Despite the Sisi regime’s heavy-handed culling of the electoral field for Egypt’s upcoming presidential election, international reaction to the country’s stifling political environment and escalating repression has been and will continue to be muted. That acquiescence to the continuation of President Abd el-Fattah el-Sisi’s autocratic rule, against the backdrop of the farcical process that will enable it, is a function of fatigue and fear, with consideration of worst-case scenarios in an already fragile region producing caution. While international criticism would have negligible impact on Egypt’s near-term trajectory, the United States and others interested in the health and stability of Egyptian society should begin laying down clear markers as to the unacceptability of constitutionally-sanctified authoritarianism.
With the Trump administration demonstrating little interest in Egyptian political life and consistent affinities for strongman rule, the burden may fall on Europe to pre-emptively signal its disapproval of any post-election efforts to amend the constitution to extend presidential terms and abolish term limits. That signaling should not be understood as a quaint attachment to the impractical niceties of democracy. Instead it should be perceived as a last chance to avoid the entrenching of a system of one-man rule in which change can only be achieved through destabilizing ruptures.
The Sisi regime has adopted a preventive approach to politics and opposition in the sense that its tactics do not reflect a genuine fear of civilian opposition politics; rather, the regime is determined to destroy any current of incipient, inchoate opposition so that it never has the opportunity to mature into a future threat. Conversations with Egyptian political figures make clear that many expect that after the elections there will be a push for constitutional amendments that further enshrine strongman rule. This push represents the next stage in the country’s political life.
That coming struggle over the constitution might present an important opportunity for Egyptian political actors and civil society to muster real opposition to the deepening of the country’s resurgent authoritarian turn. Those potential efforts could be boosted by clear signals from Egypt’s patrons and partners, including the United States and key European countries, that any effort to legally enshrine open-ended one-man rule would be viewed negatively. Those signals should be public and accompany the coming acknowledgments of President Sisi’s impending second term. Sisi cannot be prevented from ruling for another term—but perhaps it’s still possible to prevent a gutting of Egypt’s constitution and preserve at least the foundations for a future restoration of politics.
As foreign ministries throughout the world prepare their statements on Sisi’s inevitable re-election, they should include a simple acknowledgment that this will be the beginning of Sisi’s second and last term as president. That simple sentence or clause could encourage Egyptian political actors to begin thinking about how to bring about a peaceful constitutional transfer of power, and will at the very least indicate an awareness of the contours of Egypt’s political dynamics and an appreciation of the stakes involved in those future political struggles.
Obviously a rhetorical nod to a future political transition is hardly sufficient on its own to effect appreciable change on the ground. The regime has proven adept at simply ignoring external pressures and relying on both path dependence and Egyptian centrality to the region to weather difficult periods with key patrons, allies, and partners. Any changes to these behaviors will only come through political organization and the channeling and collectivizing of opposition sentiment.
The divides and ill will that grew out of Egypt’s bruising but truncated transition have ensured that political life in the country remains irreparably fragmented. This process of political fragmentation has also been fueled by the regime’s repression, which has chilled political thought, hindered civilian-led political initiatives, and obviated the possibility of robust independent political organization.
But the issue of constitutional change may provide a rare platform upon which broad-based opposition could be constructed, particularly as such constitutional change would also produce intra-regime opposition.
The ouster of Hosni Mubarak was pushed forward by the short-lived but broad-based tactical alliance among civilian political actors, but was only possible in the final instance as a result of the fragmenting of the state itself. His removal could only be accomplished following the military’s determination that it was no longer willing to stand in the way of rising popular sentiment and elite defections. While the Sisi regime continues to face economic and security pressures, the conditions for longer-term regime sustainability remain despite the existence of rivalries and tensions within the security establishment. Moreover, at this juncture, intra-regime ruptures leading to political change would be highly undesirable—such change would be destabilizing and undemocratic in effect.
However, the specter of such internal tensions over the issue of a constitutional amendment process, when coupled with domestic and international political pressures, might help check the coming push for constitutional change.
If the regime is successful in pushing through such constitutional changes the parameters of Egypt’s political life will narrow even further. And the possibility of future peaceful political transition would diminish significantly.
Those are the stakes of Egypt’s coming political struggle, and in this the coming presidential elections are little more than the prelude. Although battered by the instability of the post-Mubarak era and scarred by the demagogic hyper-nationalism of recent years, the push to enthrone Sisi is likely to stir some elements of Egyptian society to react in opposition. Those efforts could be modestly aided by the positions of important international players if they come out tactfully, but firmly, as opposed to Sisi continuing in office beyond a second term.
The prospects for Egyptian political life remain bleak. As such, any opportunities to exert positive political influence should be seized.