These are sensitive times in Egypt. A leading singer was sentenced to six months in prison for joking about a song she was asked to sing ‘Have you drunk from the Nile’. Drinking from the Nile, she said, ‘will get me schistosomiasis’ (aka bilharzia, a most unpleasant illness caused by parasites from contaminated fresh water). Meanwhile, the host of a state tv talk show has been detained for allegedly defaming the police. He noted their low salaries. This was not a good idea when the country’s president says insulting the security forces amounts to treason.
Nobody is more sensitive than the president himself, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He is feeling acutely so as he runs for re-election next week. Having rid himself of potential competitors through intimidation, harassment, prosecution and detention, he really has nothing to worry about. The election is merely a charade.
His main concern is beyond the poll. As another four years in office would be his limit, he wants to amend the constitution to extend presidential terms and abolish limits on them. At 63, he may have been motivated by the example of a leader a year older just across the Mediterranean – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish president has effectively engineered himself another 10 years in office and last week managed to emasculate parliamentary electoral law to reinforce his grip on power.
Sisi clearly has similar ambitions. Like the paranoid Erdoğan, he has rounded up and imprisoned activists and opponents and cowed the media, including jailing dozens of reporters and blocking about 500 websites. Sixteen new jails have been built since he was elected four years ago. Human rights groups have reported regular ‘forced disappearances’ and a doubling of extrajudicial killings. Civilian cases can now be referred to military courts.
It is now illegal for the media to make ‘any observations of the voting process’ as part of the latest crackdown on free speech just in time for the election. ‘Do not listen to anyone but me’, Sisi said in a speech, according to foreignpolicy.com. Not even Erdoğan for all his belligerence has been so repressive. Indeed he has denounced Sisi as ‘an illegitimate tyrant’.
With one exception, Egypt in modern times has known only military rulers since King Farouk was deposed by Colonel Nasser in 1952. He was followed by Sadat, Mubarak for 30 years and now Sisi – field marshal (ret). The only democratically elected leader was Mohamed Morsi of the Moslem Brotherhood, who lasted just a year. He was ousted in 2013 by his hand-picked defence minister, Sisi no less, following mass protests against his turbulent rule.
But Sisi has to tread carefully. A grab for one-man rule could disturb unease in the military ranks or provoke the demonstrations which unseated his predecessor. Perhaps that’s why Egypt now has a law banning any gathering of 10 people or more with the threat of up to five years in Sisi’s expanding network of prisons.
Furthermore, ’He remains hyper-vigilant against any potential splits within the military, whose power he takes most seriously’, says Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation think tank in New York. Sisi’s regime ‘has produced a stultifying environment in which prosecutors have initiated outlandish legal actions, shocking even staunch supporters’.
Turks could identify with this power-at-any-cost approach. Just as Erdoğan has arrested more than 60,000 people and forced another 150,000 from their jobs for no other reason than they are perceived to be supporters of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen. Sisi has targeted his own bête noire, the Moslem Brotherhood. The Washington Post opined that Turkey was becoming a ‘totalitarian prison’. Egypt may well be also.
Western countries don’t seem too bothered. Egypt has been a reliable ally in the fight against Islamist violence. Some European countries have negotiated large arms and energy deals with Cairo. Donald Trump has hailed Sisi as ‘a fantastic guy’ and once even complimented him on the shoes he was wearing when they met. Israel has despatched unmarked warplanes and drones to help tackle jihadists in the Sinai whose wave of butchery was threatening to get out of hand.
Sisi has cosied up to Saudi Arabia, his neighbour across the Red Sea. He has sent warships to help Saudi forces bombard the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. In 2016, he ceded two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. His critics accused him of selling land in return for aid. It was the last time that Egyptians felt emboldened to protest in considerable numbers. More than 70 of them were jailed for two years for their patriotism. Last week, also just in time for the election, Sisi announced a $500 billion project with the Saudis to build a new city on the Sinai coast.
The IMF has given a tick of approval to Sisi’s reforms in tackling the dystopian economy. Inflation for the first time in two years is slowing even though it is still nearly 20%. If the former field marshal is worried about threats to his rule, he would be wise to pay attention to other statistics: 30% unemployment among the restless youth, 28% of the population living below the poverty line and day to day costs making life unaffordable for many of his fellow Egyptians. They could stir a revolution which not even the most draconian of Sisi’s dictatorial laws could stop.
FOOTNOTE. The Nile may be the lifeblood of Egypt, but any visitor knows the dangers of even dipping your toes in the river let alone the unthinkable and drinking from it. Its waters are synonymous with dictatorships – brutal and benign – when you consider where they come from: Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia and finally Egypt. President Sisi will feel right at home in such a club.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.