Sisi uses coronavirus to enshrine new powers at the expense of his people

Sisi uses coronavirus to enshrine new powers at the expense of his people
Comment: Sisi is taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to expand his already autocratic grip on power, and to protect Egypt's elites, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
29 Apr, 2020
President Sisi will be granted 18 extra powers during the coronavirus emergency [Getty]

There's a general rule of thumb in Egyptian politics: no matter what the nature of the "emergency", the president usually emerges with more powers than before. 

Whether it be war, terrorist attacks or political assassinations, the president is granted freer rein, usually at the expense of the barely existent liberties of Egyptians.  These powers are rarely rescinded, but rather incorporated into the existing arsenal of liberty-crushing powers that Egyptian tyrants have at their disposal.

So it's hardly surprising that president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has used the "national emergency" of coronavirus to amend the pre-existing emergency law to award himself more powers

Many of the powers make logistical sense, such as being able to close schools, universities and impose quarantines (though even this has been controversial in a manner typical of Egypt's petty kleptocracy, with the regime sending returning Egyptians to 5-star resorts only to ask for them to pay for it). In democratic states, similar measures have been taken in the fight against coronavirus. 

But this is Egypt. This is a state that has been, since the military-led counterrevolutionary coup against democracy, drifting from Mubarak-era authoritarianism to totalitarianism

This is the context through which Sisi's latest power grab must be seen - his already deep reach into and vice-like grip on the lives of Egyptians and institutions of the Egyptian state being extended and tightened. 

So the new powers bolster his pre-existing tyrannical powers, with Sisi now able to instantly disperse any meeting, demonstration or public gathering, whether it's a wedding, funeral, mawlid or, of course, protest. 

Almost every element of the regime's power is designed with the ultimate aim of protecting itself and the elites it represents from the people

These added powers could easily be converted by Sisi into new, and lasting modes of tyranny. We've already seen how Egyptians who have even mildly criticised Sisi have been arrested while re-entering the country, but the new quarantine powers could add an extra dimension to this, with no time limit on the mandatory quarantine period.  

As with schools and universities, Sisi now not only has the power to close them, but also to turn them into organs of the state, further eroding their already weak autonomy, under the pretext of using them as coronavirus testing labs or even potential field hospitals. Following on the from the 25 January revolution, universities are still often sites of sporadic anti-Sisi sentiment, any more power he has over them must be contemplated with deep suspicion.

This kind of malpractice should always be contemplated when the Sisi regime empowers itself, as almost every element of its power is designed with the ultimate aim of protecting itself and the elites it represents from the people. By comparison, the welfare of the people is usually of little importance in the motivations behind political decisions taken by the state.

And, lo and behold, the new amendments include granting Sisi a number of new fiscal powers. Again, many of these are in line with measures that amount to good practice during a pandemic, but there's no doubt that some of them have been taken to assuage the kleptocracy that is central to the Egyptian state. 

Read more: A job or a calling? Egypt's human rights movement from the Mubarak era to Sisi

Egypt's economic system is one of almost total patronage - Sisi's new powers to wave taxes could easily be seen as a means to assuage loyal businessmen or bring previously politically ambiguous ones into the kleptocracy. Meanwhile, businesses that the regime considers to be politically dubious can be punished or exempted from Sisi's autocratic fiscal powers.

But Sisi acquiring these powers fits perfectly with the way Egypt has reacted to coronavirus - right from its heavily botched beginnings - which in turn fits with the general contempt Egypt has for the majority of poor, economically insecure Egyptians.

It was under increasing scrutiny from Sisi's kleptocratic allies he took the decision to relax lockdown measures at the beginning of Ramadan. This included the real estate billionaire Husayn Sabbour comparing the situation to Sadat's claim in 1973 that Egypt would take back the Sinai from Israel regardless of the death toll, claiming that Egyptians ought to sacrifice their lives for the economy.  Now many will return to work in unsafe conditions amid a pandemic - sacrificed to the kleptocracy.

But millions in Egypt simply cannot afford not to work, as irregular workers are not entitled to social security, and facing starvation levels of poverty if they can't find work day-to-day. Egypt is again turning to the IMF for a bailout, but this will only help to underwrite the hospitality and tourism sector - not the people.

The welfare of the people is usually of little importance

The interests of the kleptocratic regime are primary.

Despite its general economic deficiencies, Egypt actually has quite a strong public and private manufacturing capacity. It has been able to produce impressive levels of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), but the problem is that the medical professionals and key workers who need it are not the ones are getting it. 

Instead, Sisi has used PPE as a means to further export his vicious counterrevolution, with 10 tonnes of PPE going to its key ally China, and similar amounts going to the Trump administration, Britain and Italy.  

This comes as three doctors, with a potential fourth today, have died of the virus, and it's commonly understood that Egypt is hiding both the true infection rate and death toll from the public. At least 13 percent of those infected by the virus have been medical workers, with reports of several of Egypt's ill-equipped, chronically underfunded hospitals closing down.  

Doctors are a precious commodity in Egypt, with the country having one of the world's lowest rates of doctors per-capita. 10,000 Egyptian doctors migrated between 2016-2019 alone. The regime could release the hundreds of doctors and nurses that it has imprisoned for political offences, but has so far refused to even contemplate it.

Egypt is again turning to the IMF for a bailout, but this will only help to underwrite the hospitality and tourism sector - not the people

Now doctors, who get the equivalent of $193 per month, are being asked to confront a highly infectious disease without the necessary PPE and medical equipment. In fact, since Sisi's PPE diplomacy stunts, doctors have often had to purchase their own masks from pharmacies raising the price of them exponentially

Perhaps the most tragic element of Egypt's coronavirus epidemic is encapsulated by the case of Dr Sonja Arif. After contracting coronavirus while treating patients stricken by the disease, and almost certainly without access to adequate PPE, Sonja succumbed to the illness at the age of 64. 

At her funeral, the mourners were attacked by a group of people attempting to prevent her burrial. The mob believed that her corpse was a potential route of transmission. 

All across Egypt, the stigma of coronavirus is playing out horrifically, with doctors being chased out of their houses due to fear they're carrying the disease, as well as recovered victims not being able to return home for the same reasons.

Rather than attempt to counter the hysterical stigma surrounding the virus, the regime has decided to say nothing about it, allowing potentially millions of people to so dangerously hide their symptoms.  

Instead, the government has invested millions into campaigns aimed at foreign tourists to make sure they know that Egypt's wonders will be open for business again soon.

And that's all that matters in Sisi's Egypt.   

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Join the conversation @The_NewArab

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.