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Cracks in Sisi’s Façade

Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections are a sham. But the opposition can still take advantage of this moment to push for genuine reforms that the country desperately needs.

By Waleed Shawky

October 2023

Egypt stands at a critical juncture. As the country’s economic crisis intensifies and the government continues to choke on mounting debt, the political status quo is becoming unsustainable. In two months, Egyptians will choose their next president. Of course, the outcome of Egypt’s presidential contest is already known. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won the last election with more than 97 percent of the vote, and he isn’t planning on leaving his political fortunes in the hands of the people this time either. But the Egyptian strongman is also not content to steamroll his way to an obviously corrupt victory. His government has recently demonstrated a desire to put up at least a façade of democratic legitimacy, and in doing so it is creating a small crevice for civic space. If the opposition plays its cards carefully, it can take advantage of this moment to push for much-needed reforms.

This is not the first time the Sisi regime has feigned political openness. I spent three years in prison for my participation in the Arab Spring in 2011 and founding role in Egypt’s April 6th Youth Movement, which helped organize the protests against the late Egyptian ruler, Hosni Mubarak. In 2018, I was arrested in Cairo at the dental clinic where I worked, without formal charges, for my longstanding involvement in activist politics. Some of the people I met in prison were guilty only of posting comments critical of Sisi on social media. Shortly after my release from prison in April 2022, I was invited to participate in a state-sponsored national dialogue with other members of civil society. But, as I suspected, this effort was not a genuine attempt to usher in political change. Along with the release of several prominent political prisoners, the national dialogue was part of Sisi’s attempt to enact cosmetic political reforms in hopes of placating the International Monetary Fund, which lent upwards of $3 billion to Sisi’s government last year.

In practice, the so-called national dialogue involved only a small fraction of the opposition, whose perspectives were drowned out by political groups run by the state security services. And the conversations, held in government-hosted roundtables, focused almost exclusively on trivial questions irrelevant to the serious political and economic problems confronting the country. In September, in anticipation of the election, the regime ended the national dialogue. But much like the dialogue and past elections under Sisi, the upcoming vote is nothing more than a front for an authoritarian coronation.

Still, even if the election is a sham, the cracks in the façade offer room for hope. As political parties and civil society actors gain access to a sliver of freedom, they must assert a bold, pragmatic, and unified vision for the country. By doing so — without succumbing to factionalism or overplaying their hand with overt antagonism toward the regime — the opposition can lay the groundwork for lasting change.

The opportunity comes at a moment of dire need. Egypt’s current economic, political, and social predicament is a culmination of the regime’s longstanding graft, incompetence, and fear. The prevalence of corruption and nepotism in state institutions, the military’s expanding control over the economy, the regime’s erosion of civil space, and the state’s over-reliance on security solutions to address social and political tensions have all contributed to the country’s present instability. As a former political prisoner, I have experienced firsthand the devastating costs of this authoritarian model, and I am not alone. During the past decade under Sisi, an estimated sixty-thousand political prisoners have been arrested. The Egyptian military’s primacy in all things has led to an overweening and entrenched militarization across society.

Unsurprisingly, these practices have only made matters worse, despite Sisi’s promises of economic stability and growth. So too has Sisi’s unsustainable pattern of borrowing to invest in large infrastructure and megaprojects, which has brought a severe strain to an Egyptian economy plagued by currency devaluation, inflation, and ballooning external debt. Faced with growing public resentment, the regime has become increasingly reliant on the IMF, selling state assets and promoting the role of the private sector per the stipulations of the international funding agency.

Although the regime is determined to treat elections as opportunities to project a semblance of democracy to the international community, the political theater has been anything but convincing. In the lead-up to every major national vote, security agencies have handpicked the candidates, fixing the ballot in favor of the regime’s desired outcomes. Presidential elections have become akin to single-candidate referendums with predetermined outcomes. The 2018 election, which saw Sisi so overwhelmingly reelected, is a case in point. The one candidate allowed to run against Sisi was a proud supporter of the incumbent president, whereas other serious contenders were barred from running. Among them was Sami Anan, a former army chief of staff, who was sent to jail shortly after announcing his presidential bid.

If anything approaching genuine change is to come about, the onus is on the civil opposition to act. This moment calls for members of civil society to put contentious politics and disagreements on the backburner and to begin entertaining pragmatic solutions that could meaningfully address the country’s political and economic woes. The opposition’s alternative narrative, directed to the public rather than to the authorities, should present a practical, realistic, and actionable vision for addressing the ongoing economic crisis and mitigating its impact on the people. For example, they should propose policies that prioritize the private sector, rather than sweetheart deals for the military or the next infrastructure megaproject. By focusing on tangible solutions, a unified opposition could garner wider public support.

In addition, the opposition should work to reassure established political actors, especially the armed forces, that a process of democratization will not pose an existential threat to their interests. They should emphasize that democratization can provide an opportunity for a lasting political consensus, leading the country out of the current impasse with minimal losses. With pragmatic proposals, civil society could also work to present itself as a viable alternative to the perceived efficiency and cost-effectiveness of military rule. Finally, the opposition should offer a way to address the public’s anger through political channels. This can be achieved by exerting pressure on the state to initiate reforms that prioritize the public interest over powerful insiders. If powerful insiders come to view civil society as an effective force for economic and social reform rather than an existential threat, they may willingly cede some of their authority. Above all, the opposition must convey to the public that a political solution is not only desirable but also achievable, even if it may not be immediately realized.

The truth is that the status quo poses a danger to all of Egypt, regardless of partisan affiliations. Any viable approach must begin with building consensus around realistic solutions to the country’s political and economic problems. It must also strive to recalibrate civil-military relations, such that the military recognizes the necessity and legitimacy of civilian rule and allows for competent civilian administration to take over the affairs of the state.

Even if the outcome of the December 2023 election is predetermined, the politics surrounding the election could mark the start of a new movement demanding greater political inclusion, participation, and accountability. With a comprehensive strategy, the opposition could challenge the idea that the regime is the savior of the nation and could introduce an alternative narrative that transcends ideological polarization and partisanship. By doing so, the opposition could foster a sense of unity and common purpose among the populace. As demanding and difficult as it may be, such a unified opposition will be imperative to steer Egypt away from further deterioration. The opposition must unite behind a positive political vision, even if there is little hope that it will be realized soon. The future of Egypt depends on it.

Waleed Shawky is an Egyptian human rights researcher and civic activist. A dentist by trade, he is well-known for his role as co-founder of the April 6th Youth Movement.


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images




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