By: Timothy E. Kaldas
With Sisi’s accession to Egypt’s presidency seeming inevitable, the tragic blow that this will deal to any prospect of a democratic transition for Egypt is becoming equally clear. The trouble does not even begin with Sisi’s ideological views, though indeed, it is difficult to claim that we even have a clear picture of his perspectives on policy, as he had refused to release a comprehensive program until a mere two days before the end of the official campaign period. One campaign official explained that this was because releasing a program could result in public disagreement.
This attitude is emblematic of the primary challenge that a Sisi presidency poses for Egypt and its future. Sisi’s campaign, rather than being built on a program of policies designed to alleviate the problems facing Egypt and Egyptians, has instead centered on the greatness and strong will of the candidate himself. In effect, the Egyptian people are once again being expected to endorse a political system built around a cult of personality. Political power centered on one strongman leader is a formula that has been tested and found wanting in Egypt over several decades. The failure of a system built around a powerful individual is not coincidental. It is, rather, an inevitable result of the grave realities that accompany the implementation of such a power structure.
Politics based on a strongman shrinks, if not entirely eliminates, space for meaningful public debate. For example, at some point, Sisi will make the first of his (likely many) policy mistakes. In a state with systems that hold leaders accountable, such mistakes can be identified and pushed towards correction by a vigilant and critical media, opposition political parties in parliament, and an independent judiciary. However, in the strongman system that Sisi seeks to (re)impose, such pushing for corrective action is not likely to be possible; in Sisi’s few public statements, he has been clear that he will not be open to competitive political systems of accountability. He has requested that the media restrain its public criticism of the government while simultaneously indicating that the people should not expect to have a full range of rights and freedoms until 20 or 25 years have passed.
When asked if his plans might be imperiled should the parliament refuses to pass laws that he requests, Sisi sarcastically dismissed the issue, asking rhetorically, “Will I wait for the parliament?” The interviewers respond with laughter. When asked about cracking down on corruption, Sisi explained that this was a sensitive matter as such a crackdown could offend “sovereign institutions” and lower morale. When challenged on civilian supervision of the military, Sisi avoided responding to the question and instead offered a telling statement where he spoke of the greatness of the military and his hope that Egypt as a whole could someday reach the military’s level.
Indeed, a system that operates with military-like efficiency, a lack of internal dissent, one that operates on a logic of response to desperate calls for national security and economic growth, may be ideal for the field-marshal-cum-president; however, for a state that seeks progress and improvement, this is a troubling prospect. Unfortunately, many seem confused regarding the importance of free speech and the value of a free press, seeing these values as luxuries for wealthy, developed countries that Egypt can ill afford in its present situation. It is, however, societies like Egypt’s that most require a critical and free press. In order for the people to discover and correct mistakes made by their leaders, there must be space for the media to investigate and report on such mistakes. There must also be a forum in which society can discuss these mistakes and the appropriate solutions to them. All this creates a space for much needed and long missing accountability mechanisms. In the absence of such a space, the results are not difficult to imagine.
Egypt has for decades had unaccountable military dictators who have repressed the press, ignored their parliaments, and jailed activists who opposed them. The results? Schools that produce illiterate graduates; hospitals that are more dangerous to patients than the diseases for which they seek treatment; collapsing infrastructure across the country; and widespread corruption. The absence of a political order in which power is distributed among different branches of government and on which non-governmental organizations keep a watchful eye leads to a perpetually corrupt status quo that costs the state a fortune in wasted resources and time. It also leaves the people to fend for themselves in the face of the vultures that emerge from the state’s most coercive and unaccountable elements.
As a society, Egyptians must move away from the view that a single individual is capable of rescuing them. The reality is that this dependence on individual rulers has been at the center of Egypt’s ongoing political problems. Further, the proposition that criticism and holding leaders accountable should be seen as somehow insulting has no place in a democratic society. Three years ago, when the Egyptian novelist Alaa Aswany forcefully confronted then-Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik on television, many were shocked and felt that Aswany had been rude to Shafik. In fact, this is precisely how any leader should be addressed by the media when they are lying to their people. To this day, many have not learned this lesson. Indeed, some complained that the interviewers who hosted Sisi were too tough on him. Confrontations between the media and political leaders, far from being insulting, are instead essential to a functional, accountable state. Without them, the people are left with the continuation of bad policies and no mechanisms for correcting them or holding accountable the officials responsible for them.
In effect, Sisi’s election is the crowning achievement of a counterrevolution that has sought to manage the explosion of popular political expression over the last three years. The theatrics have improved with time as the regime has been forced to refine its techniques of repression. Authorities appear to have moved away from stuffing the ballot box or blocking voter access to polling stations and focused on more sophisticated methods of influencing outcomes—one does not need to stuff a ballot box to rig an election. In Sisi’s “98% democracy,” media manipulation has proven highly effective in creating the impression that Sisi enjoys near unanimous support. Undoubtedly, the real picture under the surface is more complex, but—at least temporarily—the largely monolithic, pro-Sisi media has successfully given many critics of Sisi the impression that they lack the numbers necessary to mount a worthwhile challenge.
This is not an entirely new tactic. The fear that opponents of the regime could never achieve critical mass deterred mass protests against Mubarak for years in spite of a widespread sense that the man was almost universally despised. At some point, reality will filter through the media theatrics. There is reason to believe this is already beginning to happen. The regime’s overconfidence has resulted in actions that challenge the faith of many of their core supporters. For example, the growing scandal around the military’s untenable claim to have found a cure for Hepatitis C and AIDS has resulted in significant backlash, including statements from some of its most respected supporters in Egypt’s scientific community, such as famed heart surgeon Sir Magdy Yacoub and interim President Adly Mansour’s scientific advisor Essam Heggy.
The situation is likely to continue to unravel as Sisi’s grand persona fails to feed the hungry, to light homes without power, to educate children in public schools, and to treat the ill in the nation’s hospitals. In the end, Egypt lacks adequate resources to address its array of structural problems; if and Sisi continues to build the “Sisi state,” the unfortunate consequence for him is that he alone will be held responsible for any failure of the state to deliver on its promises. As president, Sisi will not be able to hide in the shadows and claim to simply be a defense minister with civilian minions to absorb the ire of the disappointed masses. The Egyptian state will be his, with all the powers and all the consequences.