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Electing authoritarianism in Egypt

Egypt’s flirtation with civilian government was as brief as it was disastrous

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

In 2014, Egyptians may vote for the very thing they fought so bravely to overthrow: authoritarian military rule. Several nationwide campaigns have come together to urge Abdel Fattah al-Sisi - the head of the army, as well as the country’s defence minister and deputy prime minister - to run for president.

They are being backed by print, broadcast and social media, amid a public state of near-worship of the man who announced the overthrow in July of Mohammad Mursi, the country’s only democratically-elected civilian leader. This would have been unthinkable before then - only last year, Egyptians were united in protesting against the continuation of decades of military rule after they toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Their flirtation with civilian government was as brief as it was disastrous, such that many of those who had taken to the streets are now yearning for a strongman to lead them once again - the result of a combination of convenient amnesia, unbridled nationalism, sheer desperation, pent-up frustration and paranoia.

Will Sisi run for president?

Sisi has been somewhat cryptic about whether he will consider running for president. When first asked by the Washington Post, he did not answer directly. When the newspaper asked again, he replied: “You just can’t believe that there are people who don’t aspire for authority.” This is ironic, because for all intents and purposes he is currently the head of the country, its pliant interim government appointed by the military.

Three weeks after ousting Mursi, Sisi said in a speech that “the honour of achieving a popular demand is bigger than the honour of leading Egypt.” However, it looks like the popular demand is for him to lead the country. If he entered the presidential race, he would undoubtedly win. In fact, it would not be much of a race at all.

“There are no declared candidates just months before the election,” wrote Ariel Ben Solomon, Middle East correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. “Other politicians could be waiting to see whether Sisi is going to run before announcing their own intentions.”

Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who narrowly lost to Mursi in the last presidential election, said that instead of entering the race again, he would be “the first one to support” Sisi if the latter decided to run. “We should all support him,” Shafiq added.

Many are, including former presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi, as well as the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros. Even the Salafist al-Nour party - which won the second-largest number of seats in the last parliamentary elections after the Muslim Brotherhood, and which has been critical of the interim authorities - said it is open to the idea.

Such support is not necessarily borne out of patriotism, but out of political realism - who would want to campaign against a sure winner? Portraits of Sisi are all over the place, popular foods are being named after him, songs are being written and sung about him, and a petition urging him to run is reportedly attracting millions of signatures.

“Hardly anyone remembers the name of the interim president, and none of the politicians or political parties have much of a following, so it’s no surprise that people are urging Sisi to run,” said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

Sisi has achieved cult status, such that he is being likened to the late iconic pan-Arab nationalist and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The latter’s son Abdel Hakim said “the whole Nasserite current” would endorse Sisi if he runs for president. If he did so, he would either be unopposed, or there would be a few token candidates to give the elections a veneer of choice, competition and legitimacy.

“All the criticism surrounding electing military personalities relate to old experiences that contradicted democracy,” said Moussa. “But the president can be from a military background but elected in a democratic framework.”

In Egypt’s case, that would have been true until the ban in September of all Brotherhood activities. Even though the movement would have probably boycotted the elections anyway, barring the country’s largest, oldest and most organized opposition party means the vote would be inherently undemocratic.

Should he?

If Sisi chose not to run for president, Egypt’s next leader would likely lack sufficient public support to make the tough decisions necessary to tackle the country’s chronic problems.

Many Egyptians think that only a military figure - tough and disciplined - can pull the country out of its crises, and particularly tackle violence, militancy and lawlessness that have increased markedly since Mursi’s overthrow and the subsequent crackdown against his supporters. As such, Sisi may heed public demand.

Certainly, a president with a military background would command greater trust, respect and obedience from the army, a hugely influential institution in Egypt, and not just where security is concerned.

“It is clear that [Sisi] has strong support from the army, security services and state apparatus,” said Abdullah al-Sennawi, a columnist for the Egyptian daily al-Shorouq. “That makes him powerful. So if somebody else is elected, we risk having two heads of state.”

Authoritarianism is not just returning, but being cheered on and likely voted in by many of those who had valiantly opposed it

Sharif Nashashibi

That might actually suit Sisi. For the foreseeable future, Egypt’s governments are likely to be heavily reliant on the backing of the army, which has always played a central role in the country’s politics. As such, even if he was not president, he could still call the shots, but without assuming responsibility, or taking flak, for national problems that are unrelated to security, and about which he has no experience or expertise.

The public’s adulation of Sisi could work against him, as expectations would be raised impossibly high, thus inviting disappointment. “Running for president comes with its own risks,” said Tadros, as Sisi would be “held accountable for the certain policy failures that will emerge.” Indeed, the army chief might well view the deteriorating security situation in Egypt as headache enough.

Furthermore, there is a view held even among Sisi’s admirers that he should stick to what he knows best. Ahmed Taha, a writer for the daily al-Youm al-Sabaa, urges Egyptians to “leave him to his sacred duties” as head of the army. That is “more important than being head of state, as internal and external dangers to the nation require the army’s capacities to be reinforced, and only Sisi can” do that.

Erosion of democracy

The prospect of him becoming president is stoking legitimate fears, even among those who supported Mursi’s ouster, about a return to military rule. It could give the impression that Sisi toppled him for his own interests rather than those of the nation, and thus compound the view that what took place was a military coup.

Political nomination of army figures is “particularly damaging to the civilian character of politics, and may completely eliminate the chances of democratic transformation, deepen the lack of balance in civil-military relations, and reduce the risk of pushing them constitutionally, legally and politically toward democracy,” said Amr Hamzawy, founder of the Egyptian Freedom Party and a leading member of the National Salvation Front, the alliance of political parties that was at the forefront of opposition to Mursi.

Suspicions over the agenda of Sisi and the military have been further fuelled by the endorsement of the army chief by the widely reviled Mubarak, who was spawned and propped up by the military. Mubarak’s lawyer Farid al-Deeb said his client, who was recently released from prison, described Sisi as “Egypt’s hope,” and believes that only he is currently fit for the presidency. Sisi may well be wishing that al-Deeb had kept his mouth shut.

“The Egyptians want a strong president capable of taking decisions regardless of that decision’s political effectiveness,” said Moussa, who was a foreign minister for 10 years under Mubarak. That is the fundamental problem. Such is the public backlash against the rule of Mursi and the Brotherhood that people are largely unquestioning of the authorities that replaced them.

This has allowed the reversion of Egypt to a police state, where human rights abuses are rampant, freedoms brazenly curtailed and dissent ruthlessly silenced, all under the banner of fighting terrorism, religious fanaticism and foreign meddling.

In October, a video was leaked of Sisi telling his generals: “We’ve been concerned with controlling the media from the very first day the army took over power in 2011... It takes a long time before you’re able to affect and control the media. We’re working on this and we’re achieving more positive results...”

The public has accepted this sorry state of affairs, indeed embraced it, because such measures have thus far targeted Mursi’s supporters. However, the net is widening to include the former president’s opponents who have nonetheless expressed criticism of the interim authorities or the military.

This is a dark harbinger of things to come, and shows that dissent from anyone is unacceptable. Most Egyptians have not yet clocked on, or do not yet care, because unrest is largely coming from Mursi supporters regarding his overthrow and the crackdown against them.

However, if or when general criticisms and protests about national issues that affect everyone are met with similar heavy-handedness and intolerance, who can Egyptians blame other than themselves for endorsing such repressive measures, and electing those who have proposed and implemented them?

The original goals of the revolution have been abandoned. Authoritarianism is not just returning, but being cheered on and likely voted in by many of those who had valiantly opposed it. This is what the promised path to “democracy” looks like in today’s Egypt.

This article was first published in The Middle East magazine in November, 2013.

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.