El-Sisi’s Dangerous Gamble

El-Sisi’s Dangerous Gamble

General El-Sisi has called on “honorable Egyptians” to hold massive protests on Friday to give him a popular mandate in the latest “war on terrorism.” This escalation in the conflict between pro- and anti-Morsi groups is a political miscalculation that will backfire on El-Sisi and on Egypt.

When ousted president Morsi was in power, his Muslim Brotherhood (“MB”) group would regularly call for counter-demonstrations against his opponents who were camping out in Tahrir and elsewhere. The opposing camps would meet, inevitably leading to violence and a climbing death toll. Most Egyptians rightly criticized the MB for “placing the matches near the fuel.” Yet, many of those same Egyptians are today cheering for El-Sisi’s repetition of the MB’s mistake.

When the military ousted Morsi, it was in response to millions of Egyptians protesting Morsi’s undemocratic practices and managerial incompetence during his first year in office. Although Morsi was democratically elected, he had worked to systematically dismantle all democratic elements in the state, pack all levels of government exclusively with MB members and supporters, ignore his campaign promises, and place himself above the constitution and the rule of law.

For all intents and purposes, Morsi’s actions rendered unusable the legal mechanisms by which citizens can hold their national leaders accountable in between elections. That left Egyptians with no path towards change other than street demonstrations. And when Morsi responded by loudly declaring that he will defend his presidency “with [his] blood,” and his supporters started amassing in Cairo, the military had no choice but to intervene to prevent a potential bloodbath. That was a legitimate response to the people’s will, to the lack of legal options, and to the imminent danger of the breakout of civil war.

Violence has broken out during the three weeks since Morsi’s ouster, mostly in the lawless Sinai governorate and at a few pro-Morsi sit-ins. Dozens have been killed and a few thousand hurt. But the million or so pro-Morsi demonstrators have remained mostly peaceful. MB leaders and other “Islamists” continue to egg them on, believing that large sit-ins will eventually bring back the MB regime. They have failed to recognize that all they can accomplish is run out the general population’s patience with them and provide an easy excuse for extremists to ratchet up their attacks against the state.

El-Sisi is gambling on receiving another popular mandate through demonstrations, this time to crack down on “violence and terrorism.” This is a dangerous miscalculation for a simple reason: unlike the case of holding the president accountable, there are clear and active laws governing the state’s response to violence. The security forces will find wide support for cracking down on the few armed protesters in Cairo. And the military will be cheered as a national hero if it launches a major campaign to rid Sinai of its festering terrorism camps and pockets of violence. The military can even be called to help secure Cairo against extremist elements by a simple declaration of a state of emergency by the Interim President, Judge Adly Mansour.

El-Sisi’s asking for popular demonstrations prior to taking action implies one thing: he intends to use the military in an extra-judicial crackdown on peaceful protests. That is the only objective for which he has no legal or political cover.

International political entities and donors are already skeptical about the military’s intentions in Egypt. The U.S. has been threatening to withhold over $1B in aid to the Egyptian military. And the IMF has still not approved its $4.8B loan to Egypt, desperately needed to kickstart the economy. However, most international bodies gave El-Sisi the benefit of the doubt in ousting Morsi because of the events that led up to it.

El-Sisi is seeking a similar popular mandate and additional leeway from international observers. He may well receive the former but almost certainly not the latter.

Two developments are likely to happen over the next few days. First, massive pro-military demonstrations will clash with pro-Morsi crowds, potentially leading to widespread bloodshed. And second, the military and security forces will launch an iron fisted campaign to snuff out public support for the MB, perhaps killing hundreds and arresting tens of thousands, many of whom will disappear into military jails, forcing the remaining sympathizers underground.

If El-Sisi’s intention is, as he has stated, to re-establish the rule of law and stability to the nation, this plan will backfire. If his intention is to eradicate opposition, he may succeed in the short term, but will soon have to repeat his actions to deal with the next wave of opposition, likely by the secular youth who still remember the heavy handed rule of the military after Mubarak’s ouster.

In either case, Egypt is about to pay a heavy price for the miscalculations of one very powerful man.

The Egyptian Revolution in A Democratic Context

The Egyptian Revolution in A Democratic Context

It’s understandable why people who live in a solid democratic system like the U.S. (despite its many shortcomings) think that Egyptians are crazy to support the military’s actions against deposed President Morsi. To help bridge the gap between what Americans expect from their system and what Egyptians are experiencing, consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine one major change in the American electoral process: there are no party primaries. Every candidate (several from each party), instead of running in a primary, run in the same general election against everyone else, and the two top candidates (if no one got a majority outright) have a run-off. Now imagine this: most Americans are somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. But in the last general election, there were so many candidates in that middle that no one of them got more than 10-15% of the vote. There was also exactly one candidate on each extreme, each of whom got ~20%, because the people towards each end of the spectrum only had the one choice. And so those two extreme candidates are the ones who end up in the run-off.

Now imagine that the people had just overthrown a corrupt leftist government, so when the rightist candidate (think Sarah Palin but far more religiously extreme) promised to be the “revolution’s candidate”, giving people the inclusionary, clean government that they’ve been asking for, some of the revolutionaries decide to give her a chance. Most of the others join a “Hold Your Nose” movement to vote for her in order to keep the other “old regime” out of the White House. And she ends up winning by a 1.7% margin.

Within a few months, President Palin declares that her presidential decisions are above the constitution, “fires” ) 6 of the 9 Supreme Court Justices b/c they’re too leftist or moderate for her, fires all the Governors in the 50 states, replacing them by decree with Tea Partiers, has a bunch of Tea Party members with ZERO political or legal background draft a new constitution in the middle of the night, then terrorize/pay off people to vote on it in a referendum.

She appoints only Tea Party insiders (again, with zero experience in anything outside a church) to every cabinet post, “retires” 80 Generals and Admirals in order to install people loyal to her at the top of the military, closes down CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and NBC when they criticize her, and activists who try to demonstrate against her start getting into fatal “accidents” … en masse. Others are arrested and jailed with little or no legal process.

Within another 6 months, since the nation is being run by inexperienced ideologues, every aspect of government falls apart. There’s no electricity, no water, a quarter of the population is unemployed, civil society organizations are shut down and their leaders are in prison. Career professionals in the State Department, the military, the courts, the FBI, and pretty much every other national institution stop cooperating with her and her incompetent government.

Finally, a third of the population (in the U.S. that would be 100 Million people) hit the streets demanding early elections b/c they’ve had enough of her and her Tea Party. Those numbers had been seen on the streets before, and are 2-3 times the number that had voted for her in the run-off. Most of those who had “held their noses” and voted for her join the demonstrations.

In response, her party mobilizes a couple million of their own hardline supporters (i.e. a small percentage of the opposition demonstrators). Some of them are armed to the teeth and most believe they’ll be doing God’s work by martyring themselves in order to keep her in power. Then she gets on national TV and says, “Screw you all! I have the legitimacy of the ballot box and will defend it with my blood.”

The military sees all this, recognizes that a bloodbath is on the way and gives Palin 48 hours to negotiate an agreement with the opposition. She and her party refuse to attend negotiation meetings and continue the “martyrdom to protect legitimacy” rhetoric.

What should the people do? Say “well, she does have a point about legitimacy, and we don’t like the idea of the military getting involved in politics, or the idea of widespread bloodshed if the military doesn’t get involved, so let’s keep the status quo for another 3 years then vote her out?”

Oh and BTW, there’s no House in congress and she appointed one third of the senate who now have absolute legislative power and have been passing laws right and left that are strictly along Tea Party ideological lines, rolling back decades of progress on women’s rights, etc…

Finally, it should be recognized that the head of the military who led the ousting of Palin was appointed by her. And he immediately installed a civilian interim President: the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, who was also appointed by Palin. Thankfully, both are career professionals in their respective fields.

Disclaimer: This is not a perfect analogy, something that I don’t think would be possible. But I still hope it helps non-Egyptians understand how the country got to this point before preaching democracy to Egyptians. On a personal note, I was opposed to the military getting involved and even to the demonstrators insisting that Egypt’s Palin step down. I wanted them to insist on a national unity government instead… until she got on TV and flipped them the finger. It became obvious at that point that she had to go.