustainable path, and could push the country off the cliff into a millions-strong uprising or, worst, open warfare.
The other choice is to be pragmatic and to learn the art of political compromise and consensus politics. The state is showing some early, tentative signs of pursuing this path. If al-Sisi chooses this path – which I hope, for the sake of Egypt, he will – he may still, whether or not he intends it, find himself going down in history as the harbinger of Egyptian democracy.
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This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in Daily News Egypton 21 June 2014.