Nancy Okail is the executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of Egypt was in Washington this week, and the headlines of Egyptian newspapers and media channels — and also those from the White House — are emphasizing cooperation and shared interests in the region.
Predictably, up until the Trump-Sissi Oval Office meeting, there had been absolutely no mention of Sissi’s moves to consolidate power through constitutional amendments and Egypt’s democratic struggles.
This scene is all too familiar. Almost exactly 10 years ago, Hosni Mubarak’s visit to the White House revolved around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Egypt’s regional role. Sissi’s visit is being framed in a similar way. It’s a message directed toward an outspoken Congress that has criticized the proposed constitutional amendments and Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record.
The focus on Egypt’s regional role could have been compelling, except the current dynamics are fundamentally different from those in 2009. Egypt is now only one player amid proxy wars, strong Russian influence and a reconfigured region post-Arab Spring. But just as Mubarak did not explicitly bring up the issue of extending his presidential term in 2009, Sissi’s proposed constitutional amendments will not receive sufficient attention at the White House — particularly because the amendments have been framed as a matter of sovereignty that is up to the Egyptian people.
When asked about the possibility of having Sissi in power until 2034 — a reference to constitutional amendments that would, among other things, facilitate this — Trump responded: “I think he’s doing a great job. I don’t know about the effort[s], I can just tell you he is doing a great job.” He added: “great president.”
The photo op in the Oval Office prior to the anticipated parliamentary vote next week — and shortly before the national referendum — would have been enough to send an implicit signal of American support. Instead, Trump’s comments went well beyond that.
Since taking power, Sissi has complained on various occasions about the surmounting challenges that Egypt faces and the difficulty of meeting the ever-growing needs of Egyptians. But if he thinks things are challenging today, with the impressive economic growth rates for which the International Monetary Fund has praised Egypt, the situation in 2034 (when he would be scheduled to step down) will only be that much more difficult. By most conservative counts, the population of Egypt by then will reach approximately 124 million — with 70 percent under 40.
The White House misses the real threat to regional stability when it boasts of “robust” economic and counterterrorism cooperation with Sissi’s regime.
The real threat is maintaining the status quo for another 15 years. We Egyptians — and our international partners — are facing deep educational, health and unemployment problems, institutional state failure and decay, and an entrenched military regime.
Ahead of the Washington visit, and amid strong criticism of Sissi’s repressive policies, Egypt has responded with some positive gestures, including the release of activist Alaa Abdel Fattah (who served a five-year prison term, though he will still have to spend up to 12 hours at a police station every night for the next five years) and journalist Hisham Gaafar, who was held in pretrial detention for three years without charges and in prison conditions that deeply affected his health.
There are also reports that the 2017 nongovernmental organizations law is set to be repealed and replaced; and our acquittal in an NGO trial was announced at the end of last year. Although these may count as positive steps, they don’t address the main structural issues, which the proposed amendments will only make worse by allowing the systematic institutionalization of repressive policies.
For Egyptians, these amendments would kill any hope for a better Egypt.
If 20-year-olds in Egypt vote yes in the referendum on the proposed amendments, will they have a real chance to run for president, or even engage in the political scene, around 2034? The answer is no. The current amendments shutter the already narrow public space, give the military formal authority to interfere in politics, place the remaining semblance of judicial independence under control of the president and establish a second chamber of parliament with one third of its members appointed by the president.
Together, these amendments make any hope for a democratic transfer of power a near-impossibility. In a couple of decades, we will face a situation in which there will be no credible political power to lead Egypt, effectively dismantling any alternative to military rule.
Egyptians should have the right to reject these constitutional amendments. But under the current repressive laws, and crackdown on freedom of expression, association and assembly, Egyptians stand no chance. It’s hard to even get free and independent information about the amendments, let alone mobilize against them.
The explicit support and legitimizing optics coming from Washington will only make things more difficult.