Egypt’s Opposition-Free Democracy

Celebrate the choice of representatives and make the right choice!” announced former army chief and now President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. “Plant with your votes the hope for a bright tomorrow for our new Egypt.

President Sisi was referring to the national elections for a new unicameral parliament, an ostensibly democratic move considering the previous lower house was dissolved by the Supreme Court back in June 2012. Indeed, this new legislature looks fairly accomplished on paper. For a start it will have far more sway over state policy and budgets than previous parliaments. It will also have the authority to approve or veto the president’s prime ministerial appointments, and could even approve a motion of no-confidence in President Sisi with a two-thirds majority. The House will comprise 596 MPs. Four hundred and forty-eight will be elected as independents, 120 as party-based deputies, and 28 will be appointed by the president. The first phase of ballot-casting for these seats took place on the 18th and 19th October, across 14 of Egypt’s 27 governorates. Around 27 million people were eligible to vote. The second round is due next month and results are not expected until December.

Image courtesy of montager © 2014, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of montager © 2014, some rights reserved

The first round of voting however was not quite the “celebration of democracy” Sisi had expected. Despite a declared public holiday for public sector employees, there was only a ten per cent turnout over the two polling days. One reason for the population’s apparent apathy is “election fatigue,” having cast ballots many times since the 2011 revolution. Yet, dismal numbers can be attributed more seriously to the new parliament’s lack of genuine autonomy. “The president will maintain considerable powers” notes Youssri al-Azabawi, an analyst at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic studies. This is because the house will be filled by “one inclusive coalition” whose sole purpose will be to endorse the president. Election-monitoring is weak and three-quarters of the seats are elected in single-member constituencies. This milieu favors the wealthy and the politically well-connected—often stalwarts of Sisi who are able to buy votes. The pro-Sisi centre-right For the Love of Egypt coalition – comprising ten parties headed by a former intelligence general close to the president – is likely to dominate. Another pro-Sisi alliance expected to win seats is the Egyptian Front, led by former President Hosni Mubarak’s former premier Ahmed Shafiq. Al-Nour is the only Salafist party running, but, compliant with “advice” from the security services, the party reduced its lists form four to two. They are now also avowedly pro-the president.

So what has happened to the opposition? In the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections, the secular pro-democracy parties won around a third of the vote. However, such parties – encompassing socialists as well as proponents of the free-market – have been unable to unite under their similarities and therefore lack broad appeal. “The liberals have been bedeviled by their own egos” says David Ottaway of the Wilson Center think-tank. Last August, Hala Shukrallah even resigned as head of the Constitution Party citing a “vicious circle of differences and complexities.” The leader of the Socialist Democratic Party similarly tried to quit amid claims of “polarization.” The economy has long been dominated by the state, so chants of limited government and free enterprise can appear very foreign to an Egyptian electorate. Moreover, these parties are relatively new on the political scene. With a lack of organizational experience liberal parties have failed to balance the books amidst other administrative difficulties. Importantly too, the government has given these parties little breathing space. Security services have harassed liberal activists and politicians, and the media has sought to undermine their credibility. “[We are] fighting for our survival” declares Khaled Dawoud of the Liberal Constitution Party. “If we manage to stay together, that would be an achievement in itself.

The Muslim Brotherhood, who won 47 per cent of the seats in 2011, has been banned and designated a terrorist group. Thousands of Brothers have been put behind bars and hundreds have been sentenced to death. Three journalists reporting for Al Jazeera were even jailed for 400 days. They were charged with harming national security; perhaps it’s only coincidence that the Qatari satellite television network is sympathetic to the Brotherhood. More alarmingly, Egypt’s first democratically elected and Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was sentenced to death last May for escaping prison during the 2011 revolution. He faces two more trials for sharing secrets with Qatar and insulting the judiciary. The Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Muhammad Badie, was similarly sentenced to death last April. Yet judicial parallels cannot be made with the treatment of ousted president Hosni Mubarak. In many ways very similar to president Sisi, it is perhaps unsurprising that Mubarak may soon be released after four years in and out of detention. Understandably, many of Morsi’s 13 million supporters don’t trust president Sisi’s new parliament. Mohamed Soudan, Morsi’s foreign policy advisor now living in exile, asserted that “[Sisi] will use this parliament to approve the 320 laws he issued himself and after that he will dissolve it as he dissolved the 2011 parliament.”

Since Mohamed Morsi’s ousting in 2013, there have been “unprecedented clashes” between militant Islamists and government forces, especially in the Sinai Peninsula. There have been over 400 attacks in the last two years conducted by Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (now frequently referred to as Sinai Province after they pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in November 2014). On 1st July this year, 15 military posts were targeted in one attack, killing 21 soldiers. Fifteen soldiers had been killed in a similar attack two months earlier. Notably, just hours after Mohamed Morsi received the death sentence, three Egyptian judges were killed in North Sinai. As part of their response, the government has destroyed more than 5,000 homes as a means of “collective punishment.”

Despite these clashes, president Sisi is desperate to project an image of stability and security.  “Under control is not an enough to describe the situation [in Sinai]” he claimed – ironically wearing military uniform – just days after the July attack. “The situation is completely and absolutely very stable.” A sense of security, it seems, is the President’s most appealing attribute with the bloodletting and turmoil in nearby Libya and Syria. But any security away from Sinai has come at the expense of human rights, an independent media and, as we have seen, a healthy political landscape. “We don’t have the luxury to fight and feud” said the president before warning the media to “take care of what you’re saying.” Khouloud Saber, a spokesperson for the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression notes that “the general atmosphere of the media is the worst ever now.” Further to this, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights as well as Human Rights Watch and the Carter Centre have all moved their staff out of the country.

Egypt’s standing economically is hardly impressive too.  The current-account deficit is expected to hit US $20 billion this year and the official unemployment rate stands at 12.7 per cent (it’s around 35 per cent for under-25s, who constitute half the population). Still, Sisi’s priority remains security – last month he secured a US $1.1 billion deal with the French to buy two new Mistral class helicopter carriers. Naturally, Washington isn’t happy that the Egyptians are trying to diversify military hardware suppliers and have thus lifted their arms ban last March. John Kerry recently oversaw the delivery of eight F-16 fighter jets with more to follow. But by resuming their $1.3 billion annual aid package (agreed to under the Camp David accords in 1979), the Americans are sending the wrong message to President Sisi, who has overseen “no real progress when it comes to democratic rule in the country” according to Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The political atmosphere in Egypt has been steadily deteriorating” sums up Dr. Hisham Hellyer of the Royal United Services Institute. “Apathy has set in on the one hand, and there is a crackdown against different types of opposition on the other.” To rescue the situation, president Sisi needs to accommodate the opposition – including parts of the Brotherhood – not radicalize them and their supporters. Just as important, he needs to give society and businesses the room they need to flourish. Do all this and Egypt really will have a cause for celebration.

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