The notion held by many in the West that Egypt’s current president, the military strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is the only available option to lead the country is as erroneous as it is dangerous. The current regime’s repressive policies are stifling the public sphere, preventing the emergence of any political leadership and are leading to radicalisation and counter-violence. There are better scenarios.
Washington and Brussels seem to have accepted that there is no alternative to Sisi’s regime and the West must support Egypt economically. Once again they have got it wrong. This is exactly the faulty policy advice they gave for Ben Ali’s Tunisia and Mubarak’s Egypt before the massive popular uprisings that overthrew them both.
Following the July 3 military coup in Egypt in 2013, Western diplomats and parliamentarians urged opponents to the coup to accept the new reality and move on. If not, as I was told by visiting British parliamentarians, then “you are inviting a civil war.” When I asked: what about our vote in free and clean elections? And what are the guarantees that a military strongman does not overthrow an elected government whenever he pleases in future? The response I got was: “Accept the reality first – and then we can work something out.”
Since Sisi’s military coup, he has been eliminating any viable alternative. He has massacred, imprisoned and exiled opponents to pre-empt the emergence of rivals. There are plenty of public figures in Egyptian jails or in foreign exile that are capable of forming governments and providing an alternative to Sisi’s regime.
Some important names, including Mohamed ElBaradei, Ayman Nour, Bassem Ouda, Mohamed Mahsoub, Mohamed El-Beltagi, Abul El Ela Madi, Isam Sultan, and Ahmed Maher, among others, immediately come to mind.
Even Sisi’s military colleagues have been suppressed, starting with an assassination attempt against former director of intelligence Omar Suleiman in 2011 and disqualifying him from the presidential race in 2013. Former chief of staff Sami Anan was placed under house arrest, and Ahmad Shafiq was prevented from returning to Egypt to campaign for the presidency.
Alternatives come out of a functioning political process and tolerant society. This was one of the accomplishments of the revolution which started on January 25, 2011 that – once Mubarak and his tight grip on the reins of power had been removed – generated a new stratum of leaders, many of them young. Change was in the air; 13 presidential candidates emerged with different programmes and visions, and Egypt then had alternatives.
Since the military coup, Sisi has reverted to the practice of manipulated elections, winning last year by 97.3% of the votes. He postponed parliamentary elections – and it doesn’t look as if there will be local elections any time soon. He stifled civil society, fiercely cracking down on NGOs and promoting a monotone propaganda media machine. He closed Tahrir and other squares and arrested thousands of activists under his anti-protest law.
The military regime has been purging state institutions and universities of anyone whose loyalty is in question. Sisi reintroduced the system (abolished after the revoution) whereby government directly appoints university deans and has stuffed state institutions with military personnel. This is an environment that suffocates any alternative.
The repressive and extralegal measures of the current Egyptian regime are leading to radicalisation and are fomenting violence. Certainly, this is not a viable alternative and is forcing Egypt into a low-intensity civil war. Since July 2013 more than 3,000 Egyptians have lost their lives. Meanwhile, since coming to power, Sisi has repeatedly rejected any possibility for national reconciliation and insisted on polarisation and escalation.
Similar to Mubarak and other autocrats, Sisi presents Egyptians with a tough choice – and a fallacious one: choose him or choose terrorism and insecurity. He is de-politicising society and making it impossible for any effective political process to emerge. This closing down of open avenues for expression and participation, will – inevitably and depressingly – create the conditions for popular violence to emerge as a way to counter violence by the state.
By surrendering to the “no alternative” thesis – and by not demanding change in Egypt that opens up the political process, the release of all political prisoners and the guarantee of human rights – US and EU policymakers are rendering invaluable service to the tyranny of the Sisi regime. It makes the “no alternative” thesis a self-fulfilling prophecy that will haunt Egypt for decades to come.
One can see three scenarios. Let’s start with the least likely: Sisi reverses his repressive policies and opens up the political process. The only way to imagine this would be if Sisi, facing mounting international criticism of his failure to restore a secure society and a stable economy effectively admits defeat. This flies in the face of Sisi’s projection of himself, at home and abroad, as a strongman who is capable of eradicating terrorism and providing security for his people.
In the second scenario, the military establishment decides to take a few steps back and hand over power to a civilian government which then adopts a power-sharing formula. This would be the possible result of a massive popular uprising that blames the military for the country’s economic and political failures. Of course, the only way for the military to allow this to happen would be for it to secure its own interests and admit that it can go back to its original purpose which is to guard but not govern.
The most likely scenario is that the military establishment, facing humiliation over a collapse of national security (Sinai has been declared an IS province), mounting insecurity and the growing prospect that Egypt is becoming a failed state, decides to scapegoat Sisi. In this scenario the army hands over power to someone (former military or civilian) who understands the country’s economic and political interests while being able to make a new beginning and start a process of national reconciliation and political reconstruction. This new figure would lead a brief transitional period in which effective political institutions and avenues of participation can be rebuilt.
Any one of these scenarios offers better prospects than the current unsustainable reality. Egypt needs to go back to normal politics, social healing and proper institution building. The “Sisi option” is not going to give us any of these things any time soon.
Emad Shahin, a visiting professor at Georgetown University.