With Freedom and Justice for Sisi

The arc of Egypt’s history is flat, and it bends toward autocracy.

A polling station in Cairo on March 25, 2018. (MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
A polling station in Cairo on March 25, 2018. (MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has officially been taken into custody for a second term as president of Egypt.

The outcome of Egypt’s election this week wasn’t surprising, though in one sense the whole spectacle was quite odd. The vote was supposed to give Sisi the electoral legitimacy that he has always lacked. Sure, he was elected in May 2014 — after first coming to power in a coup the previous summer — but by then voters had become indifferent, so much so that polling places were kept open an extra day so that Egyptians could be bribed and bused in to cast a ballot. But the same thing happened this time around; if anything, the runup to the vote was significantly more thuggish. Every marginally credible potential candidate was taken into custody based on a variety of mostly absurd allegations, all of which a complicit press and political class of bootlickers worked tirelessly to justify.

But Sisi’s hollow victory — like the coup that brought him to power in the first place — fits neatly within the flat arc of modern Egyptian history. The lesson of that history isn’t that Egyptian citizens are unprepared for a more just, open, and democratic society. Rather, it’s that Egypt’s political elites have always benefitted from the country’s authoritarian system and thus will go to great lengths to defend it.

None of Egypt’s presidents has ever enjoyed the kind of legitimacy that democracy confers on elected leaders, but one of the country’s stunning ironies is the way nondemocratic forces have often used democratic, even liberal, ideas as mechanisms of legitimation. Why bother holding elections if you have no intention of respecting the rights and views of those who did not vote for you, of governing through consensus and compromise, and of submitting to the uncertainty of the electoral process when your term is up? Yet in the last four decades, Egypt has had political parties and regularly scheduled elections, even as the country’s leaders have only ruled by coercion and force.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser built the standard Middle Eastern security state, but it was his successor, Anwar Sadat, who first sought to leverage democratic ideas and practices to legitimize authoritarianism and, in the process, advance his narrow political interests. Thus, there were Sadat’s dramatic pronouncements about building a “state of institutions” and the establishment of manabir, or platforms, within the Arab Socialist Union that eventually became political parties, which Sadat intended to be loyal oppositions of the left, right, and center. When they proved not to be, he ignored them and arrested his opponents. Yet Sadat and his supporters could always claim — albeit disingenuously — that he corrected Nasser’s excesses and began Egypt’s path toward democratic change.

Hosni Mubarak picked up where his predecessor left off. Never mind that to be in Egypt during one of his presidential referendums was to exist in a world in which ostentatious “truthiness” had taken over. Although there was only a single candidate on the ballot — Mubarak — and voters were asked to simply mark “Yes” or “No,” the exercise had the trappings of an actual political campaign. The National Democratic Party and the government press described these referendums as a marker of Egypt’s democratic development. No one was willing to comment publicly on the farce of it all, leaving authorities with the satisfaction that if it looked like a campaign and felt like a competitive election, then that was good enough to call the endeavor democratic — something it approximated but clearly was not. The government even made a mockery of their own mockery, distributing elections flyers (paid for by five private companies) that declared:

The president, the leader, Mohammed Hosni Mubarak

With you always … with loyalty, appreciation, and recognition

Yes … to the leader who has devoted himself to his nation, his people, and his community

A few years later, Mubarak began talking about how the government had undertaken a program of “strengthening” and “deepening” democracy. It was rhetoric that few actually believed, but it served two important, related purposes, especially toward the end of the Mubarak era: First, it sought to outmaneuver those who genuinely sought democratic reform and others like the Muslim Brotherhood, which had also appropriated the vocabulary of political reform, and, second, it was an effort to deflect international criticism of Egypt’s predatory politics. Neither worked very well.

When their chance came after the 2011 uprising that forced Mubarak from office, the Muslim Brotherhood positioned its members as responsible stewards of political change for which they were rewarded during the parliamentary elections. It did not take long, however, to recognize that the Muslim Brothers were products of a system that saw democratic practices as a means to establishing political control. The Brotherhood turned out to be unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, notably its incompetence and the hostility of those who benefited from the old order. Yet they also proved themselves no different from the people they hoped to replace when it came to manipulating the outcome of the presidential elections — through suspect exit polls and implicit threats of violence — and power grabs in the name of democratic change.

Sisi’s election referendum only differs from this unfortunate history in the details. The Washington Post story on the vote referenced the “ghosts of the Arab Spring” that hovered over the three days of balloting, but it was the July 3, 2013, coup d’état that was most resonant. That intervention was planned and executed by people (not just in the military) who sought to reset what they believe to be the natural order of politics in Egypt. Five years on, mission accomplished.

A question now hangs over Washington (or at least that tiny community inside the Beltway that pays attention to Egypt): What should the United States do about all this? Among the raft of analyses and reporting on the election, there is a significant amount of exhortation but little new in terms of practical advice. Ahead of the vote, Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declared their support for the rights of the Egyptian people, which was commendable, but they otherwise did nothing to alter the conduct of the Egyptian government. Perhaps in the future, congressional censure will influence Egyptian decision-making. Still, a skeptic might ask when the U.S. Congress, as a body, ever really cared about the Egyptian people.

Of course, there is Egypt’s annual military assistance, which is often invoked as a means of behavior modification. That aid has at various times been threatened, delayed, or cut to no avail. Perhaps Congress will see fit to do more in this area, but the Trump administration, like others before it with an emphasis on fighting terrorists, would likely regard the aid as a national security priority and waive Congress’s effort to punish the Egyptians. It is a problem made worse by the fact that Washington seems to be waking up to the new era of great power competition that Russia has been waging, starting with the Middle East. Egypt does not want to replace the United States with Russia, but it could play both ends for advantage. As a result, the United States will most likely do what it has always done in Egypt and accommodate itself to the outcomes that Egyptians themselves produce.

Let’s just hope no one congratulates them.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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