Strengthening the Strongman: Sisi moves Egypt further in the direction of authoritarianism

 /  May 20, 2019, 8:29 a.m.


On April 23, Egypt took another step toward autocracy. In a referendum, the country voted to hugely expand President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s power and potentially allow him to remain in office until 2030. These amendments dealt another devastating blow to the hopes of a democratic Egypt ignited by the Arab Spring in 2011: Sisi has now cemented himself as an authoritarian leader.

Over the past decade, Egypt’s hopes for a democratic government have dramatically fluctuated. Before the Arab Spring, Hosni Mubarak was the autocratic ruler of Egypt for three decades. When Egyptian protesters forced Mubarak to resign in 2011 as a part of the revolutionary wave that took the Arab world by storm, it seemed possible that Egypt could transition to a democracy. The country held its first democratic presidential election in 2012 and citizens picked Mohamed Morsi.

Yet Morsi turned out to have his own autocratic tendencies. He prevented the courts from overturning any of his decisions. Around one hundred protesters were estimated to be killed under his rule, while others were arrested. This unrest led to a resounding blow for the hopes of the Arab Spring. The military removed Morsi in a coup and later killed hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators who had staged a sit-in at a Cairo mosque.

Following this upheaval, Sisi was declared president of Egypt in 2014 after a controversial election that saw him presumably receive 97 percent of the vote. The new president promised to restore stability and improve dismal economic conditions. Yet his rule has so far been repressive in many ways. His regime has jailed both political opponents and people who post negative opinions about the state of Egypt on social media. Sisi has taken over the media, setting guidelines for how TV shows should discuss his regime. During the 2018 presidential election, all of Sisi’s major competitors were forced to withdraw or halt their campaigns due to intimidation. The recent referendum may be his most blatant step toward autocracy and signal the death of revolutionary hopes for a democratic Egypt.

The referendum extended the president’s term to six years instead of four. It would allow a maximum of two terms but give Sisi the special right to run for a third term in 2024. This could allow Sisi to remain in power until 2030. Supporters of the referendum justified this special treatment by arguing that Sisi needs more time to promote economic stability in the country. The referendum also grants the president more control over the judiciary and parliament, and even adds a senate to the legislature, of which two-thirds will be elected by the public and one-third will be handpicked by Sisi. The referendum also severely undercuts judicial independence—Sisi now has the power to select heads of judicial bodies, the public prosecutor, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Critics say these measures will return Egypt to Mubarak’s brand of authoritarian rule, with no end in sight for Sisi’s mandate. Some opposition members even say Sisi has gone even further in suppressing dissent than Mubarak: Mubarak allowed for some independent media and criticism, while Sisi has sought out and eliminated any kind of criticism for his regime.

Egyptian voters approved the amendments 89 percent to 11 percent, with a 44 percent turnout rate. Yet conditions surrounding the referendum were murky: opposition to the amendments was heavily suppressed by the state. According to Netblock, an NGO that monitors cyber security, Egyptian internet providers blocked access to around 34,000 internet domains to quash online opposition to the amendments. Political opposition leaders also face the threat of arrest for speaking against the Sisi regime, which includes criticism of the referendum. The state also directed a campaign to increase voter turnout, with an obvious bias toward getting voters to vote for the referendum. State-controlled media and social media accounts ran public service announcements about voting “yes.” Banners were hung throughout Cairo with pictures of Sisi next to a green check, symbolizing a yes vote, while opposition protesters were denied a space. All of these factors combined to ensure that there was no strong voice opposing the amendments leading up to the vote.

As hopes for a democratic government continue to fall within the country, international pushback against Sisi has been significantly lackluster over the past years. Rather than condemnation, Sisi has found support from international leaders. When Sisi met with President Trump in April, the American president said of his Egyptian counterpart, “I can just tell you he’s doing a great job. Great president.” Trump did not mention Egypt’s increasing political suppression or the several Americans detained in Egypt. French president Emmanuel Macron visited Egypt in January in a tacit show of support for Sisi — and the French government has become the top supplier of arms to Egypt in recent years. Armored vehicles supplied by the French have also been used to crush dissent in Cairo and Alexandria. Russian president Vladimir Putin has also expressed open support for Sisi’s regime and congratulated Sisi on the results of the recent amendment.

The last decade has seen a gradual rebuttal of the Arab Spring’s call for democracy. Sisi’s autocratic ambitions will only escalate following this referendum. Analysts speculate that while Sisi in theory should only rule until 2030 at the latest, he is setting himself up to hold the presidency for much longer. And if this referendum passed, what would stop Sisi from proposing another referendum that extends his rule? By controlling the media and political landscape of Egypt, Sisi is making it even more unlikely that anyone could ever mount a serious election campaign against him. Egypt could therefore be in for another long stretch of one-man rule.

Meghan Ward is a Staff Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article can be found here and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 as stated here.

Meghan Ward


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