IntelBrief: Sisi Consolidates Power in Egypt
April 18, 2019
Bottom Line Up Front
• On April 16, Egypt’s parliament passed amendments to the Constitution that provide President al-Sisi with a path forward to maintain power until 2030.
• There is little observable public opposition to the constitutional changes, likely a result of the oppressive nature of the Egyptian government.
• Under al-Sisi, Egypt has become even more autocratic than it was under Mubarak, though both leaders received U.S. backing in return for the promise of stability.
• Recent political upheaval in Algeria and Sudan have little hope of being replicated in Egypt, where the initial murmurings of the Arab Spring have since been silenced.
While nonviolent popular protests recently toppled long-standing dictators in Sudan and Algeria, the autocratic government in Egypt is attempting to insulate the regime for years to come. Following a 2014 coup, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi consolidated power, quelling a volatile period of Egyptian politics that began after longtime-dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled in the early days of the Arab Spring. Those protests have long since been silenced in Egypt. Al-Sisi won a farcical 97.8% of the vote in the 2018 presidential election and has cracked down on dissent by credible political opposition parties and groups. His government has limited press freedoms, pressured non-governmental organizations, and arrested demonstrators; recently there were mass arrests of people protesting proposed changes to the constitution that will give al-Sisi even more power.
On April 16, Egypt’s parliament passed amendments to the Constitution that provides President al-Sisi with a path forward to maintain power until 2030. Among the changes are an increase from four to six years for the president’s term of office and near-complete control by the president over the judiciary. The amendments will now be subject to a public referendum, which could begin as early as next week and unfold over a three-day period. These changes will solidify al-Sisi’s grip on the Egyptian political regime, and yet Western leaders have embraced him. The choice by the world’s leading democracies to support leaders who promise stability over freedom is not unique to Egypt, but few other countries have matched the decades-long sclerosis of government by permanent emergency law and autocratic presidents as has that country. The crushing of mainline political opposition, in the form of reputable parties with credible chances at winning elections, pushes all opposition to the margins. Islamists are being persecuted, which forces them to go underground, having the adverse effect of ensuring they become extremely well-organized in order to survive.
Al-Sisi met with Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar on April 14 in Cairo to discuss the latter’s current military campaign to take Tripoli; Egypt is a significant supporter of Haftar’s rival government in eastern Libya. The U.N formally recognizes the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, as the legitimate Libyan government. Meanwhile, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is now fighting on the outskirts of the capital, ignoring calls by the U.N. to cease its offensive. Perhaps emboldened by his success in clamping down on Egypt’s domestic political opposition, al-Sisi has looked abroad to further his influence, intervening in neighboring Libya as a means of establishing a buffer zone on the border.
Under al-Sisi’s leadership, Egypt has detained a record number of its citizens, with serious allegations of systematic torture occurring in prisons throughout the country. Those imprisoned are subjected to extremely harsh conditions, making Egypt’s jails a breeding ground for extremism and radicalization. When combined with the low-level but interminable insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s growing prison population is a threat that will have to be dealt with—likely sooner rather than later. Treating all political opposition as illegitimate, and casting political opponents as enemies of the state, will do little more than create incentives to pursue violent means to political ends. Losing fellow strongmen rulers in Sudan and Algeria as a result of sustained nonviolent popular protests could reinforce al-Sisi’s calculations that the best prevention of internal dissension is more suppression, which is a gamble that could prove counterproductive in the long run, and ultimately lead to widespread political instability.
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