Why Sisi should not seek constitutional amendments to remove term limitations

Without a clear vision, various social components are bound to clash, bringing back chaos and ruin.
Sunday 01/04/2018
An Egyptian woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Saad Zaghloul Basha school in Giza, on March 28.(AFP)
All eyes on turnout. An Egyptian woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Saad Zaghloul Basha school in Giza, on March 28.(AFP)

Egypt’s presidential elections could have been planned and carried out in such a way that might have shown real competition based on a genuine political diversity, one that could have boosted the dormant political scene in Egypt. Obviously, political parties, pressure groups and political activists are rather impotent in Egypt and historically the state has deprived the political class of any sense of initiative and capacity to propose a different project for the country.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi certainly won enough votes to gain a second term but he stands to lose most of his wide popularity should he continue to adopt the same policies.

Implementing a wider political openness cannot occur by closing it from the beginning. The governing class in Egypt seems to be looking at the world and at Egypt’s role through the lenses of the 1950s and 1960s.

If the presidential elections are considered a mere formality that must be completed so the governing class can go on with the same policies, Egypt is heading towards instability that might lead to a political conflagration. I don’t know when it will occur but I do know how.

Egypt is like a pressure cooker without a safety valve. Steam is building up to a degree that nobody can see what’s ahead. Without a clear vision, various social components are bound to clash, bringing back chaos and ruin.

In 2013, Sisi was seen as Egypt’s “saviour” from a similar scenario. He, however, was unable to switch from his role of a “saviour” to president. His opponents, whom he described as incapable of producing election competitors, were also unable to switch from being in the opposition to being political activists.

Sisi’s programme for Egypt will change the country. His economic reforms have created a new dynamic in Egyptian society. Millions of people are suffering the consequences of those reforms but there are also millions of people who are reaping benefits and assuredly moving up the social ladder.

Sisi had no choice but to implement those reforms.

Luckily for Sisi, the Egyptian military had enough reserves of sympathy in the collective Egyptian consciousness that people were willing to turn a blind eye to the mistakes made in the tumult of sudden and sharp change.

In Egypt, the military has always been the seat of power. It is still counting on the general and undisputed acceptance by most Egyptians that it is qualified for that role. Sisi is a reflection of this institution.

His reform programme drags some super heavy weights: enormous debts, runaway spending on infrastructure projects and increasing pauperisation of the poor class because of unstoppable inflation. Unfortunately, the programme did not consider the fact that the state institutions and senior officials lacked awareness that Egypt is in a long transition period.

It is quite natural for the government to seek stronger legitimacy by encouraging people to vote en masse. However, legitimacy is just a means for a higher objective. If the legitimacy sought by the government is meant as a preamble for a possible constitutional amendment that would remove the limit of two presidential terms, then Sisi stands to lose the basis for the consensus that put him in power, namely that his mandate is part of the transition period only. Going beyond that limit risks backfiring on him.

A Sisi campaign clip claimed that the beginning of the end of his mission is to “reinforce the foundations of the state.” That ought to be the basis for Sisi’s second mandate.

Changes are in order and the first indicator of those changes ought to be more freedom for the media. The media enjoy an exceptional status in Egyptian society. Because of the political void in the country, the media plays the role of political parties. Talk show hosts, for example, have more followers than the oldest opposition entity in Egypt.

People in power must accept that doing politics is not always synonymous with comfort. Sisi seemed surprised to learn that people are afraid of speaking their minds. His promise to correct that seems to indicate that the all-powerful security bureaucracy in Egypt has been trying to insulate the president from the people.

There is no doubt that in his first term Sisi achieved double of what former Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak combined achieved. The economy is breathing again, the army is strong and the country’s currency reserve is at its highest. The war on terror is gaining ground and foreign policy is on the right track.

Now there is a need to see a better model for authority, more investment in education, health and general services and greater freedom of expression or else steam will build up and visibility becomes zero.