Egypt: Four years, four presidents

The story of the four presidents shows how difficult Egypt’s transition has been.

Under pressure from protesters, Mubarak and his sons were arrested and tried for corruption and conspiring to kill protesters, four years later the charges were dropped [EPA]

Since the January 25 uprising which forced Hosni Mubarak out of power after 30 years in office, Egypt has known four presidents, equal to the number of presidents the country has known in six decades – since the 1952 military coup that ended the monarchy. 

The story of the four presidents not only reflects how difficult Egypt’s transition has been, but it also exposes how Egypt’s various political actors could not rise up to the challenge, as they often get trapped in partisan politics and power-grabbing instead of supporting the Egyptians’ search for freedom and democracy.

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Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi had been Mubarak’s defence minister for 20 years and the head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), when Mubarak handed over his powers after failing to crack down on the protest movement. To appease protesters, SCAF suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament and called for a democratic constitution and elections. Despite holding a successful constitutional referendum, calling for a speedy transition of authority to an elected civilian government, SCAF was reluctant to transfer power. 

Under pressure from protesters, Tantawi ordered Mubarak to be arrested and tried for corruption and conspiring to kill protesters, and scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections. 

In January 2012, a coalition led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won more than 40 percent of the seats in the lower chamber of Egypt’s parliament, the People’s Assembly. A month later, the FJP and the Salafist Alnour party controlled the majority of seats at the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament.  

The quick rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power was strongly opposed by secular activists and former Mubarak regime loyalists, who often accused SCAF and Tantawi of being in a tacit coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood, seen as the most organised political group.

The quick rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power was strongly opposed by secular activists and former Mubarak regime loyalists, who often accused SCAF and Tantawi of being in a tacit coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood, seen as the most organised political group.

But, under increasing pressure from protesters, Tantawi held presidential elections in May 2012, opening the door for the election of a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, as Egypt’s first democratically elected and civilian president.

Before handing over executive authority to the elected president, a court order dissolved the People’s Assembly. In response, SCAF retained some legislative powers, making it a co-ruler of Egypt along with Morsi.

Morsi was elected president with 51.7 percent of the vote, defeating Ahmed Shafiq, a former military general and Mubarak’s last prime minister. 

In August 2012, Morsi moved to consolidate power under his rule by sacking Tantawi and appointing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the head of military intelligence, in his place. Morsi also launched an investigation into the killing of protesters during the revolution. But the final report of the investigation was never made public.

However, Morsi’s public support was seriously tested in November 2012, when he used his powers, in the absence of parliament, to issue a constitutional declaration putting himself above oversight.

Morsi said his goal was to protect the constituent assembly, which was working on writing the new constitution, from being dissolved by the court. Yet, his opponents thought that the move made him into an elected tyrant.

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In December 2012, the new constitution was adopted effectively, limiting Morsi’s executive authority by sharing it with the prime minister. The Brotherhood’s electoral victories raised tensions between Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters, and a wide coalition of mainly secular groups. Egypt was polarised.

Morsi’s opponents often accused him of failing to listen to his critics, of being unwilling to share power, and of rushing to hold elections in order to consolidate more power in the hands of his group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

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On July 3, 2013, Sisi led a coalition of secular parties along with Alnour party to oust Morsi from power, appoint the head of the Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, as interim president, and call for amending the constitution and for new parliamentary and presidential elections.

In addition to implementing the transition roadmap, Mansour took charge of suppressing the large anti-coup protest movement, led by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters.

Morsi and several of his top aides and Brotherhood leaders were arrested, several religious channels were shut down, and large anti-coup sit-in camps in Cairo and Giza were dispersed by force on August 14, 2013. The dispersal of the sit-ins left at least 817 protesters dead, according to Human Rights Watch, which feared that the crackdown “probably amounts to crimes against humanity”.

In the following months, thousands of Muslim brotherhood supporters were arrested and a new law, banning protests without prior government approval, was adopted. Some of the revolution’s most prominent youth leaders, such as Ahmed Maher, of the April 6 Youth Movement, and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, were imprisoned for violating the new anti-protest law. 

An amended constitution was adopted giving military, police and courts more autonomy. Sisi was promoted by Mansour to a field marshal. The Muslim Brotherhood was declared a “terrorist” group by an executive order. In addition, the Brotherhood’s FJP was later dissolved by a court order.

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When presidential elections were held in May 2014, several former presidential candidates boycotted it, fearing Egypt’s lack of a free political atmosphere and the fact that Sisi was widely promoted by state-run and private media as Egypt’s next president. In June, Sisi was declared president with nearly 97 percent of the vote.

As a presidential candidate, Sisi presented himself as a military man who appreciated the values of national service. He also focused on the need to restore security, stability and the economy.

During his first six months in power, Sisi cut fuel subsidies about 25 percent ($5.6bn) in order to control the rising budget deficit. He also launched a project, financed by local loans, to expand the Suez Canal, hoping that, once ready, it would increase traffic and revenues.

Politically, Mubarak and his interior minister were cleared of charges related to conspiring to kill protesters during the popular uprising. Courts have also freed Mubarak’s two sons, top officials and business tycoons, raising fears that the old regime was coming back.

In the meantime, thousands of activists, including prominent secular youth and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, are still in jail facing charges related to protesting without a permit, insulting the judiciary, and attacking security forces.

Many intellectuals and youth activists have fled the country, fearing persecution. Scores of journalists are behind bars, facing accusations ranging from publishing false news to supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. 

Parliamentary elections are scheduled in March. Opposition parties, however, say the new elections law favours wealthy independents and old Mubarak regime loyalists and leaves little room for parties to compete. They also fear that the ongoing crackdown on opposition and press freedoms leaves little space, if any, for holding free elections. 

During a celebration of police day in Cairo on January 20, Sisi told a room packed with police officers that Egypt is at the forefront of a regional war against “terrorism”, and that those who question his commitment to human rights and freedom of expression are ignoring Egypt’s political and economic challenges and priorities.

“Ninety million want to eat, drink, live and be reassured for their future… I am not saying protests are rejected, never.” Sisi added that Egypt was currently facing “exceptional” circumstances, in which human rights violations were bound to happen – but such violations were, nonetheless, “unacceptable”.

Source: Al Jazeera