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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Whither Egypt’s Democracy?

Filed under: Egypt

Whither Egypt’s Democracy?
President el-Sisi in uniform meeting officer in the Sinai. (Mohamed Abdelmoaty/Egyptian Presidency)
  • Since his election as Egypt’s president in 2014, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has continued to fight against the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist Islamic organizations, such as ISIS. El-Sisi is doing his utmost to keep Egypt governing under a secular regime – even if it comes at the expense of civil rights.
  • At the same time, el-Sisi has deepened his security relationship with Israel to bolster his battle for control of the Sinai.
  • What can Egypt, or the rest of the world, expect, from upcoming presidential elections, which present the incumbent president with little or no opposition?
Sisi speaking at the 2015 funeral
El-Sisi speaking at the 2015 funeral of an assassinated Egyptian public prosecutor. (Office of the Egyptian Presidency)

The ostensibly soft-spoken Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is doing whatever he can to ensure the survival and sustainability of Egypt’s secular military regime. Egypt’s civilian regime was first established in Egypt following the 1952 Revolution, which brought an end to the monarchy that had ruled the country for many years, bringing to power Muhammad Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The identity of el-Sisi’s main enemy has not changed. It remains as it was since the very beginnings of the military regime: the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Muslim organizations fighting to uproot the current regime to replace it with a “truly” Islamic regime.

Almost five years have elapsed since the fateful 2013 meeting between el-Sisi and the then-democratically-elected President Morsi when the general told his president that at end of their meeting he would be under house arrest. The rest is, of course, history.

A year later, el-Sisi was elected with an overwhelming majority as president of Egypt. Since then, he has devoted himself to consolidating his regime. Four years later, approaching the end of his presidential term, el-Sisi has declared his intention to run for an additional term in presidential elections to be held March 26-28, 2018. Assuming there are no surprises (and most probably there won’t be any of these), el-Sisi’s re-election is guaranteed by almost 100 percent of the voters, since his opponents in the presidential race have been eliminated, one after the other, for various reasons:

  1. When former general and Prime Minister Ahmad Shafik declared his intention to run against el-Sisi, he was arrested on his way back to Egypt after having spent four years in the United Arab Emirates. After a few days, during which even his closest family did not know of his whereabouts, he suddenly re-appeared in public and declared he had disqualified himself and would not participate in the presidential race.
  2. Another would-be candidate, Gen. Sami Anan, former Chief of Staff of the Egyptian army and bitter rival of el-Sisi, was put under house arrest and investigation “for inciting” against the armed forces. He was also accused of bribery and misconduct when gathering the necessary signatures needed to allow him to participate in the presidential race.1 Candidates can only run in the presidential elections if they succeed in enlisting the backing of at least 20 members of the People’s Assembly (Parliament), or they must be supported by at least 25,000 registered voters in at least 15 governorates.2
  3. Former Muslim Brotherhood member Dr. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who quit the organization and tried his luck against President Morsi in 2011, subsequently led the “Strong Egypt” party. After voicing his intention to run against el-Sisi in the upcoming presidential elections in 2018, Aboul Fotouh was arrested on returning to Egypt from London. He was accused of having secret meetings with exiled leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in the United Kingdom, with the intent of creating chaos in Egypt.3
  4. An obscure colonel who announced his candidacy in the presidential elections was thrown into jail and is now serving a six-year term under the pretext of meddling in politics.4
  5. Another presidential candidate, rights lawyer Khalid Ali, could serve a three-month jail sentence for “public indecency” after allegedly making a hand gesture outside a courthouse a year ago. Ali could be disqualified from running in the election if he loses his appeal in early March.5

Six months earlier, the late President Anwar Sadat’s nephew, also named Muhammad Anwar Sadat, could not get a hotel to rent a hall to launch his campaign, nor could he find printing houses that would agree to print out his manifesto.6

As a result of all these electoral roadblocks, opposition voices have harshly criticized the whole process and subsequently called to cancel the presidential elections. These calls angered el-Sisi and led to an unexpected development barely a month before the deadline of the elections. Moussa Mustafa Moussa, an almost unknown politician who had earlier proclaimed his support for the re-election of el-Sisi as president, announced his presidential bid.7

Troubling Developments

These latest developments should not surprise anyone. In fact, it seems that this is the natural course of events in el-Sisi’s Egypt and one of many examples of the regime’s efforts to survive an unprecedented wave of terrorism.

Indeed, since the beginning of his tenure, el-Sisi has been waging open war, not only against radical Islamists, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood and their offshoots, but also against the extreme Islamic radicals identified with the Islamic State (ISIS) inside Egypt, Libya, and the Sinai Peninsula. El-Sisi himself was targeted by those radicals twice, once during one of his visits to Saudi Arabia, where he performed the “Omra” (little pilgrimage). The terrorists had planned to smuggle huge amounts of explosives to the 34th floor of the Swiss Hotel where he was lodged, and if this failed, a woman wearing a suicide jacket was set to explode near the president. As to the second attempt, the plot to assassinate el-Sisi was to be carried out in Helwan, south of Cairo, by six officers, four of whom belonged to the “Central Security force” (al-Amn el-Markazi). Islamic terrorists also planned to target the plane carrying the Egyptian ministers of defense and the interior in late December 2017 while landing in the El-Arish military airport. As a result, stern anti-terrorist measures were taken, including razing a perimeter of five kilometers wide around the El-Arish airport.8

At the same time, El-Sisi has deepened his security relationship with Israel to bolster his battle for control of the Sinai.

El-Sisi has battled his enemies mercilessly. For example, he did not hesitate to open fire on crowds and kill more than 1,000 people during two sit-ins in Cairo carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood. El- Sisi has also been conducting a dragnet hunt for the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as members of radical Muslim terrorist organizations. His response to terrorism is engaging the enemy on the ground openly, and also in covert operations, by using force as needed and wherever applicable. In late 2017, El-Sisi gave his Chief of Staff three months to pacify the Sinai and subdue all terrorists. With the active cooperation of Israel, and bypassing the stipulations of the military annex of the Peace accords with Egypt limiting the deployment of the Egyptian army in Sinai, Egypt moved troops from both the 2nd and 3rd Field Armies into the Sinai Peninsula. He began a sweeping operation, beginning in 2018, codenamed “Sinai 2018,” aimed at eradicating the terrorist presence in Sinai.9

President el-Sisi in uniform meeting officer in the Sinai.
President el-Sisi in uniform meeting officer in the Sinai. (Mohamed Abdelmoaty/Egyptian Presidency)

Noticeable successes have been registered in the course of the last four years, such as the apprehension of the perpetrators of the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya. However, the terrorists have succeeded in inflicting spectacular blows, not only against the Egyptian army, security, and intelligence forces in the Sinai and in Egypt itself but also against major Coptic targets and civilians identified with Sufism and Sufi ideology. One example is an incident in November 2017, when Islamic State militants in Sinai killed more than 300 worshippers at a Friday prayer service in the Sheikh Zuweid mosque.

How Harsh Punishments Have Affected Freedom of Expression

The confrontation between the el-Sisi regime and the Islamists has had a direct impact on punitive measures adopted by the Egyptian regime. Since the beginning of el-Sisi’s tenure, Egypt has been witnessing a sharp rise in the numbers of death sentences pronounced by Egyptian courts, and as a result, executions have risen accordingly. In 2017, Egyptian courts pronounced 186 death sentences, compared to 60 a year previously. The number of executions by hanging doubled to 44 in 2016, after 22 the year before. In the whole of 2017, 16 people were executed, whereas, during the first nine days of 2018, seven convicted militants were hanged.10

Moreover, fearful of the impact of open criticism, el-Sisi has adopted harsh measures limiting the freedom of expression. Under the pretext of safeguarding the regime from terrorism, and following a car bomb attack that killed the top public prosecutor, el-Sisi approved in mid-2015 a controversial anti-terrorism law protecting police and law enforcement forces while punishing the media for spreading “false” reports. The law sets a minimum fine of about $25,000 and a maximum of almost $60,000 for anyone who diverges from government statements in publishing or spreading “false” reports on attacks or security operations against armed fighters. It also punishes with prison terms “those guilty of inciting, or prepared to incite, directly or indirectly, a terrorist act.” The law takes aim at those charged with forming or leading a group defined as a “terrorist entity” by the government and can be punishable by death, or life in prison. Membership in such a group can carry up to 10 years in jail, whereas financing “terrorist groups” can lead to a life sentence (which is 25 years in Egypt). Inciting violence, which includes “promoting ideas that call for violence,” will lead to between five and seven years in jail, as do creating or using websites that spread such ideas.11

In another twist, el-Sisi ratified in late December 2016 a new media law that created a Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, a body that can revoke licenses to foreign media and fine or suspend publications and broadcasters. As a result, journalists from the written and digital world were arrested, put in jail, and fined for perpetrating offenses against the regime, such as spreading false news and criticizing the regime. The number of arrests reached such an extent that according to a special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in the United States, in 2015, Egypt had the highest number of journalists behind bars since CPJ began keeping records, most of them accused of membership of a banned group.12

Also in December 2016, Egypt’s top Constitutional Court upheld a law passed in 2013 that bans protests. According to this law, would-be protesters have to notify the interior ministry of any public gathering of more than 10 people at least three days in advance, while it imposes jail sentences of up to five years on those who violate a broad list of protest restrictions and allows the security forces to disperse illegal demonstrations with water cannons, tear gas, and birdshot.13

What Lies Ahead for Egypt?

In less than four years since taking office and due to his merciless battle fought against Islamic radicals seeking to topple his regime, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has transformed Egypt’s political landscape into a repressive regime with zero tolerance for its critics and even less to its opponents. Criticizing the regime is almost tantamount to an open challenge of el-Sisi’s authority and is punishable by jail, harassment, and persecution. The glamour and magic touch that characterized el-Sisi’s rise have long vanished, and while refraining from expressing open criticism at home, the satellite channels, as well as the Arab press outside Egypt, have become the safe haven of politicians, comedians, actors, journalists, and people who have a say against what is going on in Egypt today.

There is no doubt that el-Sisi will be elected president for a second, and most probably a third, term if he wants to and if he survives potential attacks on his life. The big question remains: Where is Egypt drifting, and what sort of Egypt will we meet at the end of el-Sisi’s second term?

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