Is Sisi anxious about political opposition?

Major and minor contenders for the presidential post have been eliminated. What does this say about Sisi’s regime?

Reuters Sisi campaign poster
People look out of a bus window in front of a huge banner for Egypt's President Sisi from the campaign titled "So You Can Build It", for the upcoming presidential election [Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Egypt]

On January 23, Sami Anan, former Chief of Staff of the Egyptian armed forces, who had announced his intention to run in Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections, was detained. His arrest was the latest in a string of detentions of political figures designed to clear the way for incumbent President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to run unopposed in the March election.

The arrest of Anan followed the detention, in December, of Colonel Ahmed Konsowa, who had also announced he wanted to run for the presidency. Konsowa was sentenced by a military court to six years in prison for “disobeying military orders by expressing his political views”.

In January, the regime intimidated Ahmed Shafik, a former commander-in-chief of the Egyptian air force and a minister, into withdrawing from the presidential race.

Then, this week, Khalid Ali, a human rights lawyer who had also announced his intention to run for president, was pressured to drop out of the race. The regime raided a publishing house that stored his campaign brochures and arrested his campaign organisers. Ali also faces a three-month prison sentence for “offending public decency”.

All this has come amidst growing political repression. The Sisi government has used the police, army, and judiciary to consolidate political power, eliminate all serious political competition, and ensure a singular media narrative.

The regime has censored news and human rights websites, enacted legislation to crush civil society, censored and surveilled social media pages, arrested workers going on strike, and carried out campaigns of forced disappearances and torture.

With this latest round of public political intimidation, the regime has been quite successful at uprooting all domestic dissent.

One doesn’t need a doctorate in political science to decipher the message the regime is sending: Sisi will be Egypt’s president for the foreseeable future, and there is a no-tolerance policy on political competition.

The more difficult questions to answer concern why the regime is choosing to send such a strong message to political opponents right now. Why would the government prevent candidates – even weak contenders who pose no threat to Sisi – from running in the elections?

And why is Sisi suddenly so obviously unconcerned about putting up a veneer of democracy? Sisi’s rule has been authoritarian from the start, but in his first, few years as the Egyptian president, he did pay lip service to basic democratic practices.

There are at least two explanations for this: that Sisi feels emboldened by US President Donald Trump‘s foreign policy stance, and that the Egyptian president is anxious about a possible fracture within the Egyptian armed forces.

The Trump effect

Shortly after winning the 2016 US presidential election, Trump indicated that human rights and democracy promotion abroad would not be among his foreign policy priorities. This was interpreted as a positive signal, by dictators loosely allied with the US, that Washington is unlikely to place democracy and human rights-related restrictions on aid and other forms of support.

In Sisi’s case, Trump showered him with praise, calling him a “fantastic guy”. The US president made it clear that he is not concerned about the human rights track record of the Sisi regime. In June 2017, Trump gave a green light for an oppressive blockade against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt.

Sisi has likely interpreted all of this as indication that he will continue to receive US support – including more than a billion dollars in annual military aid – regardless of what he does at home or abroad.

Internal instability?

Another reason for the growing repression in Egypt might be Sisi’s deepening insecurity about the strength of his grip over Egyptian politics. It is possible that the Egyptian president fears there is a group of Egyptian power brokers – including high-ranking members of the armed forces and the security apparatus – that want to see the rise of another strongman, whether Anan, Shafik, or someone else.

It is also quite obvious – even to Sisi – that Egypt’s economic and security conditions are in worse shape now than when he took power.

Sisi’s economic programmes have failed to generate the kind of revenues he promised, the Egyptian pound has depreciated considerably, inflation has increased manifold, and youth unemployment and poverty are at terrifyingly high levels.

In terms of security, Egypt is arguably at a worse point now than at any point in its modern history. Egypt has experienced more terrorist attacks in four years of Sisi rule than it did during the 30-year reign of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

It is possible, then, that Sisi’s attempts to eliminate competitors are both a reflection of his insecurity, and a signal to political rivals from within the regime that they should not seek to challenge him.

What does the future hold?

Sisi will get his second term, and it is possible, too, that the regime will amend the constitution to allow him to rule even beyond that.

Even if he is successful at staving off potential threats from within the Egyptian armed forces, Sisi may, at some point, have to contend with the Egyptian street.

Egyptians have already overthrown one dictator, Mubarak, in 2011, with massive street protests. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that similar protests could be carried out against Sisi in the coming months or years, particularly if inflation, youth unemployment, and poverty continue to rise.

Even at the height of his popularity – shortly after the 2013 military coup that brought him to power – Sisi was only supported by about half of the Egyptian population. The past four years of economic decline and sociopolitical instability are unlikely to have increased Sisi’s standing in the eyes of many Egyptians.

There is no reliable way to determine Sisi’s popularity among Egyptians, mostly because, for the past few years, the regime has prevented foreign, scientific polling organisations from carrying out opinion polling in Egypt.

This glaring reality may also be a sign of Sisi’s growing insecurity.

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