Channeling Putin in Cairo

A campaign poster for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt in Cairo this month. Credit Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
A campaign poster for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt in Cairo this month. Credit Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Which country, due to hold a presidential election next month, is led by an autocrat who, having eliminated any serious competition, is basically running against himself?

Hints: A political analyst in that country has said, as a reminder of the deliberate ineffectiveness of electoral competitors, “Some figures are allowed in, like backup dancers.” Indeed, the most serious challenger to the incumbent president has been barred from contesting the election, which denies him a platform to broadcast accusations of corruption that could involve the president.

The answer, of course, is Russia, where President Vladimir V. Putin has eliminated all serious competition, most notably Alexei A. Navalny, and is allowing only opponents whose support is mired in single digits.

But it could also describe Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former military commander, has pushed his five most serious opponents out of elections scheduled for the end of next month. Among them was Sami Anan, a former chief of staff of the military who was considered Mr. Sisi’s most serious opponent.

Like Mr. Navalny, he was arrested and charged — in his case by the military, which accused him of incitement against the armed forces, forgery and breaching military regulations. Had he been allowed to contest the election and speak publicly, his status as a highly placed officer would have rendered any grievances or criticisms of Mr. Sisi that he expressed especially damning.

And then, just minutes before the deadline for filing, the head of a small political party that had already endorsed Mr. Sisi registered as a candidate. But it was just Mousa Moustafa Mousa dutifully giving Mr. Sisi a “backup dancer” to window-dress a farce so that it could be called an election. Actually, it amounts to nothing more than a referendum, with the winner already known.

That five presidential candidates withdrew or were forced to withdraw from running against Mr. Sisi is a reminder of the impossibility of real politics in Egypt — with “elections” mere charades blessed by a military establishment that has suffocated Egyptian politics for more than 60 years.

It is instructive that three would-be candidates were military men whose high rank clearly could not protect them. The way they were forced to withdraw offers a view into rivalries within the armed forces that we rarely see. It has also tarnished the reputation of the military in a country where compulsory national service means that almost every family has a son in uniform.

We have been under military rule since 1952, when a group of army officers overthrew Egypt’s monarchy and ended Britain’s occupation of the country. But that only replaced an external occupation with an internal one, in which favored sons of the armed forces replaced their uniforms with suits, a move meant to create a semblance of civilian rule.

When we complain to Egypt’s Western allies about whichever autocrat is in power, we are asked, “But who is the alternative?” It is a question designed to frustrate. The allies, led by America, know full well that by giving billions in aid and selling billions more in weapons to our military, they are ensuring the military’s continued political dominance — and in doing that, ensuring the near impossibility of our country coming up with any alternative.

In January, Vice President Mike Pence became the highest-level American official to visit Egypt since President Barack Obama went in 2009. He told Mr. Sisi the United States stood “shoulder to shoulder with you and Egypt in fighting against terrorism,” but he avoided giving even lip service to the need to ensure free and fair elections.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is to visit Egypt and other countries in the region, beginning this week. He, too, is unlikely to bring up Egypt’s sham elections; after all, the United States consistently puts “stability” at the top of its priorities for countries like ours, inevitably at our expense.

So we are caught between an American-style Sisi and an Egyptian-style Putin. Mr. Pence’s — and Mr. Tillerson’s — boss, President Trump, is emulating our military-backed dictator, Mr. Sisi, every time he unabashedly exercises greater executive powers than the Constitution allows, and Mr. Sisi in turn assures continuation for his own rule by emulating Mr. Putin’s transparently sham elections.

Caught in such a vise of global authoritarianism, it is cruelly disingenuous and willfully ignorant when the West asks us, “Who is the alternative” to Mr. Sisi? It is imperative instead to stop giving aid and selling weapons to a military-backed regime that is set on smothering all life out of our politics.

It has been seven years since popular uprisings swept across Egypt, forcing the ouster of another autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, who had once served as head of the air force. When the millions of Egyptians who joined that uprising chanted in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt, “The people demand the fall of the regime!” they meant not just him but the system that propped him up. Mr. Mubarak fell. But the military system remained intact.

In the most recent elections, three years ago, Mr. Sisi was said to have received a difficult-to-believe 96.1 percent of votes. According to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, these have been the fruits of Mr. Sisi’s term in office: 60,000 political prisoners, 7,513 civilians tried in military tribunals, 2,332 death sentences, 500 people barred from travel, 465 internet sites shuttered, 54 journalists and media workers jailed, 17 new prisons.

Several leading opposition figures in Egypt have called for a boycott of the presidential election. In response, a scholar from Dar al-Ifta, the authority responsible for issuing religious edicts, or fatwas, told a satellite television show that anyone who did not vote would be a traitor. The endowments minister said that participating in the election was required by Shariah and national duty.

Neither the minister who oversees religious affairs nor our clerics have issued fatwas or told us the position of Shariah on torture, police brutality or forcible disappearances. Instead, Muslim and Christian leaders have thrown their moral heft behind Mr. Sisi — just as Russia’s Orthodox Church unabashedly supports Mr. Putin.

While the 2011 revolution did not remove the regime, it has shortened the seemingly endless patience that many Egyptians once had for military rule. And Mr. Sisi knows that.

“Be warned,” Mr. Sisi said recently, channeling Mr. Putin. “What happened seven or eight years ago will not happen again in Egypt.”

Mr. Sisi will win the March election, undoubtedly. But he has lost whatever popular support he once had. Those with access to social media in Egypt can find a litany of complaints, accusations and derision directed at him and his regime. Economic austerity, a failure to quell the insurgency in Sinai and a harsh security crackdown are to blame. And the military establishment that has so obviously shown its hand in propping him up is losing a reverence it once thought was unquestionable.

The military belongs in its barracks, not our ballot boxes.

Mona Eltahawy is the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution and a contributing opinion writer.

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