Updated: Aug 8, 2019
A Wikistrat Interview with Sam Tadros
Wikistrat: So looking at these constitutional amendments which passed just yesterday, what do these constitutional amendments mean for Egypt’s domestic politics? I mean, how significant are they for the el-Sisi regime to stay in power?
Tadros: In one sense they don’t matter. They reflect a reality that already exists. So, the paper is just now saying what we all know to be true. In another, of course it matters because constitutions, even for countries that don’t take them very seriously and change them all the time as we’re doing now, also have this emotional significance, a sense of legitimacy associated with them. So, by doing this, obviously the regime aims to quantify Sisi’s rule.
Sisi is Egypt’s ruler, he has no competitors from outside, no credible competitors, and the regime is unwilling to offer any credible continuation after him from within the regime as well. So, we’re back to square one in a sense. The Egyptian regime [today], like the Mubarak
regime before it, has a problem with the question of succession. It simply has no one to come after the big guy, and as such the big guy cannot leave after eight years of his term, and it’s going to continue until God knows when.
W: And who do you think this was really meant for in terms of the audience here? Was this meant for domestic audiences to show that Sisi has no alternative, or competitors, or more for external audiences? Trying to show that the Sisi regime is actually legitimate, according to its own people?
T: I mean, the constitutions of the most autocratic regimes would probably, with the exception of North Korea, like to call themselves, well even North Korea, like to call
themselves democratic. And like to have this show things that appear democratic. Why do they do them? They don’t actually mean to. They’re ruling with an iron first, they oppress everyone, and yet for some odd reason democracy has become this cool world, that everyone wants to claim that he’s a Democrat. So, it’s only natural that the Sisi regime, as part of the international community, as part of its own message to the Egyptian people, would want to frame it into a legitimate process. Whereby, if there was a need, we change the constitution. And in their messaging internally, we see it repeated over and over again how this has been done in other countries. Some of it is, of course, jokes talking about amendments to the American constitution as if they are similar to this. But, talking about other constitutions around the world that have been changed and that, “This is normal,” and,
“Circumstances need such change so we’re doing it.”
W: More broadly, how does Sisi maintain his popularity in Egypt in the face of a very harsh economic reality and many domestic challenges? How does this really work in practice in terms of maintaining his popularity?
T: Well, I think that Sisi remains ... the word popular is a strong word, it’s just for many people there is no alternative. And that’s the simple option kind of people, they deal with alternatives. First, there’s the regional dynamic. People still look around them and see chaos and see destruction, and they don’t want to be like that.There’s a popular saying in Egypt, “At least we’re not Syria or Iraq.”
And that mindset continues. Secondly, the only alternative opposition to the regime remains, largely, the Muslim Brotherhood. And as long as the choice is between the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime, and as long as people’s memories of the Brotherhood’s rule
is still very much alive, it is likely the people will continue to support the regime, it’s their only option. Thirdly, there are no alternatives even from within the regime. I mean, I don’t think any Egyptian would be able to name the Prime Minister of Egypt, for example. Or any of the
key Ministers or anything. They’re cattle, they don’t ... there are no competing centers of power, there are no strong personalities, there’s nothing there. So, for many people it’s Sisi or nothing.
And that means that the regime remains acceptable to a wide variety of people in the country. It’s not a beauty contest. I don’t think people in Egypt have the luxury to choose the most beautiful girl. They’re choosing the least ugly contestant, basically.
W: Interesting. And also, if we also assume that there is a legal possibility that Sisi will remain in power until 2030, how do you think that he will try to legitimize his staying in power for so long? Almost indefinitely, basically.
T: The argument is he needs to continue his program, look at what he did. There’s a lot of talk about infrastructure, and he did this and he built that, healthcare improvements. And many of these things are true, I mean, they’re exactly right. But, there is an element of truth of the kind of road network that he has done, the healthcare improvements, these things ... but it’s a twin message. It’s a message of, “He saved us from The Brotherhood.” And that remains strong in people’s minds. And the second message is, “He has a program. He’s done a lot of things. Let him continue, eight years are not enough to do this. There’s much to be done.” So, that argument.
And then there’s the third argument. I mean, there was a joke a couple of days ago by someone, an opponent of Sisi, that we’ve been told in the past that there wasn’t an alternative to Mubarak, despite the fact that Sisi was lurking there in the military and he could have been an alternative but you guys didn’t know it and today you’re telling us that there is no alternative to Sisi, despite the fact that Mubarak is still there. So, it’s an argument about, “Okay, who’s your candidate?” And then you don’t have a candidate and you shut up, basically.
Sisi, people think is not a democrat, that’s the least of it. He doesn’t like politics in the first place. He doesn’t like the idea of an exchange of ideas in the public square, negotiations and compromising ideas, he doesn’t like that whole thing. He’s the only President of Egypt that comes directly from the military, he has zero political experience. Nasser had been involved in various political groups with The Brotherhood, with the Young Egypt before he did his own secret apparatus to take over. So, that had been a side to the Nazi’s during World War II, and similarly it involves the various things. Mubarak had been Vice President for six years, being trained on the job.
Even more so at Parliament training. This guy? Zero. So, he doesn’t like opposition at all. He doesn’t like that there is a public debate. So, I think the regime is making very clear that it will not allow public opposition, the people that will do this will be arrested as were people in various referendums and various campaigns that were done in the past, and it won’t allow this issue to be turned into an opportunity to mobilize people. That’s what they’re afraid of: the mobilization of people.
At the same time, I don’t think they’re going to stuff all the ballots, it’s that people are going to go out to vote and the regime is going to use every tool in their box to make sure that this happens. Propaganda, encouragement, pressuring the people to get their people out, everything like that. At the same time, when it needs to, it’s going to play with the results of it.
W: And how to you see the motivation behind these amendments? I mean, why now, in this particular time? And is this something which has more to do with external consideration, such as, you know, the Trump administration’s support? Or placed any lack of criticism of Sisi? Or it something which is inevitable in terms of domestic politics within Egypt?
T: I think it’s a combination of things. Obviously, his term ends in 2022, so it needs to be done at a certain point before that. On the same hand, he doesn’t want it very
close to the end of a term because it wouldn’t look nice, it’s as if the guy doesn’t want to leave the seat.
So, doing it early, just after being elected, I think in a sense looks nicer. At the same time there is no doubt that it’s also because this is an American administration that would be open to such a thing, and he will not place pressure on them regarding these amendments. So, I think in 2019, while Trump does have an election at hand ... who knows if Trump is going to get elected again. “Now is our time, now is our opportunity, let’s do it now.”
W: How would you characterize the nature of relations between Sisi and the military today? Do you see that there is any kind of tension, anything emerging between Sisi the President and the military as an institution today or the past few years?
T: There’s a general tendency in people talking about the Egyptian military, talking about it as if it’s an institution. And I think that’s wrong and not reflective of the facts because we don’t have a similar military establishment the way the Turkish military used to be. So, I don’t think there’s a military that Sisi needs to deal with as a one body where there’s a group of people that might be his competitors or opponents. Some of them, I mean, it’s going to change over the years, but many of them remain people he knows very well from years and years of work together. He is also confident enough in his relationship with them to fire at will and change how he likes without fear of any repercussions or anger inside. So, he’s both removed the Minister of Defense, as well as the Chief of Staff who used to be his best friend and family related, the kids are married.
That shows confidence. Of course, who knows. It’s not the most open institution as well. We don’t know, and we wouldn’t know, if there’s an internal talk about a coup, or something like that. It’s unlikely for us to know unless it’s such a bad job. But, I think it shows his confidence, he has them under control by various things. Number one, he is one of them. He is representative of their mindset. People like him, agree with what he does, and they are part of Egyptian society, they get the same propaganda, they are faced with the same choices, and they see him as their guy and he’s doing the best and has Egypt’s best interest at heart.
Let’s put it this way; if the attack on him of giving up a piece of Egypt in the form of the two islands do not result in a serious opposition from the military, then nothing will.
W: Who would you say are the main opposition element or opposition parties today under Sisi who are part of the political process, in Parliament for example or some
kind of semi-official civil society?
T: There’s nothing. I mean, okay. The Muslim Brotherhood, I think, has been completely crushed. People forget that The Muslim Brotherhood is, first and foremost, an organization, it’s an organization with a hierarchical structure and if you strike the organization then the whole thing collapses and that’s what basically
happened. The kind of repression that The Brotherhood fell under is unlike anything it has faced in the past. Not just the top leadership, say the shura council, no. The second layer, third, forth, fifth layers of leadership, thousands of members arrested, others on the financial network of the organization part... whoever remains outside of this are the ones who escaped outside of the country. So, that’s the first thing. The second thing is that they also have a deep fight within The Brotherhood.
Largely regarding the question of, “How can we remove this regime?” The question of violence and this. But there is also that you have competing camps within the
Brotherhood that don’t even talk to each other. Thirdly, of course, the Brotherhood cannot continue in their state. They need a half open society to operate. The jihadists
can operate in a closed society, the Brotherhood can’t. The Brotherhood holds meetings, creates games so they recruit young kids by playing software, they do all
these kinds of activities in Universities and this that can no longer do now in a completely closed environment. So, for all of these reasons I think the Brotherhood is not
there as part of a serious equation.
W: Also looking at something which I know that you’ve written on in the past quite a lot, the position of minorities especially if they are the Copts in Egypt and the question of religious freedom, which we know has been lauded by the Trump administration and also by Trump personally, commending Sisi for his efforts to ensure religious freedom in Egypt. So, how do you read that situation in terms of the everyday lives of non- Muslims living in Egypt?
T: Well, the regime has been able to play along with firm talk about religious freedom without actually doing much internally. So, it’s done this spectacular project which led to a Tweet from President Trump things like, “The biggest cathedral in the Middle East!” Which is great, but not so great when you can’t pray in the smallest church in Egypt. And that contrast is, I think, reflective of the reality of the situation of Christians in Egypt. Christians remain largely supportive of Sisi, although we are seeing discontent among the community that we haven’t seen in the immediate aftermath of the coup and Sisi’s emergence. So, we’re
seeing that because things haven’t improved because the situation in villages in the south of Egypt remains extremely problematic. Every two weeks or so we have
one of these incidents, they’re not huge but they, again, reflect a repeated pattern and people see no change in the government’s attitude towards it.
At the same time, of course, Copts are realizing, “What’s our alternative? The Islamists?” Well... definitely anything is better than that. So, the community remains behind the regime with signs of discontent, but remains behind the regime because again, like other Egyptians, they look at the options in front of them and don’t find that much.
W: Do you think there’s anything else which is worth mentioned? Any other interesting points related to the Sisi regime today?
T: I mean, the one point I would say is, which I in a sense said earlier, is the main condition of Arab regimes remains the same. It’s not a coincidence that the Sudanese and Algerian regimes collapsed, and I will not be surprised if the Mauritanian one has a similar fate because all of these countries where these things have happened share a lead question of their old republics with no process of succession. We don’t like rulers who think that they are gods, we worship them as gods but our sense of our self also likes the idea of knowing what
the future will hold. That this guy is going, the next guy is going to come after him. The failure of regimes to create a process of succession within the ruling elite remains a very dangerous thing.
I’m not suggesting that Egyptians are going to revolt, that we’re going to see anything similar to 2011, again the memory of 2011 is to fresh in people’s minds. But, we’re still at the same point of the regimes have no answer to this question. How to transfer power within the ruling elite to make sure that power doesn’t go out of our hands while ... how do we do that? Instead of just holding to one guy and waiting until, I don’t know, heaven intervenes and he dies and then we’re lost and we don’t know what to do. The image of the Algerian military and the Algerian ruling elite clinging to Bouteflika for all these years, after it was widely known that the guy is basically dead and that he is not functioning, and that he is not there. Just clinging to him, and even attempting to nominate him for another term after he couldn’t even vote for himself in his last term is the best image of that crisis that I think these constitutional amendments need to reflect. The regime itself, if we criticize our position because it doesn’t have an alternative to Sisi, neither does the regime itself.
I don’t expect a revolution at all. But at a certain point the crisis is bound to boil, if not today, not in five years, but it is bound to boil because I mean, it would be a sign of idiocy to repeat the same experiment and expect any different results.
You’re playing with fire here by failing to create an orderly process of succession within the regimes themselves. Allowing elements of the regime over the long term to be dissatisfied with the status-quo and in the internal power struggles and look for things outside, and eventually lead to a situation where people from within and outside of the regime find a better to get in office and that’s a very dangerous thing.
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Samuel Tadros is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
At Hudson, he is researching Middle Eastern politics, Islamist movements and
He is also the Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Hoover
Institution, a Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced
International Studies (SAIS) where he teaches Middle Eastern politics, and the co-host
of Sam & Ammar at Al Hurra TV, a program dedicated to covering Middle Eastern
political and social developments from a classical liberal perspective. He has received
his MA in Democracy and Governance from Georgetown University and his BA in
Political Science from the American University in Cairo.