As Russian investigators on Tuesday concluded that a bomb caused the crash of a Russian plane in the Sinai Peninsula last month, the regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is facing its most severe crisis to date.
World powers have suspended flights in the area, and tourists have been fleeing in droves. At the same time, Egypt is in the midst of a parliamentary election meant to be the last phase of the country’s “road map to democracy” – but instead, the vote has been marred by widespread public cynicism and poor turnout. The situation has some observers asking whether, less than a-year-and-a-half into his presidency, Sisi’s government is becoming increasingly isolated.
“I think the Russian plane crash has revealed the incompetence of Sisi’s regime and [its] inability to maintain security in Egypt,” Khalil al-Anani, a political scientist with expertise in Egyptian politics, told Al Jazeera.
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The Russian intelligence service’s conclusion that the Russian plane was intentionally downed by terrorists will have “major consequences” for Sisi’s regime, with significant pressure brought to bear on the Egyptian government, he said. Egypt has not yet accepted the Russian findings.
“This [will] greatly hurt the regime and discredit its image as a stable and reliable ally to the West,” Anani said. “To what extent the West would tolerate Sisi’s blunders and inefficiency, it’s a matter of time to see this. What’s certain is that Sisi’s regime is facing unprecedented challenges that might push it to the brink.”
Last month, just days before the Russian plane crash, Egyptians went to the polls for the first round of voting in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, which are taking place in two phases. The country has been without a parliament since 2012, when former President Mohamed Morsi took power, only to be ousted in a coup the following year.
In the absence of a parliament, Sisi, who was elected as president in 2014, has issued a raft of controversial laws by decree, including stringent anti-terrorism legislation that has been denounced for targeting any form of dissent. He has also revamped the parliamentary electoral districts law, dividing the country into “individual candidate” districts and “electoral list” districts.
Criticised for potentially giving a bigger advantage to individuals with money and power, the new districts system stipulates that 448 of parliament’s 596 seats are competed for on an individual basis, 28 are appointed by Sisi, and the remaining 120 are determined through the winner-take-all list system, where voters select a party list and all the seats in that constituency go to the list that earns more than 50 percent of the vote.
As a result of the limiting of political space, other critical liberal opposition figures and political movements have withdrawn from politics, so what we're left with is largely supporters of the regime.
In the first round of voting, which took place between October 17 and 19, Egyptians elected 273 candidates, including 60 list seats in the West Delta and Upper Egypt constituencies. For the Love of Egypt, a list comprised of Sisi supporters, took all of the list seats in that round. Voter turnout, however, was recorded at just 26 percent.
The second phase of voting in Egypt is scheduled for November 21 to 23, with final results to be announced in early December.
“People don’t see alternatives. This isn’t a real competition,” said Samer Shehata, an associate professor of political science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. “It’s unlikely that any parliament would be able to challenge the president.”
Egypt’s new parliament will be tasked with revising, rejecting or ratifying any laws made since Morsi was ousted, and it will come into being at a time when Egypt faces numerous challenges on the economic and security fronts, as violence continues to rage in the Sinai. The parliament will also have the power, under certain conditions, to impeach the president. But by its very composition, it is expected to function mostly as a rubber-stamp for Sisi’s past decrees.
In a country where civil rights and press freedoms have been severely curtailed, there is little room left for dissenting political voices, Shehata noted.
“As a result of the limiting of political space, other critical liberal opposition figures and political movements have withdrawn from politics, so what we’re left with is largely supporters of the regime,” he told Al Jazeera. “[They] are the ones who have participated in the elections, and that also explains why the participation is so low.”
HA Hellyer, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and at the Royal United Services Institute in London, pointed out that Egypt’s pro-Morsi base, estimated at around 20 percent of the population, boycotted the vote. Many other Egyptians were apathetic, possibly because they have gone through the voting process close to a dozen times in the last four years and are simply tired of it, he said.
“Political space in Egypt isn’t particularly open, and Sisi does continue to have a genuine popular base. Opposition to him is not insignificant, but it is markedly fragmented,” Hellyer told Al Jazeera, noting the low parliamentary vote turnout could actually benefit Sisi in the long run by presenting the optics that his presidential mandate – Sisi clinched more than 90 percent of the vote in 2014 with 44 percent turnout – is stronger than parliament’s.
“Certainly if there is a clash between Sisi and the parliament on any issue, one imagines that the issue of mandate will come up,” Hellyer told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, since the Russian plane went down last month, a number of countries, including Russia and the United Kingdom, have suspended flights from the Sinai. Russia, long considered an important Sisi ally, drew ire after Moscow ramped up its efforts to bring home tens of thousands of Russian tourists from Egypt, with the front page of Egypt’s al-Masry al-Youm newspaper screaming: “Even you, Putin?”
Tourist bookings in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh have plummeted since the crash, with around 80 percent of reservations cancelled, a local tourism official told the Associated Press news agency.
At the same time, Israeli officials have reportedly expressed concerns over whether the threat from extremist groups in Egypt would prove too much for the Sisi regime to handle – and even analysts from Saudi Arabia, a financial and political backer of Sisi, have lamented the state of affairs in Egypt.
“The remarkable apathy of Egyptian voters, as clearly reflected in the unprecedented low turnout in the parliamentary elections, is an indication that something is definitely wrong,” Jamal Khashogshi, an influential Saudi commentator, wrote in the London-based al-Hayat newspaper. “It was a silent protest, not through a revolution or a sit-in, since the regime is running the country with an iron fist, but by turning away from ballot boxes.”
Despite all the criticisms of Sisi, Hellyer said, there is a “de facto agreement on not doing anything about it. He’s been well and truly integrated into the international order”.
Shehata agreed, noting that despite the recent loss-of-face the Egyptian regime has suffered, no state has taken any major steps towards censure, such as cutting diplomatic ties or military support.
“Pressure is on the regime,” he acknowledged. “Is it leading to fissures, is it leading to loss of support, is his invincibility no longer the case? All those things are correct, but the regime isn’t about to collapse.”
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