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Egypt's Sisi: President for life? Open in fullscreen

Robert Springborg

Egypt's Sisi: President for life?

Sisi won the election with more than 97 percent of the vote [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 April, 2018

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Comment: Egypt's election might have been a farce, but it has emboldened Sisi on his path of consolidating personal power, writes Robert Springborg.
Many assessments of Egypt's March presidential election portray it as revealing the weakness of the Sisi regime.

That no significant opposition candidate was allowed to contest the election; that weeks prior to the election Sisi reshuffled personnel in vital military and security posts; that the government was forced to employ a wide range of carrots and sticks to induce voters to go to the polls and even then apparently resorted to stuffing ballot boxes; and that turnout was below that of the 2014 presidential election, are proffered as evidence of Sisi's political frailties.

These and other signs of the regime's shakiness should, however, not obscure the more important outcome of the election, which was that it marked a milestone on the path to Sisi's consolidation of personal power.

It provided the opportunity for him to signal that he would tolerate no dissent within the deep state that runs the country, as suggested by his subordination of the vital Directorate of General Intelligence to his close associate, Abbas Kamel, and appointment of a new chief of staff of the military.

It demonstrated that the presidency through the deep state could mobilise the bureaucracy to shoo voters to the polls and deter even the semblance of a boycott campaign. And that this far from free and fair election was not an international political embarrassment for Egypt, rather an endorsement of its regime, could be argued on the grounds that congratulations were offered to Sisi on his re-election by a host of world leaders, including Trump, Putin, Merkel, Macron, May and others.

Congratulations were offered to Sisi on his re-election by a host of world leaders, including Trump, Putin, Merkel, Macron, May and others

Actual and mooted political initiatives in the wake of the election also point to it being a milestone on the path to presidential consolidation. Measure have already taken to prepare the public for Sisi as president; indeed, dictator for life, including removal of term limits, creation of a single party under presidential leadership, and rebalancing power away from parliament and the military toward the presidency. The latter shift was embodied in a possible constitutional amendment to render appointment of the Minister of Defense a presidential, rather than military prerogative.

These measures have been accompanied by actual enhancements of presidential power, typically asserted through military intelligence.

So, for example, Falcon Security, a private company created under the tutelage of that body and used to extend the military's and president's direct physical control onto university campuses and other politically sensitive locations, founded - prior to the election - a new company, Tawasul for Public Relations, which in turn has taken control of the country's remaining influential, privately owned media outlets.

Tawasul public relations has taken control of the country's remaining influential, privately owned media outlets

Within days of the declaration of the election's outcome, the regime announced that management of government owned television and radio stations would be overhauled, suggesting encroachments by other military associated personnel into this heretofore civilian dominated domain.

Glorification of presidential leadership which commenced during the election campaign, with an emphasis on his role in orchestrating counter terrorism Operation Sinai 2018 and the country's economic revival, has continued.

The body count of terrorists is claimed to continue to mount, while a steady drumbeat of positive economic indicators, ranging from foreign currency reserves to inflation and unemployment rates, are offered to attest to the wisdom of Sisi's leadership and that the sacrifices he has asked the nation to pay are beginning to pay real dividends.       

Read more: Egypt summons editor, journalists over 'fake news' election coverage

Foreign policy successes are similarly being trumpeted and likewise attest to the emergence of a new, yet more powerful and entrenched president. The vital if sometimes rocky relationship with Saudi Arabia was signaled as being stronger than ever by the conclusion of an agreement with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman whereby the new Saudi megacity, NEOM, would include $10 billion of investments in Egypt.

Foreign policy successes are similarly being trumpeted and likewise attest to the emergence of a new, yet more powerful and entrenched president

The rising status and power of Khalifa Haftar's National Libyan Army, heavily backed by Sisi, combined with the apparent weakening of the Ethiopian government, whose Greater Ethiopian Renaissance Dam threatens Egypt's share of Nile waters, are also interpreted by Cairo as evidence of the sagacity and competence of Sisi's regional policies.

That Egypt was the world's third largest purchaser of arms on international markets last year is presented as evidence not of economic profligacy, but of global endorsement of Sisi and Egypt.

Much of the post-election domestic praise of Sisi is excessive and possibly even counter-productive with public opinion. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the election has bolstered Sisi's confidence and appears to mark the consolidation of his personal power, albeit it dictatorial rather than truly electoral in nature.


This article was originally published on Huffington Post's MENARA blog.

Robert Springborg is the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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