When a pharaoh visits a democracy: Sisi in London

When a pharaoh visits a democracy: Sisi in London
Comment: Egypt's president will be selling falsehoods of freedom and stability, yet European leaders know they are already mired in his swamp, writes Amr Khalifa
6 min read
03 Nov, 2015
Sisi is in London for a two-day visit [Anadolu]

In the political deserts of the Middle East, Egypt's president is but a dangerous mirage.

To demystify President Sisi's London visit, one would need two key words: impunity, illusion.

"I" is the operative letter, and a pair of eyes is all one needs to see reality under the repressive rule of a strongman competing with gusto for the "bloodiest dictator" title with Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

It is under these circumstances that Abdel Fatah al-Sisi makes his first official visit to Britain since officially becoming president in June of last year, a year after he led a coup against the former president.

Choose the angle you wish, but the extremely low turnout at parliamentary elections last week - officially just 26.5 percent - exemplifies a democratic charade, not democracy. The low turnout is but another symptom of a polarised polity in Egypt, a schism perpetuated by militarised discourse and conflict resolution.

Where is Egypt's social contract?

     David Cameron, the European Union, the US and even Russia know full well they are mired in the Sisi swamp

Relationships between rulers and the citizenry are like a binary personal relationship, romantic or platonic: without trust - or a social contract - relationships implode. Due to a perfect storm of massive political failure by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, most Egyptians initially saw salvation in a rather opportunistic military leader.

However, since that fateful day of the military coup, the public began its disillusionment. Sisi and his hawkish cohorts, their camp believes, talked a good game, one centred around the so-called "road map to stability".

David Cameron, the European Union, the US and even Russia know full well they are mired in the Sisi swamp. But they seem to recognise a national interest in a new dictator despite the lessons of the popular uprisings.

If they were not squeamish as 1,000 Egyptians were slaughtered at Rabaa, they certainly won't care when organised state terrorism becomes the new normal.

No one dares speak of lacking democracy, pluralism and division, at historic levels, without stating the obvious: Sisi's Egypt continues to jail dissident voices at breakneck speed. 

The Ministry of Interior failed to support Sisi's predecessor, the elected Islamist Mohammed Morsi, which destroyed his presidency - but has been given carte blanche by Sisi. That very same Ministry of Interior had the temerity to publicly state it had incarcerated 11,877 Egyptians in the first nine months of this year, under the conveniently expanding umbrella definition of "terrorism".

Even more disconcertingly, haphazard standards for terrorism charges are being couched within dubious legal confines such as the Terrorism Law, a veritable firehose of injustice. That law is pliable, not to the needs of the state, but to the multiple Sisi fiefdoms which help the strongman to quell discourse.

On the belated parliamentary elections

Multi-stage parliamentary elections are a good place to start to gauge the success or truth of what the Sisiphites adoringly call the roadmap. While journalistic protocol dictates official figures be quoted when speaking of turnout for elections, there is nary a person, even in Sisi's camp, who finds the figure of 26.5 percent turnout credible.

Read more: 'Stop Sisi' campaign gains traction in the UK

Numerous pictures and video showed laughably empty polls. One El-Watan video showed the count at 60 voters to 25 journalists in one hour in central Cairo. Egyptian governments have been consistently fond of saying: "The people have spoken". Indeed, they have now said out loud: "What map? What road? What democracy?"

Those are not only the refrains of the layman. Analysts also question doubt Sisi's path. Even centrists like Michael Wahid Hanna, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, put it bluntly: "The Sisi regime has not provided a credible road map for Egypt's future."

But turnout was not the only issue with these "elections" - a term used here in its loosest incarnation. It was understood, by many observers, that this upcoming parliament would not merely be a politically aesthetic accoutrement, but would simply rubber-stamp the unilateral laws passed by Sisi during his 16 months of rule.

To bring this Machiavellian chess set to life, Sisi would need a politically supplicant body. And such a body would not need to reflect the most recent constitutional framework - which sought a more muscular place for parliament in Egypt's political calculus.

Not only is this coming into full view - but the numbers bear out a de facto renaming of the Egyptian parliament into the House of Sisi.

The oppressive machine

     Yet all Sisi needs to say is the 'open sesame' catchphrase, 'war on terror', and Ali Baba's cave opens

Some thought Sisi might bring the Salafist Nour Party along to complete the orchestra of democracy. But things went so badly, they are already threatening to jump ship in the second round.

One look at the numbers bears out certain candidates' allegations that the state was working against the Salafis on a local level. In Alexandria, for example, a traditional stronghold for the party, 91 candidates ran on behalf of Nour but won only eight seats.

Meanwhile, the victory was decisive for parties whose allegiance solely belonged to the Sisi camp: both the Nation's Future Party and its political partner For the Love of Egypt made out like bandits.

For many watchers, the phrase "made out like bandits" is no euphemism - but a literal interpretation of Egypt’s reality. The fact that the Free Egyptians Party, propelled by Naguib Sawiris' mega-billions, won 36 seats, the largest by a single party, is significant.

Mubarak may be gone, yet a corrupt political scene constructed to further the aims of the political, military and business elite remains. It is not merely the hyper-critical words of analysts pasting Sisi.

"Sisi is the head of the most oppressive and criminal regime Egypt has seen during my lifetime, and I'm almost 60," said Dr Leila Soueif, a prominent activist.

Truer words could not be spoken. On the same day Soueif spoke, the interior ministry reported that horrific figure of 11,877 arrests recorded thus far in 2015.

Add those figures to the 41,731 reported by WikiThawara and you total more than 53,000 political prisoners in 28 months.

But don't forget to tally the hundreds of forced disappearances that have already occurred in 2015 as part of the extra-judicial campaign undertaken by the regime. Human rights NGOs state, unequivocally, that the figures are in excess of 1,250 forced disappearances this year alone.

Yet all Abdel Fatah al-Sisi needs to say is the "open sesame" catchphrase, "war on terror", and Ali Baba's cave opens. Sisi will only find a red carpet to welcome him in official British circles. It is here that silence is bought with false stability and large business deals that buy the goodwill of European leaders such as Merkel and Cameron.

With this visit, British Prime Minister David Cameron will spin up a united front on Syria and a major business deal or two, but Sisi walks away with hardest currency of all: international credibility.

Dream of a roadmap that spoke of a "committee to foster national reconciliation" and falsely interjected the "addition of youth in decision making circles" if you wish, but even Sisi knows these are deceptions and illusions.

Otherwise, why would he have said "I'm not deceiving you, I'm not selling illusions" during a November 1 speech? These are the words of a second-hand car salesman not making eye contact as he sells you a lemon of a car and utters the refrain: "Trust me."

Cameron needs to put his ear to the political ground: scores of political prisoners, a failing economy, a mirage of a democracy and a population fed an illusion of democracy, freedom and fairness.

But, alas, the car has already been sold.

Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian analyst and commentator. He has written for Daily News Egypt, Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah and Arab Media and Society Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @cairo67unedited

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.