In less than two weeks, the Egyptian parliament suggested, debated and approved “constitutional amendments” that would allow President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to stay in office until 2034, make him head of the judiciary and subjugate the political system to a military “guardianship.” These extraordinary amendments will be subject to a referendum after a 30-day “public debate” (in a country where a tweet could land you a five-year sentence). Article 226, which defines the constitutional amendment process, explicitly prohibits the amendment of presidential term limits or the provisions related to freedoms “unless the amendment offered more guarantees” to these freedoms. In other words, Sissi’s proposed amendments are unconstitutional. Pushing them through is tantamount to a “constitutional coup.”
Many, inside and outside Egypt, would shrug when they read this. For them this is neither new nor significant. “Isn’t Egypt already a military dictatorship?” “Did anyone take seriously a presidential election where all other candidates got arrested or were otherwise forced to withdraw?” “Does anyone care about a constitution drafted in the shadow of the military and systematically ignored by the state?” And: “Does anyone really support — or tolerate — Sissi’s military rule on the hope that he would turn Egypt into a democracy?”
The answer to all these questions is an obvious “no.” The only reason anybody suffers Egypt’s authoritarian rulers is that they bring stability to their populous country and security to its neighbors and partners. Egyptians themselves do that; in 2013, the majority chose security and stability over the elusive promise of democracy. The rest of the world sighed in relief and followed suit. Inside and outside Egypt, everyone fell back to the unpleasant but familiar paradigm: In return for stability, we turn a blind eye to authoritarianism. At best, one can make a statement about human rights violations, bring it up in a meeting or a press conference, then go back to business. The post-9/11 idea that democracy and stability are two linked threads has been abandoned. Today, only one thread counts: stability.
The problem with this “constitutional coup” is that it links the two threads again. By extending term limits, eroding whatever remained of judicial independence and enshrining military oversight in the constitution, this coup turns Egypt into a naked military dictatorship, without even the promise or veneer of democratic rule. This flies in the face of Egyptians’ expectations and their self-image. Egyptians were already tired of former president Hosni Mubarak’s referendums, and when he finally succumbed to pressure and introduced competitive elections in 2005, the majority of Egyptians saw it as too little too late. Even if they accepted Sissi’ takeover, most Egyptians viewed his rule as temporary, maybe a necessary step to salvage Egypt from chaos but a transitional step toward a modern, functioning state, not a 1960-style military rule. What these amendments are telling Egyptians is that they will remain under the rule of the military forever. This is far beyond what the majority of Egyptians can digest.
While authoritarian regimes such as Egypt rely primarily on coercion, they do need legitimacy. The less legitimacy a regime has, the more coercion it needs to use, the more segments of society it alienates, and so on in a vicious cycle downward. Sissi has already alienated large segments of society. Harsh economic reforms alienated the middle classes. Islamists are reeling, with tens of thousands of their activists in jails and the rest exiled. The Sinai Peninsula is besieged by a resilient terrorist challenge. And millions of youth are angry at the dashing of their 2011 hopes for a democracy and better future. Sissi is presiding over a powder keg.
One of the problems with authoritarian regimes is that they are opaque. Their lack of transparency, the control over the media and the quasi-absence of public space, as well as the harsh repression of dissent, make public opinion rather difficult to measure. And despite the best efforts of security agencies, rulers get only an approximate sense of where the public opinion really is. With time, even the regime’s own early-warning signs get stifled if they contradict the views of the rulers. Ultimately, repression and groupthink prevent authoritarian rulers from seeing the boundaries of their own power. Then they cross a tipping point without noticing. This is how then-President Anwar Sadat locked up almost all the opposition figures in September 1981, a month before his assassination. This is how then-President Mubarak, and his aspiring son, rigged elections and won all seats few months before the 2011 Tahrir Uprising. This is how then-President Mohammed Morsi declared himself above the law by a “constitutional declaration” seven months before all opposition united to overthrow him. The irony is that when the order collapses as a result, everyone seems surprised.
In an ideal world, Sissi would have learned from the mistakes of the men he overthrew. In an ideal world, Egypt’s military would have prevented Sissi from turning into the Mubarak they overthrew. In an ideal world, the partners of Egypt, those who invest billions of dollars in its stability or those who make billions of dollars out of it, would have used their clout to pull Sissi and his regime back from the precipice and push him to start genuine reforms to reduce the domestic tension and discontent.
But we don’t live in an ideal world, and none of the above is likely to happen. What is more likely is for Egypt to continue down its bumpy road, with an old leadership blinded by fear and ambition, using coercion to address political divisions. The nation will continue along with economic hardships and institutional decay, with its elites busy bickering and its masses simmering until one thing goes wrong and the powder keg catches fire.
Just don’t act surprised next time it happens.
Ezzedine C. Fishere, an Egyptian writer and former diplomat, teaches at Dartmouth College. He is the author of «Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge».