Foreign Policy Blogs

How long will Egypt tolerate Sisi?

People walk by a poster of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for the upcoming presidential election, in Cairo, Egypt, March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is slated to win elections on March 28. His only contender, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, is someone who has not only called himself a “big supporter” of Sisi, but has also worked as member, until he announced candidacy in the last minutes of a final deadline, on the president’s re-election campaign team. Other contenders, who have been the likes of a former military officer, a former prime minister, and a human rights lawyer, have all either been arrested or forced to back down.

This year’s dummy election is, of course, the last of the anomaly that gives us a glimpse into Sisi’s repressive one-man rule. Under Sisi, the government has passed a series of restrictive laws that has effectively paralyzed civil society. In 2017, for instance, the government passed a law that threatened members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—like human rights groups—with criminal prosecution if they snubbed or went around restrictive rules.

In 2016, Sisi’s government brutally beat protesters who demonstrated against a deal that transferred Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia. The demonstrations were especially important because in some ways, it revealed the wishes of Egyptians, who have time and again, expressed their ambition to gain political rights and achieve social justice as much as they have called for  an improvement to their standards of living.

When the wave of popular protests of 2011 felled Hosni Mubarak from power, one man, Wael Ghonim, as F. Gregory Gause III noted in Foreign Affairs, appeared as exactly the kind who could succeed in post-Mubarak Egypt. Ghonim spoke both Arabic and English, was educated at the American University in Cairo, and most significantly, worked as an executive at Google. Still, Ghonim traded economic opportunity in exchange for political freedom. He set up a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said,” in memory of an Egyptian activist who was beaten to death by the police, and fomented the critical turning that led people to rise against the Mubarak regime.

In addition to people’s demands, there is something to be said of social movements in Egypt, and more generally, in Arab countries. Most social movement theories build on the experiences of the West, and largely ignore critical aspects that punch momentum into movements in other countries. Social movement theorists, over the years, have, no doubt, realigned their thinking and contended to the fact that political opportunities, like the chance for people to act together—and not structural factors, like formal organizations—have been the real harbingers of change. Yet, as Jeff Goodwin, a leading scholar on social movements has explained, protests that entail a good element of “constructionism” or the way in which people construct their own history under circumstances that they are able to make the most of, have been largely underscored in social movement studies. Political opportunity continues to be studied against structural conduits, and social movement theories continue to retain a structural bias. Thus, Islamism, as a social movement that highlights the citizens prolonged efforts to gain political rights, along with their practise of Islam, falls dead on arrival. Neither politicians in Egypt, nor Western policy experts, can grapple adequately with the marriage of Islam and modernity.

The lack of understanding of this concept of social movement, and therefore the lack of support for “alternative modernity” from the international community, can be one way to explain why nascent democratic movements in Egypt have risen as quickly as they have died. The Kefaya movement of 2004 offers an example of this. Although the movement could not sustain itself in the long run, Kefaya, which means “enough” in Arabic, touched on the cornerstone of the people’s movement that ultimately forced Mubarak to open up presidential elections in 2005. It was also the first anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Egypt. Egyptians wanted an end to inheritance of power (Mubarak was set to transfer power to his son, Gamal), and demanded free, fair, and competitive elections (Mubarak held office for four consecutive terms in “yes-or-no” referendums). Kefaya was successful, in the beginning, because it brought people from all swaths of the society, from secularists and Islamists, from people of different social backgrounds, to demand structural change. The movement, like the protests of 2011, built itself from the bottom-up. Leaders communicated with protestors on their cell phones, instead of announcing their agendas from traditional headquarters. However, internal differences, such as differing interpretations of democracy among leaders, ultimately contributed to the end of Kefaya.

Today, Sisi has shown no sign of granting civil liberties to its citizens. Much of the talk lately has focused on Sisi’s agenda to revive the economy, and while he deserves some credit for it, the common man and woman, who have largely borne the brunt of harsh austerity policies, are still awaiting their turn to reap the benefits. The international community, now in disarray, has lost its power to condemn Sisi’s nationalistic tendencies. In that case, Sisi should remember that, the more he presses ahead and suppresses political will, the more likely he drives momentum to the cause.