failure to learn from history will exact a heavy price



If you have missed the farce called the presidential election in Egypt, here is a brief summary of the plot.

Having eliminated the chances of any serious opposition in the country the Sisi regime finds itself in a crisis of its own making. In the presidential election due in March he will be the only candidate, since all other potential contenders have been effectively thwarted or blocked.

One – the last PM in the Mubarak regime and former air force chief, Ahmad Shafiq, is believed to be under house arrest after he was apparently leaned upon to withdraw from the race. A serving army officer, Colonel Ahmed Qunswah, who had announced his intention to run, is serving a jail term for breaking military law. Ditto, the most serious contender, former chief of staff, retired Field Marshal Sami Anan. Noting the regime’s determination to prevent any serious challenge to Sisi, the only civilian candidate — rights lawyer, Khaled Ali — withdrew from the race altogether to avoid being used as the “democratic” fig leaf of the show.

Therein lies the regime’s biggest conundrum at the moment.

Desperate to make the vote appear democratic regime fixers have scrambled to persuade any of the leaders of the political parties (that have already announced they would back Sisi) to field their own candidates. In the eleventh hour, they pulled a candidate out of the Sisi regime hat : an obscure leader of an equally little-known party.

But that is not the end of the fun.

The man is actually an avowed Sisi supporter and had already started a campaign to support the incumbent’s bid for re-election. He still maintains his love and support for Sisi, according to several reports. Meanwhile, a lawyer has taken legal action to disqualify him on the grounds that the candidate had allegedly lied about his university degree and previous convictions which is a blatant violation of conditions laid out by the constitution to run for president.    If proven, this could eventually disqualify him and would render the race a one-man horse, as in fact it would be any way.

The show has delighted the political class with a relentless stream of jokes and memes on social media that poke fun at Sisi and his men. They are not hiding their schadenfreude at a regime that has effectively stifled politics and shown disdain for genuine political debate and freedom of expression.

The regime’s greatest problem now is to convince as large number as possible of the 50 million or so eligible voters to bother to come out, since everyone in Egypt already knows the outcome. A low turn out would be widely interpreted as a vote of no confidence in Sisi and the way he has run the country in the past 4 years.

The moral of this farce is that Egypt’s current leaders have learnt little or nothing from the country’s recent past, not to mention its modern history. Given the difficult circumstances that Egypt has been through – politically as well as economically since 2011 – many gave Sisi the benefit of the doubt a few times. But those very same people who supported him in 2013 have been abandoning him in droves as it has become abundantly clear where his heart lies. The man has repeatedly said he wanted Egypt to become a modern democracy,  but his actions say otherwise. His insistence that Egypt should speak with one voice is no longer a rhetorical flourish. Ominously, he really means it.  That is only possible in totalitarian states or in military barracks, where Sisi has spent the biggest part of his career before venturing into politics.

He remains a soldier who knows only one style of leadership, the one he learnt throughout his long career in the army : to give orders and expect them to be implemented . That is the way to run a battalion, but certainly not a society.

Announcing his candidacy after a three-day conference designed to extol his achievements Sisi said people were free to choose whoever they wanted, adding, menacingly, hat he would not allow any “thief” to come any where near the presidential throne, to the rapturous applause of the conference packed with ministers, top brass and cronies. Can you believe it! This is the language of someone who knows that the electoral spectacle is a sham since he has the power to prevent potential contenders.

Like his predecessors from the military, he believes he is the guardian of the state, and that no one else from the civilian class can do the job. Like an old fashioned patriarch he knows what is best for his wayward flock. And those who stray, will be severely punished.

He has administered the same bitter medicine – perhaps with a greater dose of authoritarianism than ever before – with no sign of wanting to reform the despotic paradigm.

A week after he announced his candidacy, he issued a dire warning to unnamed trouble-makers, presumably he meant the opposition, which had begun to kick up a fuss about the way the presidential race is being engineered.

Visibly angry during a televised event, Sisi said he was prepared to die to prevent a repeat of the 2011 uprising. He threatened unspecified measures against those trouble-makers. Sisi has finally shown his true colours. He clearly cannot understand that opposition and conflict is part of civilian life. Politics, compromise, negotiations is how you diffuse conflict and find common grounds. That is how you create genuine stability, not by putting the lid on all conflict and threaten those who disagree with you. That is the fastest way to a pressure-cooker society. History has shown that to be not a very stable formula as the uprising of 2011 has demonstrated.

This is the enduring (and perhaps dying) legacy of the 1952 coup when army officers overthrew the monarchy and outlawed all political parties. It was a blow to political life from which Egypt has never recovered. Ever since then all subsequent presidents drawn from the military have behaved as if they were the sole guardians of the state, and that them alone can decide what was the national interest — any one who disagrees is a traitor and should be jailed or silenced. It is that model that has landed Egypt where it is today – no vibrant political life because criminalising politics has driven the best into exile, acquiescence or silence.

There’s no evidence or rational argument that can prove that trying the same old ways that landed Egypt where it is today will produce different results.

Sisi has repeated the phrase “all Egyptians must speak with one voice” ad nauseam, evidence if any was needed that the man does not really understand how civilian life operates. There is no doubt that the Egyptians are united in rejecting terrorism and do support the state battling the terrorists in Sinai and elsewhere. But this does not mean they have no right to discuss methods and disagree on the way the government goes about dealing with the threat. Disagreement does not mean they are “traitors” as the pro-Sisi media tend to label any dissenting voice.

In his latest book on Egypt, Professor Robert Springborg, has superbly characterised the political malaise in which Egypt appears trapped and which Sisi’s modus operandi exacerbates:

“Whether in a communist, socialist, or a capitalist system, the state appears as the brain signalling if not directly controlling the direction it wants the economy to take, the ways and means by which human and physical resources are to be deployed, and how the country is to relate to its neighbors and the world beyond.  A state elite preoccupied with preserving and asserting its power against potential challengers that might arise from within or beyond the state is necessarily less intelligent in performing these functions that one freed from such worries. The deep state in Republican Egypt has been dedicated to preserving control of the limited access order it created, subordinating the remainder of the state, as well as political and civil society,  to that end. As a result, the three branches of government could not develop infrastructural power with which better to perform their duties, relying instead on less efficient despotic power to crudely force compliance by citizens.  Political and civil society, shackled by intrusive manipulation and outfight repression, could not serve as arenas within which public brainpower cold be developed and drawn upon by the state better to discharge its functions. State and citizens alike are caught in an ever-narrowing socio-fiscal trap in which there are insufficient resources to both sustain the political status quo and lay the foundations for future growth, which would in turn make possible an escape from the trap through the formation of a new, political support coalition. “ (Egypt – p.161)

2011 was meant to be an opportunity to break free from that vicious trap, break the limited-access order and allow for a greater say from the public in the way the country and the economy are run, to let in fresh blood, expand the public brain power to benefit all, establish a new a new social contract between the state and its citizens based on rights and obligations, to replace the pharaonic model of the absolute ruler who knows the best interests of his subjects and the nation at large.

Sisi and the small group around him do not seem to have learnt the lessons of the revolution. In fact, they believe it was a foreign conspiracy and they are determined to do their best to prevent anything like it from happening again, as Sisis’ outburst on 31 of Jan clearly shows.  Bizarre,  many would think, given that it was actually the 2011 uprising that eventually brought Sisi himself to power.

The masterminds of the regime — if there is such a thing given the mess and incompetence — are clearly determined to cast Sisi as a latter-day reincarnation of Nasser, the founder of Egypt as a police state, to cash in on the symbolic capital the historic figure still enjoys.

But there is no way this will work. Nasser’s charisma and oratorial skills aside,  his Egypt was a small nation of some twenty million. Today it is five times larger and is increasing at the rate of 2.5 million a year. The nationalism of the fifties and sixties,  where fear of and hostility to Israel and the West was the engine of mobilising the public,  can no longer work as a rallying cry to unite the masses against the foreign enemy, nothing compared to the threat of terrorism today. (But that hasn’t prevented the Sisi regime frmo trying hard to use it to mobilise public opinion against dissent or to silence  critics.)

Whipping up anti-American sentiments ring hollow today as Egypt is a major recipient of American aid and the anti-colonial rhetoric of the past century is patently outmoded.

Furthermore, it can longer afford to be the closed and inward looking regime of Nasser because it desperately needs foreign investment and tourism. It might try to ally itself with Putin’s Russia – but that is a far cry from the Soviet Union of the cold war.  In Nasser’s Egypt there were no satellite television, no internet, no social media. Short of turning Egypt into another North Korea,  these technological advances makes controlling the message virtually impossible.  Trying out policies that may have worked half a century ago ( and they didn’t ) is a sign of stagnation, dearth of political imagination, and lack of awareness of how much the world has changed.

Or is it perhaps driven by nostalgia, an emotional attachment to the world Sisi and his peers grew up in ? He has spoken affectionately of Nasser and expressed hope that the media will support him in the way it used to stand behind Nasser in the fifties and sixties. That is not wide of the mark,  given the way the state has moved to “take-over” or control private media companies to ensure that they all trumpet Sisi’s message of great achievements at home and foreign conspiracies abroad.

Sadly for Egypt, it’s a mind-set that does not understand how much the world has moved on. It refuses to accept that today any one with a tablet or a mobile phone can easily find out about what’s going on in the world and broadcast that to the whole of Egypt and debunk whatever story the state media wants to put out.  In short — treating Egyptians like minors will not bring stability. But more unrest.

And many appeals by Sisi-friendly voices to chart a different course out of fear that the outlawed Muslim Brothers could be the biggest beneficiary of a rift between the government, Sisi and the public have fallen on deaf ears.

Defenders of Sisi  maintain that Egypt’s current exceptional circumstances — the real threat of terrorism in Sinai and elsewhere, the dangerous regional instability that surrounds Egypt on all sides — call for exceptional measures. Not only that, they also assert that the lack of viable political parties that can shoulder the responsibility of running a country facing such enormous threats has left the military leadership and the deep state with no other option but to continue to support Sisi with or without election. Otherwise, it is argued, the country could be taken over by the Muslim Brothers or descend into chaos — a fear genuinely felt even by many of Sisi’s reluctant supporters. This amounts to prescribing to Egypt the very same medicine that has devastated its political and civic life since 1952 — a strong man at the top whose iron grip can hold the country together as it faces existential threats.

Back to the “election”. It is a foregone conclusion that Sisi would win again this time– but most likely with a much reduced mandate than the one he got four years ago. Back then he enjoyed a broad-based support when the army endorsed the popular uprising against the totalitarian and terrorism-designated Muslim Brothers.  Economic hardships and clamp down on dissent and freedom of expression during Sisi’s first term have alienated a large swathe of the population who are expected to ignore the vote. The crisis of legitimacy that has always blighted the authoritarian rule is likely to intensify.

Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.


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