Sisi’s first year

Reconciliation, compromise, and liberties are dirty words in Egypt’s politics.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, president of Egypt [Getty]
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, president of Egypt [Getty]

On May 28, 2014, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won the presidential “elections”, after leading a military coup against Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president on July 3, 2013. Since then, Sisi has become the face of the new regime. But what are the main features of the new regime?

The new regime is a post-coup, military-dominated authoritarian system. Under Sisi, the intra-regime power dynamics has significantly changed though. Since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s reign, the military officer who occupied the presidential establishment was more powerful than the military officer who was at the helm of the army. And whenever they clashed, the former would defeat the latter.

When Nasser clashed with “Field Marshal” Amer, the latter allegedly committed suicide or was killed. When Anwar al-Sadat clashed with General Mohammed Fawzy and other generals, they ended in jail.

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And even when mere rumours about the potential political rise of Field Marshal Muhammad Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala circulated, then president Hosni Mubarak suddenly sacked, and later humiliated him.

A new pattern

Since February 2011, that pattern has changed. The officer at the top of the high command (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF) became the most powerful political actor, even compared to the presidential institution, the intelligence establishment, and the security apparatuses.

When interests clashed, the SCAF removed Mubarak in February 2011, and then Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The SCAF then appointed a third figure as an “interim president” after the July 2013 coup.

In January 2014, the SCAF endorsed” one of its members as a presidential candidate; not that different from any local political party, except that the endorsement was communicated to a regional sponsor – an Emirati minister – before it actually took place, according to a leak. The endorsed candidate, Sisi, became president in May 2014 by “96.9 percent of the votes”.

Contrary to Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, and the rest of the “90 percent club”, Sisi cannot sack the defence minister except after the approval of the SCAF, according to the post-coup 2014 constitution. In other words, this is a new regime whose heads are in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and not necessarily in the presidential establishment.

Level of repression

Another feature of the Sisi regime is the high level of repression, even compared to the brutalities of Mubarak’s and Nasser’s reigns.

“In defiance of worldwide pleas for Egypt to respect its human rights obligations after 529 people were sentenced to death in March by the same court, hundreds [683 defendants] now face a similar fate at the hands of a judicial system where international fair trial guarantees appear to be increasingly trampled upon,” Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in April 2014.

Mohamed Morsi [EPA]
Mohamed Morsi [EPA]

Despite the strong statement, the judicial system did not cease mass death sentences. This month, former President Morsi and 106 others were handed death sentences for their alleged role in a mass “prison break” during the January 2011 uprising.

Overall, civilian courts gave more than 1,000 death sentences since July 2013. The profiles of the “convicts” raise eyebrows. Emad Shahin, a world-renowned academic who taught at Harvard University and the American University in Cairo, and Sondon Asem, a promising young scholar and political activist were among them.

The Sinai front  

The active militants in the Sinai Peninsula have proven to be resilient, adaptable, expansive, and highly sensitive to local politics. Although these militants are strongly anti-democratic and even anti-Muslim Brotherhood, they have reformulated their rhetoric and behaviour and have claimed to be the defenders of the victims of Sisi’s crackdowns. And despite a presidential programme dominated by security arrangements under Sisi, the failure to pacify Sinai is a clear outcome so far.

This is the first time in Egypt’s modern history that an organised non-state actor acquires this level of military skills and resources. Sinai Province rebel group fighters utilised anti-aircraft guided missiles to shoot down a second army helicopter. The group skilfully used light 60mm mortars and heavy 12.7mm machine guns in coordinated, simultaneous attacks on 11 military and security targets in three cities last January.

Egyptian military police stand guard where the bodies of soldiers who died in attacks in north Sinai were being turned over to relatives [AP]
Egyptian military police stand guard where the bodies of soldiers who died in attacks in north Sinai were being turned over to relatives [AP]

The organisation captured a significant number of weapons from reinforcements sent to Sinai. It paraded some of them in its propaganda videos, including a captured heavy 120mm mortars and armoured vehicles. Sinai remains a major embarrassment to Sisi.  

The new regime is attempting to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDIs) and it gives a “neoliberal” rhetoric in its economic approach. But there is an inherent contradiction in the policy: The military, an armed state actor, significantly intervenes in the market and the economy. 

Military-economic complex

The military-economic complex benefits from preferential customs and exchange rates, no taxation, land-confiscation rights, an army of almost-free labourers (conscripted soldiers) and judicial support in case of disputes.

Under Sisi, these privileges are more likely to undermine the neoliberal policies and with them potential FDIs, except from wealthy, politically motivated patrons.

The rise of the “hawks” in the security and military establishments is likely to exacerbate the crisis. Those elements believe that Mubarak’s main fault was pursuing a relatively limited repression policy towards opposition.

For them, Gaddafi- and Assad-like tactics are more likely to work in the Egyptian context, since the probability of an international intervention (as in Libya) is nil and the probability of a full-fledged armed revolution (as in Syria) is very limited.

But subduing dissent by force in a country where 70 percent of its 88 million population is under the age of 30, will remain to be a major challenge, if not a potential bloodbath.

The question remains if Sisi is capable or willing to contain the domestic crisis by implementing a comprehensive strategy of national reconciliation/crisis containment, or whether “reconciliation”, “compromise”, and “liberties” will remain dirty words in Egypt’s politics.

Omar Ashour is a senior lecturer in security studies at the University of Exeter and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.