The dangers of Egypt’s status quo

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Members of Egyptian parliament were in Washington this month to meet with members of Congress, and there was certainly a great deal to discuss. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in his last year in this presidential term. Despite the parliament’s rejection of proposals to extend the presidential term or cancel limits altogether, the state still seems to be adamantly paving the way for Sisi to be the only candidate running in the upcoming election. And a few hours before lawyer Khaled Ali announced his intention to run on Monday, security forces raided the print shop where he was making materials for his press conference.

The current political elite — i.e., those who support the regime — continue to insist that Sisi is the only man to guarantee Egypt’s stability. Despite Washington’s recent aid cuts to Egypt, which came as a slap on the wrist after Egypt’s bilateral relations with North Korea were exposed, that view is widely shared in the international community. But the recent attack in Egypt’s Western Desert, in which at least 50 security personnel were reportedly killed by militants, was just the latest major act of violence that seems to undermine the Egyptian government’s projection of stability.

This so-called “political stability” that Egypt seeks to project is also widely used as a pretext by western and Gulf governments to bolster regimes in the developing world. Sisi’s regime has garnered international support by claiming it can keep the situation in Egypt “stable.” The past four years have shown that Sisi’s stability only means keeping the situation “as is,” and while that can be seen as “stable,” it is not sustainable and only guarantees stagnation, if not deterioration, in political structure.

{mosads}With deteriorating situations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, the definition of political stability as a peaceful, democratic transition of power has taken a different meaning. To the international community, stability is depicted as the status quo; but, in reality, stability requires some flexibility and innovation from the government.

When it comes to Egypt, the Sisi regime has managed to condition the public to accept his status quo — or an even worse situation — as the best possible version of stability. During his presidential campaign, Sisi chose not to put forth a platform or manifesto, openly saying he had no program. Instead, he argued the country was facing a crisis and had to avoid major damage. Sisi used this attitude to restrict all forms of opposition, including parties that wanted to be involved in his political process. Even candidates for the current parliament were reportedly chosen carefully by the regime.

With no politics left to be practiced, Sisi’s regime is relying on a security approach in handling social and economic crises. Over the four years since Sisi asked for a popular mandate to fight terrorism, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy’s (TIMEP) Egypt Security Watch project has recorded nearly 3,000 attacks reported in Egypt, claiming 1,981 lives. The government has been slow to adopt new strategies and tactics even as the steady drumbeat of attacks on low-ranking soldiers and police, and more spectacular assaults such as the ambush in the Western Desert, erodes stamina and causes unrest among the rank and file. Despite the deployment of security forces across the country, Coptic Christians remain particularly vulnerable to a growing wave of violence. Together this undermines the state’s claims of security and stability. 

Sisi’s unremitting suppression of political and protest movements, via his security apparatus, seems to be working with less political pressure following this continuous crackdown on activists of all groups and even a potential presidential candidate. The clampdown of these social and economic protests, however, is creating a disorganized opposition prone to flare-ups of violence. For example, in July, the government decided to seize private property on the Giza island of Warraq, resulting in clashes between police and residents who had gathered to contest the demolition. One person was killed and 19 injured in the clashes. Demonstrations erupted in March to protest announced cuts to bread subsidies. Several incidents of police violence have led to angry protests in front of police stations, and various legal decisions regarding the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia have been celebrated or denounced by impromptu crowds.

Coordinated opposition offers peaceful channels of dissent unavailable elsewhere, as there are no local political leaders (governors are appointed by Cairo, and municipal councils were disbanded in 2011 and have not been reconstituted). Actual representation in parliament is weak, and barriers to securing protest permits are high, leaving little but spontaneous protest. Thus, interaction between citizen and state has become limited to unforeseen contention between aggrieved parties and the security apparatus — and the Egyptian security apparatus is a notoriously bad arbiter of grievance.

With Egypt lacking a clear economic or political development program, the Sisi era is reminiscent of the last years of Mubarak’s reign. This is an unfortunate but necessary comparison considering the symmetry of shuttering democracy. Sisi’s policies are suppressing a ticking time bomb of discontent, and in the meantime, the country seems fated to settle for “stability” — which, over the long term, will prove to be an inherently unstable stagnation. With no legitimate outlet for expression of grievances and political activity as well as continued denial of basic freedoms, violent attacks such as those against security forces are likely to continue.

Mohamed Adam is a nonresident fellow with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) and a Cairo-based journalist.

Tags Abdel Fattah Sisi Egypt Mohamed Adam

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