Over the past few weeks in Egypt there have been many clues regarding the country’s leaders’ adherence to their authoritarian approach and their insistence on wasting opportunities to distance themselves, even a little, from tyranny that they pushed the country towards since the summer of 2013. They have also refused to be open to genuine dialogue with independents and peaceful opponents, who only face oppression and security crackdowns from the government.
One of the hints is in the form of the increased blocking of independent newspapers and media outlets’ websites as well as local and international human rights organisations. Today, there are hundreds of blocked websites in Egypt (424 according to the last calculations of independent journalists and human rights activists).
These blocking policies only serve two goals with clear authoritarian nature. First, to prevent the circulation of information and facts about the country’s economic, social and human rights violations in order to continue fabricating the collective consciousness of Egyptians. Second, to impose official positions and government claims as the only opinion to the public and to gag those with independent and opposing opinions, as well as track them down and oppress them.
The second hint is the fact that a member of the current parliament and a media figure employed as a mouthpiece for the president, the military, intelligence and security institutions, promoted the need for a constitutional amendment (to the 2014 Constitution) adding years to the current four-year presidential term and increasing the president’s powers and authorities.
Since this promotion of a constitutional amendment came from parliamentarians whose sole concern is to support the rulers and from mouthpieces for the executive authority known to make statements based on “instructions from the sovereign bodies”, and also because this promotion came in the form of a systematic campaign covered by the media which is actually managed by the intelligence and security institutions, it was not difficult to figure out that the president and the influential agencies were actually behind this campaign and see opening the door to a constitutional amendment as a significant interest.
The 2014 Constitution gives the president ample executive and legislative powers and places the president in the most important position in the political system, as is customary in all the constitutions after the 1952 coup. The president monitors things, but is not monitored, and he holds people accountable but is never held accountable. The Constitution also allows the president two consecutive terms (8 years) if he wins the elections, and currently in Egypt, winning the elections, under the current circumstances where the military, intelligence and security control the public space, is something guaranteed by anyone who has a military background.
Furthermore, the president’s powers and authorities stipulated in the Constitution warrant limitation, not expansion if we were to take into consideration political development and the people’s democratic aspirations. An eight-year presidential term is not a short timeframe in a normal political system.
Hence, the promotion of a constitutional amendment is nothing more than a clear expression of the authoritarian approach adopted by the country’s leaders, who want to continue to monopolise the management of the country’s economic, social and political affairs without having to change the current president.
Today, this is proposed by prolonging the presidential term, but tomorrow, this may entail dropping the two presidential terms as a maximum term for any president and the return to life-long presidencies. The door to this was opened by the former President Anwar Sadat and enjoyed by the former President Hosni Mubarak.
While the “official” campaign promoting the constitutional amendment has declined recently after some wise individuals within the political system warned against the negative effect it would have on the “appearance of the government’s legitimacy”, and given the intense criticism by many independent and opposition writers, the leaders will probably launch their campaign a few months before the elections. The amendment campaign is not likely to return to the scene and invade the public space, which is controlled by the intelligence and security institutions, if the presidential elections are organised and end in favour of the candidate with a military background.
A third hint is the fact that rationality has been completely absent with regards to the Egyptian rulers’ dealing with international condemnations (governmental and non-governmental) of violations of human rights and freedoms.
The Donald Trump administration, with the approval of Congress, cut part of its military aid and part of the economic aid provided annually to the Egyptian government. One of the reasons stated for this was the deterioration of the human rights situation in Egypt, the continued persecution of NGOs, and the president’s approval of a new NGO law of an openly oppressive nature (as well as other reasons seemingly related to military and economic cooperation between the Egyptian government and North Korea).
The decision to cut aid was followed by the US Senate’s approval of an additional reduction of the aid (in the US draft budget for 2018-2019), which still requires the approval of Congress followed by the approval of the Trump administration in order to go into effect.
Instead of rationally dealing with the reasons that pushed the US to cut part of the aid, the military, intelligence and security institutions used their MPs and media mouthpieces to direct accusations against the Trump administration and Congress of plotting against Egypt. This is despite the fact that these parliamentarians and media personalities were celebrating the friendship between the American and Egyptian presidents since the former’s election and the latter’s visit to the White House.
Instead of opening the door for dialogue locally which would gradually extend to a dialogue between the government and independent figures, peaceful opponents and actual representatives of civil society regarding the accumulation of human rights violations and the way to reduce such violations, as well as the oppressive aspects of the new NGO law, the ways to amend it, and means of protecting the Egyptian civil society from the violent intelligence and security grip, the country’s leaders adopted their typical irrational discourse and instead denied any accusations (there are no human rights violations in Egypt) and adopted the typical “nationalist discourse” (we will not allow anyone to interfere in Egypt’s affairs), and the discourse of treachery and accusations towards NGOs (the human rights organisations are working to incite the US against Egypt).
The same irrational treatment was repeated after (non-governmental) international human rights organisations issued their reports on human rights abuses and violations in Egypt (Human Rights Watch’s report on torture was not the only report issued).
When will the rulers of Egypt finally check themselves?
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 12 September 2017 and translated in English by Middle East Monitor.