On February 14, Egypt's parliament approved changes to the constitution that would lift term limits on the country’s presidency, allowing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to consolidate and remain in power until 2034. A total of 485 lawmakers in the 596-seat assembly—or more than the two-thirds majority needed for approval—voted in favor of the proposed constitutional amendments, which also grants new political powers to the military and extra presidential control over the judiciary.
RU-N Political Science Assistant Professor Nermin Allam, who is from Cairo, Egypt, focuses on social movements and democratic transition in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as political Islam and gender politics. She is the author of Women and the Egyptian Revolution: Engagement and Activism During the 2011 Arab Uprisings (Cambridge University Press), a multi-year study of the role of women's collective action in the 2011 uprising, which places this struggle in the context of the larger history of women's rights in that country.
She sat down with us recently to discuss this latest development.
You were in Egypt, doing field work for your book, several times between 2012 and 2017. Can you put this latest move by parliament into context for us?
The project to entrench military control over the country has been in the making since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak—a former military man himself—in 2011. During the 2011 uprisings, the army sided with the people against Mubarak’s succession plan: He was grooming his son Gamal to take over the country, which meant sidelining the army and threatening its economic empire in Egypt. Following the uprising, the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi in 2012 did not erase these existing power dynamics. In 2013 the people summoned the army to power again after the Morsi’s Islamist project failed. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, an ex–defense minister under Morsi’s, came to power in 2014, promising a return to stability.
Egypt, like other Arab Spring countries, was suffering from revolutionary fatigue and economic distress, leading people to crave such stability. The lack of vision among other political parties and the chaotic turn of events in Syria, Libya and Yemen positioned the army and Sisi as the only available solution. The costs of stability were Sisi’s new harsh economic policies and brutal crackdown on all forms of dissent, and while the international community often condemned the crackdown, it celebrated the economic policies. Trump soon celebrated Sisi as the new strongman to safeguard the West’s geopolitical interests in the Middle East, further certifying his regime, which aims to entrench its hold of the country and enrich military dominance over politics in Egypt.
There has been a systemic disciplining of all groups and activists who called for change and reform during and after the uprising.
In addition to eradicating term limits for Sisi, the bill grants new political powers to the military and extra presidential control over the judiciary. At the same time, it creates a vice-presidential post, a quota of 25% female representation, and a new upper house in parliament. How should we view these last items?
I think it should be viewed as the regime’s attempt to polish its image and appeal to a Western audience. It offers a facelift for the regime, but its effect is minimal and only scratches the surface, given the broader constricted political landscape. For example, as was the case during pre-uprising politics, Sisi's regime has co-opted women’s rights in its nationalist discourse: With former presidents Mubarak and Sadat, the first lady played a central role in the policies of state-sponsored feminism. While that’s not the case with Sisi's brand of state feminism, the president is intervening on behalf of women's groups and advocates for their rights. While this new configuration offers limited advancement for the agenda of women’s rights, it is marked by even a higher level of control and consolidation as Sisi increasingly targets independent feminists and their organizations. Access to decision making and participation in politics is limited to those close to regime, while oppositional and independent feminists are often denied access and participation, and are portrayed as corrupt and threatening, thus denying these group’s any legitimacy or support from the public. In so doing, the regime acquires power and tightens its grip on the society even as it seems to extend some limited rights and representation.
While returning to Egypt to research your book, you saw the hopes of democracy activists diminish. This move by Sisi was expected, but what do you think they’re feeling now?
Needless to say, disappointment is at all-time high. There has been a systemic disciplining of all groups and activists who called for change and reform during and after the uprising. However, the regime’s move to acquire and consolidate power to this unprecedented level underscores how it continues to feel threatened by the experience of contention of 2011. The experience of 2011’s collective action made its mark on activists for life, and the regime’s recent move is one of its latest attempts to contain the effect of this experience and effectively close off all hopes.
Thank you for sitting down with us.