Egypt: When the Elections Lead to Autocracy

BY MOHAMMED ALBARAK

An assembly of protesters in Cairo, 2011 (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images).

 

In 2014, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi won 99 percent of the votes in the Egyptian presidential election. On March 28, four years later, the results of the Egyptian election were announced; 97 percent of the votes went to the incumbent, President Al Sisi. Apparently, this trend will continue for several election cycles, especially in light of attempts to amend the constitution to allow Al Sisi to run for more terms. These presidential results, and the subsequent attempts to amend the constitution, signal the start of another autocratic era in Egypt.

Following the Revolution of Jan. 25, 2011, hope for political change rose across Egypt. Even though peaceful protesters faced massive crackdown, youth of all ideological persuasions celebrated the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime. Following Mubarak’s forced resignation, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed the legislative and executive powers in Egypt. However, the Egyptian military was hesitant to transfer power over to a civilian government, and the Supreme Council was especially wary of the impact the revolution could have on its political and economic interests. Since Egypt gained independence in 1952, all presidents have had military background, except for the one year of civilian rule following the revolution of 2011. Economically, the Egyptian military has been involved in all kind of activities – clothing, petroleum, food, etc: reports indicate that the military controls a massive economic empire.

After the 2011 revolution, the army maintained control of Egypt through the Supreme Council: for a year and half the Council postponed the presidential elections in an attempt to hinder the revolutionary momentum, which would have led to the overthrowing of the military oligarchs. Eventually, protests would force the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to announce a date of the first presidential election since the revolution, which would fall on May 23, 2012.

Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood won the election, and on June 30 2012, he was sworn in as Egypt’s first democratically elected president. His victory was a triumph for the main ideals of the revolution – bread, justice, and social equality: the iconic chant during the initial wave of protest against Mubarak’s regime.

Yet only a year later, the brief period of democracy ended: President Morsi was ousted by a military coup led by defense minister and current president, Abdul Fattah Al Sisi. Ever since Al Sisi assumed power, the military has regained its traditional role in politics and the economy, and it now holds an even stronger position than it did prior to 2011. The military’s grip on power was especially manifested on the latest presidential election.

It was thus no surprise that on Jan. 19, 2018, Al Sisi declared his bid to run for a second term. However, a surprise twist followed Al Sisi’s announcement when two senior military generals declared their intention to run against him. Ahmed Shafiq and Sami Anan would subsequently come to regret their attempts to challenge Al Sisi’s authority.

Ahmed Shafiq was the runner up against Morsi during the 2012 elections. He was the last Prime Minister during Mubarak’s rule and was seen as the military’s representative in that election. After losing he moved to the U.A.E where he stayed until he announced his bid to run against Al Sisi. Since 2013, Shafiq did not play any major political roles other than opposing Morsi’s regime. His most important appearance was on a recorded tape, aired through Al Jazeera, in which he shared that the U.A.E government was not allowing him to return to Egypt. The tape was seen as an embarrassing address by the U.A.E government, and as a result, Shafiq was deported from the U.A.E and arrested in the Cairo International Airport upon his arrival. Following his arrest, Shafiq was forced to withdraw from the presidential race, which was a blow to many of his supporters. Even though Shafiq was viewed as a strong military general, and enjoyed some public support, it didn’t really matter; Al Sisi had already achieved total control over the Egyptian government.

The other supposedly strong contender against Al Sisi was Sami Anan, a previous member of the Supreme Council following the 2011 revolution. Anan faced the same fate as Shafiq: a few days following his announcement to run for the election, he was arrested and imprisoned. He was charged with violating the military’s code of conduct to run for an election as well as other corruption charges. Ironically, Al Sisi was neverf upheld to the same military rules even though he announced his campaign wearing a military uniform. Anan has not appeared publicly since his arrest.

Despite the massive purge against all forms of opposition, even against military personnel who were seen as part of the current regime, the Egyptian government was committed to portraying a “democratic” process to the the international community. The extent of the unseriousness the election peaked when Al Sisi’s only “qualified” contender was one of his supporters whose Facebook account contained posts backing Al Sisi presidential bid. To market the election to the Egyptian public, it was supported by a massive propaganda campaign: public employees were forced to go voting centers, Al Sisi’s campaign posters filled the streets of Egypt. Bribery of food and cash were also common incentives to push people to vote for Al Sisi, especially in impoverished areas.  

The recent Egyptian election was no more than a sham to convince the international community of the legitimacy of Al Sisi’s government. However, the election has shown an unprecedented division among the military leadership. A series of leaks of a military intelligence captain and some talk show hosts has revealed a serious conflict between Egypt’s two intelligence agencies: the General Intelligence Directorate (GI) and the Military Intelligence Reconnaissance Administration (MI). Before being promoted as defense minister, Al Sisi served as head of the MI, and managed to gain the support of its leadership. On the other hand, Shafiq was supported by officers in the GI, and he was the agency’s candidate against Al Sisi. The recent leaks contained a captain in the MI instructing talk-show hosts and TV personal to attack Shafiq, if he decided to run for president. The captain spoke of officers in the GI who were supporting Shafiq and expressed tendency to remove them from their posts. Apart from displaying the blatant control of the army over all forms of media in Egypt, especially TV, the leaks were a critical indicator of unprecedented rivalry between Egypt’s two intelligence agencies.

The election was not a real test of the unpopular regime in Egypt, which has failed to achieve the most basic promises it has made to the Egyptian people. The Egyptian economy is in continuous downward spiral – and human rights are in no better condition. Political prisoners still fill Egyptian prisons, and Egypt’s leading role in the region continues to fall under scrutiny. The election was another episode on how autocratic regime use democratic banners merely to consolidate power.

Since the Revolution of Jan. 25, the Egyptian military has been the most powerful player in the Egyptian political scene. Prior to the mass uprising against Mubarak’s regime, the Egyptian army was viewed as guardian of liberty. But the manipulation, corruption, and mass crackdowns have exposed them. When the military intervened to remove Mubarak, people celebrated the move. Little did they know that the intervention was to preserve to military’s economic and political power. Today, fear and doubt are dominant themes in the Egyptian political scene, but the lesson has been learned. Another revolution will materialize one day, and when that happens, the Egyptian people will not fall in the military’s trap again.       

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