In May 2012, Egypt’s first democratic presidential election set an important precedent in a troubled transition process. At the time, there was no constitution, no clarity on the president’s powers, no process of transitional justice, no security sector reform, and no economic reform. Key demands of the revolution such as inclusive economic growth and social justice were a chimera.
There was, however, plenty of political participation: for all its flaws, with the presidential election the transitions process finally gave signs of life in the free election of the land’s most powerful office.
The election itself was a surprisingly close-run affair: the top four candidates in the first round were all within 7% of each other, and the first two candidates separated by a mere 3.5% in the run-off. While the victor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi, could only claim a slender margin of victory, Egyptians hopeful of a transition towards democracy could take heart from the process itself.
However, instead of a full transitional process, what ordinary Egyptians got was a return of the ancien regime. Core elements of the old order – particularly the armed forces and businessmen – regrouped, and focused on stalling transition and undermining the opposition.
Bread, freedom and social justice
The Brotherhood was no exception to this process. Like all post-Mubarak governments, it failed to tackle Egypt’s core problems: the economy is still in dire straits, inequality is increasing, and ordinary people are increasingly frustrated. Bread, freedom and social justice are still a distant dream.
Instead of confronting Egypt’s deep-seated economic, social and political problems, successive governments responded with a toxic mix of hyper-nationalism and repression of any political dissent, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s turn in power was no exception. This combination of political disenfranchisement and economic impoverishment led to increased instability.
Tension reached a peak when the army removed Morsi in July 2013. The Brotherhood’s miscalculation of popular discontent with its rule brought about a groundswell of mobilisation against Morsi, which the army took advantage of, stepping in and removing him. What has followed since then is a concerted effort by the army and other sections of the “old guard” to effectively eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood as a political actor.
Under the banner of “Egypt’s war on terror”, thousands of Brotherhood activists have been arrested and often tortured, its leadership is in prison or in exile, and hundreds of anti-coup demonstrators – many but not all Brotherhood supporters – have been killed by the security forces. Security has become a political mantra and authorities view dissent as akin to treason.
Nor has the assault been limited to the Brotherhood. Riding – and stoking – a wave of hyper-nationalism rivalled only during the Suez Crisis of 1956, the 1967 defeat to Israel, or the “October War” of 1973, this assault has aimed at pro-democracy groups such as April 6th. Activists and even iconic opposition figures like Alaa Abdel Fattah and April 6th co-founder Ahmed Maher have been arrested under draconian new anti-protest legislation, and often tortured.
Meanwhile, the new regime struck back. Mubarak and his cronies received lighter sentences for corruption than pro-democracy activists on trumped-up charges received for dissenting, and General al-Sisi, paladin of the Army’s financial and political interests and already head of Intelligence, was promoted Field Marshal and “responded” to “popular demands” that he run for office. Al-Sisi has also become the object of a spasmodic cult of personality by his admirers, producing a baffling range of “Sisi” (or “CC”) items, from chocolate cakes to underwear.
In this sense, the context for the coming presidential elections couldn’t contrast more with 2012: for all the faults of those elections, they were conducted in a markedly more open political landscape. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that al-Sisi will “win” these elections – the only doubt is by how much. Nor is there any doubt what an al-Sisi presidency will mean both politically and economically: like his military, Islamist, and “civilian” predecessors, he has given no sign of tolerating dissent, nor has he formulated any economic policies that might have a chance of addressing Egypt’s deep structural problems. Al-Sisi might be preparing to celebrate, but Egypt is unlikely to have much to cheer about in the long run.