Sisi’s speech: Reading between the lines

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s speech does not offer much hope for Egyptian democracy.

On March 26, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi resigned as Egypt's military chief [Reuters]

Egyptian Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi recently committed to doing exactly what he promised his June 30 collaborators he would not do – run for the presidency.

Sisi’s speech served as another ominous reminder that Egypt is not headed towards anything resembling a democratic state. He made no reference to gross human rights violations, the fact that Egypt’s media is mostly propagandist and one-sided, or the fact that criticism of his person is essentially off limits in Egypt’s current public sphere. All that is making a serious debate on political issues and a real competition for president impossible. Significantly, would-be candidates for president have already said they will not run, citing unfair political conditions.

Sisi also did not emphasise national reconciliation or political inclusion. Importantly, Egypt’s current “roadmap” excludes the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that dominated Egyptian elections for the two years immediately following the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt presidential poll set for late May

Sisi’s discussion of “the nation” and “the will of the people” – apparent references to his supporters and those who backed the events of June 30 and July 3 – was consistent with post-July 3 Egyptian political and media rhetoric. This seems to suggest that Egyptians who supported the July 3 military intervention that ended Mohamed Morsi’s presidency are patriotic citizens, while those who opposed it are not.

In an apparent nod to inclusiveness, Sisi did say that non-criminals would be welcomed as partners “to no limit”, but this statement would seem to exclude the Brotherhood, who have been labelled terrorists and blamed for a host of crimes.

Sisi also made it clear that his aim in running for president is to “serve” Egyptians in typical military fashion, with his speech exhibiting significant strongman characteristics. For instance, in the speech, he highlighted his military uniform and history, said he would serve Egypt as “a soldier”, suggested that Egypt’s key battle is against “terrorists… who are working for the destruction of our lives”, and lamented that both the “prestige of the state” and the “state apparatus” had been severely damaged in the aftermath of the January 2011 uprising. He strongly suggested that his presidency would be able to address these problems.

Although he claimed he desired a “democratic” and “modern” state, and said he would respect the outcome of any election, he offered no assurances, and, more importantly, chose to ignore obvious and important prerequisites to a democratic turn. Any chance at democracy in the short term would require, at a bare minimum, the release of the 16,000 political prisoners currently held in Egyptian jails and police stations, independent investigations into mass killings, and allowing all of Egypt’s political entities to participate equally in political life.

Given the degree to which Sisi’s post-July 3 government is implicated in crimes, such measures remain highly unlikely. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that his speech did not broach these issues or offer any indication of a serious democratic transition. 

Dr Mohamad Elmasry is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, and an incoming Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at the University of North Alabama.