Dispatch

The Death of Politics in Sisi’s Egypt

Egyptians are going to the polls to elect their first parliament in over three years — but whichever party wins, the country's strongman-in-chief looks poised to come out on top.

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GIZA, Egypt — “Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is the moon,” crooned Nahid Sultan, while blowing kisses at a smiling portrait of the Egyptian president, as she skipped out of a polling station for parliamentary elections. Behind her, heavily armed military officers in black balaclavas peered over sandbags.

The 50-year-old housewife had voted for the “For the Love of Egypt” political coalition, which swept the majority of seats in the 14 governorates (including Giza, Alexandria, the Red Sea, and Luxor) that have voted so far. (The remaining 13 regions, including Cairo, will vote from Nov. 21 to Dec. 2.)

The coalition, which absorbed some of the largest pro-regime parties, is bankrolled by business and media tycoons and spearheaded by ex-military men and former regime figures. In a sea of nationalistic parties, For the Love of Egypt still came out as the most pro-Sisi — the coalition spent months unsuccessfully trying to convince the courts to let it feature Sisi’s face on its campaign posters, and its spokespeople have described the movement as a “backup force” to the president, rather than a check on his powers.

Four years on from the revolution that was sparked by frustration with decades of political inertia and police brutality under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is coming full circle. The country is in the midst of an election campaign that will restore a legislature to the country for the first time since 2012, when the judiciary dissolved the body. But don’t expect the new parliament to represent a check on Sisi’s power.

“Sure, the parliament is the voice of the people. But it’s not possible for the parliament to contradict the president — what would be the sense in that?” Sultan asked.

“This is not a time for political differences,” another voter barked behind her.

In a speech delivered on Oct. 17, before the polling stations opened, Sisi described the parliamentary elections as the end of the “road map” to democracy started with the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, legislative and executive powers have been in the hands of the presidency. Controversial legislation strangling free speech — including laws regulating protests, strikes, and civil society — has been enacted in the name of fighting a flourishing jihadi insurgency. Meanwhile, as the Islamic State has taken hold in Sinai Peninsula, new counterterrorism laws have been imposed that slap journalists with fines of up to $65,000 for publishing stories on terrorism-related subjects that contradict the state line. The security forces — once the hated remnant of the Mubarak police state — have been rehabilitated and their powers of arrest and detention bolstered, in the name of keeping the peace.

Although the incoming parliament has significant powers on paper — including vetoing the president’s choice for prime minister and even impeaching the head of state — the groups likely to emerge on top seem to have little interest in turning the body into a distinct power center. For the Love of Egypt was formed by Gen. Sameh Seif al-Yazal, a former officer in military intelligence — an organization that Sisi previously headed — who convinced the country’s most powerful parties like the Wafd and the Free Egyptians to join him. Yazal was careful to attend even the most obscure rallies in West Delta towns to drum up support. The coalition has made unity, stability, and Sisi its defining themes — while also making a point to discuss its economic platform on the sidelines of rallies, in recognition of the fact that fixing Egypt’s broken economy is the country’s biggest challenge.

Even the bulk of the opposition parties running in the election are pro-Sisi. The Knights of Egypt is a party of former military officials who want to award more powers to the security forces, and the United List coalition absorbed most of the parties that were the decorative opposition under Mubarak. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood — whose political party won the most seats in the 2011 parliament — has been banned, and its leadership locked up or forced in exile.

The futility of the situation, or perhaps the inevitability of the outcome, has kept many Egyptians away from the polls. The turnout was a pitiful 26 percent in the first round of voting, the Supreme Electoral Commission reported — down from 62 percent during the 2011 parliamentary elections.

The once noisy secular opposition parties, which in 2011 were running boisterous campaigns during anti-government protests on Tahrir Square, have gone silent. As private newspaper al-Masry al-Youm blared on its front page on the day of the elections: “Sisi is in every district — and the opposition is absent.”

“This near-fake election will not produce a parliament that will hold the government accountable,” said Khaled Daoud, a spokesman for the Constitution Party, formed in 2012 by the country’s revolutionary coterie. “Whether I vote or not vote, Sisi will get a parliament that will support him 100 percent.”

“Sisi’s politics killed politics in Egypt. His message is that we all have to stand united behind the commander.”

The Constitution Party did not bother fielding candidates, saying that their lack of funds, when arrayed against the resources of the pro-Sisi coalitions, made the effort futile. But even those that did participate, like the Egyptian Social Democrats, which have 76 candidates running, admitted the atmosphere was not in their favor. In its electoral rallies, the party toned down its opposition to Sisi’s regime; only in quiet interviews with the media did candidates denounce the oppressive legislation they hope to soften if they make it into parliament.

“The wind is not in our tail this time,” said Egyptian Social Democrat candidate Ehab el-Kharrat. “A nationalist sentiment has gripped the public.”

Even with a parliament in tow and the country deep in revolutionary fatigue, Sisi and his supporters can’t relax yet. Their first task will be to get the economy back on track to ward off further upheaval. Foreign reserves plummeted from $36 billion in 2011 to just $16.3 billion in September, as the country’s turmoil scared off investors and tourists. Sisi has launched a series of megaprojects, like the expansion of the Suez Canal — completed in August — that are unlikely to produce the glittering gains the state has promised.

Few Egyptians, however, are now willing to oppose the types of oppressive practices that sparked the 2011 revolution. Forced disappearances — a favorite tactic of the deep state under Mubarak — have returned with a vengeance. In August and September, a campaign under the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms recorded some 215 disappearances. Sixty-three of these people appeared in state security camps or police stations, but a further 152 are still missing — a handful have turned up dead. In the last two years, hundreds more have been sentenced to death and many more to life in jail.

But that has done little to upset voters, who perceive the new regime as protecting Egypt from sinking into a civil war like those that have engulfed Libya and Syria.

“We are building the country up from zero; Egypt is being reborn,” Sultan said. “It’s too early to talk about people’s democratic demands. We have to save the state first.”

Photo credit: FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images

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