Human Rights Watch: Al Jazeera convictions in Egypt a miscarriage of justice

Human Rights Watch: A Cairo court sentenced three Al Jazeera English staff members to multi-year prison sentences on June 23, 2014, after a trial in which prosecutors failed to present any credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing. These convictions are the latest step in Egypt’s unrelenting assault on free expression, dramatically reversing gains made following the January 25, 2011 uprising.

The verdict comes the day after US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo to meet with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry. During the meeting, news media reported, Kerry said he was “absolutely confident” that the US would soon restore suspended aid to Egypt, noting that President al-Sisi “gave me a very strong sense of his commitment” to “a re-evaluation of the judicial process.”

“Sentencing three professional journalists to years in prison on the basis of zero evidence of wrongdoing shows how Egypt’s judges have been caught up in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria fostered by President al-Sisi,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt is punishing people for exercising basic rights that are essential to any democratic transition, and US legislation requires progress on those rights before the Obama administration can certify additional military aid.”

The Al Jazeera English bureau chief, Mohamed Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egypt national, and a correspondent, Peter Greste, an Australian, were each sentenced to seven years in prison, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, was sentenced to 10 years. The charges included editing video footage to falsely “give the appearance Egypt is in a civil war,” operating broadcast equipment without a license, and membership in and support for a “terrorist organization.” Human Rights Watch reviewed the material prosecutors presented in court and spoke with independent observers who monitored the trial and found no evidence indicating any criminal wrongdoing. [Continue reading...]

The Guardian reports: Evidence provided by the prosecution included footage from channels and events with nothing to do with Egyptian politics or al-Jazeera. It included videos of trotting horses from Sky News Arabia, a song by the Australian singer Gotye, and a BBC documentary from Somalia.

Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms who has observed every session of the trial for Amnesty, said the verdict sent a chilling message to all opposition figures in Egypt.

“It’s a warning to all journalists that they could one day face a similar trial and conviction simply for carrying out their official duties,” Lotfy said. “This feeds into a wider picture of a politicised judiciary and the use of trials to crack down on all opposition voices.”

The verdict came a day after the US secretary of state, John Kerry, signalled that ties between America and Egypt were inching closer to normality.

After a 90-minute meeting with Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the former general who was elected president last month, Kerry told reporters that a delivery of attack helicopters – delayed by the US last year, in protest against Egyptian human rights abuses – would go ahead.

“The Apaches will come, and they’ll come very, very soon,” Kerry said, after an earlier admission by state department officials that all but $70m (£41m) of a $650m aid package to Egypt had been released. [Continue reading...]

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Sisi says Muslim Brotherhood will not exist under his reign

The Guardian reports: Egypt’s former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Monday night that the Muslim Brotherhood – the group he removed from power last year – will not exist if he is elected president later this month.

The comments, in an interview broadcast on two Egyptian television stations, were the clearest indication yet there was no prospect for political reconciliation with the Islamist group that propelled Mohamed Morsi to the presidency in 2012.

“There will be nothing called the Muslim Brotherhood during my tenure,” Sisi said on Egypt’s privately-owned CBC and ONTV television channels.

The Brotherhood has been subject to an aggressive state-led crackdown in the months since Morsi’s overthrow. The movement was formally blacklisted as a terrorist organisation on Christmas Day and continues to be blamed for bomb attacks across Egypt, although many have been claimed by militant groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Ansar Beit el Maqdis.

Sisi said he had survived two assassination attempts in the months since Morsi’s ousting in July last year.

The former field marshal’s claims appeared to vindicate the tight security measures that have dominated his campaign. Instead of taking to the campaign trail like his sole opponent, Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, Sisi will reportedly be sending emissaries to his rallies across the country. [Continue reading...]

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Egyptian court sentences top Muslim Brotherhood leader to death

Reuters reports: An Egyptian court sentenced the leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and 682 supporters to death on Monday, intensifying a crackdown on the movement that could trigger protests and political violence ahead of an election next month.

The Brotherhood, in a statement issued in London, described the ruling as chilling and said it would “continue to use all peaceful means to end military rule”.

In another case signaling growing intolerance of dissent by military-backed authorities, a pro-democracy movement that helped ignite the uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011 was banned by court order, judicial sources said.

The death sentence passed on Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood’s general guide, will infuriate members of the group which has been the target of raids, arrests and bans since the army forced President Mohamed Mursi from power in July.

Some Brotherhood members fear pressure from security forces and the courts could drive some young members to violence against the movement’s old enemy, the Egyptian state. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt sentences 683 to death in latest mass trial of dissidents

The Washington Post reports: An Egyptian court in the southern city of Minya sentenced 683 people to death Monday in the most recent of a series of mass trials that have alarmed the international community, nine months after a military coup ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

The ruling came one month after 529 people were sentenced to death in a similar mass trial in the same courtroom, and it coincided with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy’s visit to Washington to meet with Secretary of State John F. Kerry in an effort to smooth relations between the United States and one of its most significant Middle East allies.

The defendants, all alleged supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, included Mohammed Badie, the “supreme guide” of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which captured the lion’s share of votes in the country’s first democratic parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012. If the sentence is upheld, Badie would be the first Brotherhood leader to face execution in nearly 50 years. [Continue reading...]

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UK’s Muslim Brotherhood inquiry looks like response to pressure from allies

Simon Tisdall writes: David Cameron’s decision to order an investigation into the “philosophy and activities” of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly as they relate to Britain, stems from a broader nervousness in western European capitals about a wave of Islamist extremism and jihadism fed by the chaos in and around Syria.

But Downing Street’s decision also looks suspiciously like a response to specific political developments in Egypt, where the Brotherhood was founded in 1928, and to external pressure from close British allies.

The US and Saudi Arabia were never comfortable with the Brotherhood’s ascent to power in the person of Mohamed Morsi, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2012.

So when Morsi was overthrown by a military coup in July last year, the Obama administration, while bleating about the importance of democracy and the Arab spring, made no great objection.

The US, which for decades backed another dictatorial Egyptian general, former president Hosni Mubarak, with billions of dollars in aid, quietly embraced the new junta’s leader, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Sisi represented a way of doing things that Washington was used to, even if was heavy-handed. Here, apparently, was a man they could do business with.

In fact, Sisi’s efforts to strengthen his grip on power as he prepares to stand for the presidency next month have outdone Mubarak for sheer bloody-minded repressiveness. [Continue reading...]

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Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, no longer in uniform, is poised to become Egypt’s next president

n13-iconThe Washington Post reports: Three years ago, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi was a mostly unknown member of a council of Egypt’s top military officers. On Wednesday, the field marshal, whose image is now plastered on billboards and chocolate bars, declared what everyone in this nation was expecting — that he would run for president, a position he is virtually certain to win.

“The state needs to regain its posture and power,’’ he said in an address on national television. “Our mission is to restore Egypt.’’

Officially, Sissi, 59, will seek office as a civilian. But his election would complete the defeat of Egypt’s brief experiment in Islamist rule, and it would make him the sixth military man to lead the country over what has been a nearly unbroken 62-year span of autocracy.

It was under Sissi’s command that the military staged the coup in July that toppled Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, from power. If Sissi wins the backing of voters, he could gain greater legitimacy. But his role continues to pose a challenge to the United States, which is eager to maintain close ties with Egypt, its longtime ally, without appearing to endorse its shift away from democracy. [Continue reading...]

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Court bans activities of Hamas in Egypt

Reuters reports: An Egyptian court on Tuesday banned all Hamas activities in Egypt in another sign that the military-backed government aims to squeeze the Palestinian Islamist group that rules the neighboring Gaza Strip.

Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which the authorities have declared a terrorist group and which they have repressed systematically since the army ousted one of its leaders, Mohamed Mursi, from the presidency in July.

“The court has ordered the banning of Hamas’s work and activities in Egypt,” the judge, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

During his year in power, Mursi gave red-carpet treatment to Hamas, angering many secular and liberal Egyptians who saw this as part of a creeping Islamist takeover following the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The military-buttressed authorities now classify Hamas as a significant security risk, accusing it of supporting an Islamist insurgency that has spread quickly since Mursi’s fall, allegations the Palestinian group denies. [Continue reading...]

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How did 37 prisoners come to die at Cairo prison Abu Zaabal?

f13-iconThe Observer reports: Some time after midday on Sunday 18 August 2013, a young Egyptian film-maker called Mohamed el-Deeb made his last will and testament. It was an informal process. Deeb had no paper on which to sign his name and there was no lawyer present. He simply turned to the man handcuffed next to him and outlined which debts to settle if he should die, and what to say to his mother about the circumstances of his death.

Deeb had good reason to fear for his life. He was among 45 prisoners squashed into the back of a tiny, sweltering police truck parked in the forecourt of Abu Zaabal prison, just north-east of Cairo. They had been in the truck for more than six hours. The temperature outside was over 31C, and inside would have been far hotter. There was no space to stand and the prisoners had had almost nothing to drink. Some had wrung out their sweat-drenched shirts and drunk the drops of moisture. Many were now unconscious.

Most of the men inside that van were supporters of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president. Squashed against Deeb was Mohamed Abdelmahboud, a 43-year-old seed merchant and a member of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Following four days of mass protests against his year-long rule, the army had overthrown Morsi and the Brotherhood in early July. In response, tens of thousands of people camped outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in east Cairo to call for the president’s reinstatement. Within a week, the space outside Rabaa turned from an empty crossroads to a sprawling tent city that housed both a market and a makeshift field hospital. At Rabaa’s centre was a stage where preachers led prayers and firebrands spouted sectarian rhetoric. At its edges were a Dad’s Army of badly equipped guards, dressed in crash helmets and tae kwon do vests, standing before a series of walls built of stones ripped from pavements. From behind these barricades, two or three times a day, protest marches would snake into nearby neighbourhoods, blocking major thoroughfares and paralysing much of the city. Clashes between armed police and protesters claimed more than 170 lives. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt’s crackdown on journalism

a13-iconThe New York Times reports: The three men, wearing white prison scrubs in metal cages reserved for criminal suspects, listened to the list of explosive charges accusing them of aiding a plot to undermine Egypt’s national security.

They had links to terrorists, the prosecutors contended, and before their court appearance on Thursday, the men were detained for weeks among prisoners whom the government considers its most dangerous opponents. The charges could bring up to 15 years in prison.

But the three suspects are all seasoned journalists. Their crime was filing news reports for their employer, Al Jazeera English, before state security officers came to the hotel suite they used as a makeshift studio in December, ultimately rounding them up and throwing them in jail.

The charges against the men, branded the “the Marriott cell” by government-friendly news outlets, are the most serious against journalists here in recent memory, rights groups say, part of a widening crackdown by Egypt’s military-backed government that has ensnared scores of reporters, as well as filmmakers, bloggers and academics.

What began months ago with mass arrests and repression of the government’s opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood has steadily broadened into a campaign against perceived critics of all stripes. In all, thousands of people — mostly Islamists, but also some of the best-known activists from the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — have been put in jail, many of them still awaiting trial. [Continue reading...]

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Sisi’s turn

f13-iconHazem Kandil writes: There is no getting around it. What Egypt has become three years after its once inspiring revolt is a police state more vigorous than anything we have seen since Nasser. As in the dark years of the 1960s, the enemy is everywhere, and any effort to expose and eradicate him is given popular assent. Since Egypt’s national security, its very existence as a sovereign state, is said to be at stake, those who refuse to toe the line must be ostracised, and those who persist punished as traitors. The talk of human rights that sustained the original uprising is dismissed as a distraction, the preoccupation of self-righteous amateurs, while seasoned servants of the old regime are rehabilitated. Most disheartening of all, the sycophants who rushed for cover three years ago are re-emerging to offer their services to the new masters. Egypt’s briefly empowered citizens have come to see that their intervention almost paved the way for religious fascism, and now that disaster has been averted, they prefer to keep their hands off the political controls. Mubarak warned that the alternatives to his rule were Islamism or chaos. Both were tried and neither was liked. People wanted bread, dignity and freedom, so they shunned the daydreamers of 2011 and pinned their hopes on a new Nasser on the Nile. If only Abdel Fattah al-Sisi could be installed as president, all their problems would be over. Crowning a field marshal has become the battle the citizenry is determined to win.

How did it come to this? As the Brothers tell it, their embattled president spearheaded a revolutionary assault which provoked a counter-revolution. This is pure fiction. It is certainly true that the Brothers have been outmanoeuvred by an alliance of old regime loyalists and secular activists. But it was the Brothers’ complacency that alienated their revolutionary allies and, more important, the people. The 2011 uprising left the security apparatus intact, and the military regained the autonomy they had lost under Mubarak. But the question of who would hold political office was open to negotiation, and the generals didn’t mind trying out the power-hungry Islamists. They were more organised than the activists who sparked the revolt, and less embittered than the remnants of the old regime. They didn’t pose a threat to military privileges and deferred amiably to the security forces who set out to crush the revolt. And they had no intention of dismantling the infrastructure of dictatorship and submitting themselves to the volatile moods of a democratic process; they just wanted to take Mubarak’s place at the top. Morsi was no more Egypt’s Allende than Sisi was its Pinochet.

On 1 February 2011, while the protesters were still entrenched in Tahrir Square, Morsi and the future head of the Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party, Saad al-Katatni, entered into secret negotiations with the intelligence chief Omar Suleiman for a larger share of power in return for stopping the revolt. Once Mubarak was ousted, the Islamists adopted the military-security programme: elections first, constitution and reform later. Those who argued that new democracies need to establish some basic guidelines before rushing to the ballot box were dismissed. The idea that the security agencies should be overhauled before any election took place was seen as nothing more than a delaying tactic. Throughout the transitional period, the Brothers blamed the protesters for the violence directed at them by the state – they were staging illegal protests, after all – and repeatedly alleged that the activists were pawns of foreign intelligence services. In parliament, they took every opportunity to praise Egypt’s gallant law enforcers and blocked every attempt to hold them accountable. As soon as Morsi was sworn in, he congratulated the police for reforming themselves, audaciously referring to them as esteemed partners in the 2011 uprising. Even more significant was the Brothers’ decision to drop a report detailing police crimes – among them the shooting of demonstrators – even though its contents had been leaked to several newspapers (including Al-Shorouk and the Guardian) and Morsi’s handpicked prosecutor had promised arrests. Needless to say, security abuses surged during Morsi’s short tenure, and official coercion was reinforced by the Brothers’ own militias. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt’s military coup empowers jihadists who reject democracy

n13-iconThe New York Times reports: The military overthrow of a freely elected Islamist fulfilled the predictions of jihadist ideologies that power could never be won through democracy, and they have pounced on the opportunity to proclaim their vindication.

International terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, began calling for Muslims inside and outside of Egypt to take up arms against the government. Now a growing number of experienced Egyptian jihadists are heeding that call, often under the banner of Sinai-based militant groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, according to United States and Egyptian officials involved in counterterrorism. At least two Egyptians who returned from fighting in Syria have already killed themselves as suicide bombers, according to biographies released by the group.

Egyptian military officials say they have also captured Palestinians, Syrians and other foreigners among the terrorists in Sinai. But an American counterterrorism official said Washington believed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis “is largely Egyptian, including some who fought in other conflict zones before returning home,” along with “a relatively small contingent of battle-hardened foreigners.”

The jihadist homecoming appears to have provided the resources and expertise behind a quickening series of attacks that have far exceeded the abilities previously displayed in Egypt. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has shown it can build and remotely detonate large bombs in strategic locations, gather intelligence about the precise timing of movements by their targets, record their own attacks and manage the complicated maintenance of an advanced portable surface-to-air missile — all suggesting combat experience.

“The number of attacks has gone up certainly over the past six weeks,” John O. Brennan, the director of the C.I.A., told a House hearing this week. “And some senior-level Egyptian officials have been killed at the hands of these terrorists.”

Egyptian military officials say they are determined to defeat this new wave of terrorists just as they defeated the insurgency that flared in the 1990s.

Back then, militants who insisted on armed struggle — including Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian-born Al Qaeda leader — eventually gave up on the utility of armed struggle at home, refocusing on attacking Egypt’s Western sponsors.

But the ouster of Mr. Morsi appears to have changed that calculus.

“Zawahri and others have been saying from the beginning that they believed the military would come back, that the military and the West are not going to allow an Islamist government to stay in power,” said Aaron Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who tracks jihadist messages.

The Brotherhood, which has publicly denounced violence for decades, once helped combat militancy by channeling Islamist opposition into the political process. But the new government has now outlawed the Brotherhood. [Continue reading...]

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Tony Blair backs Egypt’s military and criticises Brotherhood

NewsThe Guardian reports: Tony Blair has given staunch backing to Egypt’s government following a meeting on Wednesday with its army leader, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

In a television interview on Thursday morning, Britain’s former prime minister said Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood had stolen Egypt’s revolution, and the army who deposed him last July had put the country back on the path to democracy.

“This is what I say to my colleagues in the west,” said Blair, visiting Egypt as a representative of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia in their attempts to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “The fact is, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to take the country away from its basic values of hope and progress. The army have intervened, at the will of the people, but in order to take the country to the next stage of its development, which should be democratic. We should be supporting the new government in doing that.” [Continue reading...]

The New York Times reports: Egyptian prosecutors said on Wednesday that they were charging 20 journalists working for the Al Jazeera television network with conspiring with a terrorist group and broadcasting false images of “a civil war that raises alarms about the state’s collapse.”

The charges are the latest turn in a widening clampdown on public dissent by the military-backed government that ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood six months ago. The government has outlawed the Brotherhood, declared it a terrorist organization, jailed its leaders and killed more than a thousand of its supporters in the streets. Foreign Ministry and state information service officials say that they cannot be certain whether merely publishing an interview with a Brotherhood representative may now be a crime. [Continue reading...]

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The Egyptian disaster

OpinionRoger Cohen writes: In Davos, Secretary of State John Kerry talked for a long time about Iran. He talked for a long time about Syria. He talked for a very long time about Israel-Palestine. And he had nothing to say about Egypt.

This was a glaring omission. Egypt, home to about a quarter of all Arabs and the fulcrum of the Arab Spring, is in a disastrous state. Tahrir Square, emblem of youthful hope and anti-dictatorial change three years ago, is home now to Egyptians baying for a military hero with the trappings of a new Pharaoh to trample on the “terrorists” of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet, in a speech devoted to rebutting what he called “this disengagement myth” — the notion that a war-weary United States is retreating from the Middle East — Kerry was silent on a nation that is a United States ally, the recipient of about $1.3 billion a year in military aid (some suspended), and the symbol today of the trashing of American hopes for a more inclusive, tolerant and democratic order in the Middle East.

The silence was telling. The Obama administration has been all over the place on Egypt, sticking briefly with Hosni Mubarak, then siding with his ouster, then working hard to establish productive relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and its democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, then backing the military coup that removed Morsi six months ago (without calling it a coup) and finally arguing, in the words of Kerry last August, that the military headed by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi was “restoring democracy.” [Continue reading...]

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Egypt has replaced a single dictator with a slew of dictatorial institutions

AnalysisNathan Brown writes: On June 5, 2013, Amr Hamzawy, an academic and former liberal parliamentarian, tweeted a quick criticism of the verdict of an Egyptian court. Earlier this month, he discovered that he was being investigated for a criminal offense and was barred from leaving the country. The grave crime in question? Insulting the judiciary. If Hamzawy was guilty, then Egypt’s unemployment crisis might soon be solved: half the nation of Egypt can be gainfully employed imprisoning the other half, consisting of all those who have at one point in their life grumbled about a judge or a court verdict they read about.

A couple weeks earlier, Emad Shahin, a less politically prominent (and far less politically involved) academic, known among his colleagues and students for his self-effacing and gentle manner, found himself facing more serious charges of various forms of espionage and sedition. The State Security Prosecution was accusing him of helping to lead a conspiracy so vast and dangerous that it supposedly included the president at the time, Mohammed Morsi.

Both professors have been personal friends of mine for many years. But they have no secrets; they make their political judgments clear in their public statements and writing. I watched Hamzawy ascend politically in the wake of the 2011 revolution, refusing to lose his curly mop of hair, sideburns, or corduroy suits. His sole concession to political life seemed to be to make some (but not all) of his trademark complicated sentences a bit shorter. Shahin, truth be told, has twice run afoul of security forces. Once he discovered the hard way the hitherto unknown fact that Egypt actually has traffic laws by driving a bit too swiftly down a desert road. The police took away his license for a short period. I found out when he told me he could not bring himself to drop me off at the airport since it would involve breaking the law a second time, something he could not do. His second problem seemed to come whenever he entered the campus of the American University in Cairo where he has been teaching since returning to Egypt from Notre Dame and Harvard. Shahin confided that he has been regularly asked for identification since the security guards cannot believe someone so humble in gait and demeanor could possibly be on the faculty.

Both Hamzawy and Shahin are academics, but they have also been critical of the emerging political order in Egypt. Neither is a much of a firebrand. While different in their politics—Hamzawy closer to the liberal end of the spectrum; Shahin more respectful of political Islam—they also stand out for their ability to talk across Egypt’s great divide. Indeed, beneath all their erudition and complicated syntax, both seem ultimately simply nerdier versions of Rodney King: their message to their fellow citizens can be summed up as “People, I want to say–can we all get along?” [Continue reading...]

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A Sisi presidency — what it could mean

Andrew Hammond considers the implications of Defence Minister General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi becoming Egypt’s next president: For Sisi, it’s not even necessary to run for president. He can easily manipulate and oversee from his position as defence minister, not least with the military’s new powers of non-oversight enshrined in the constitution. To take on the job of president would be to open himself to the gradual erosion of his cult status among fans. It would also run the risk of tainting the reputation of the military institution itself, especially if his presidency came to be seen as a failure (a point that former editor of Al-Ahram newspaper Mohammed Hassanein Heikal has said worries Sisi). For this reason, there is some speculation that Brotherhood leaders would be relieved if Sisi took the plunge. With the military “other” leading the country, they would be able to avoid a serious review of their mistakes, and the group would then remain a powerful anti-modern force, some factions of which, as one former member put it, could succumb to the politics of resistance and obsession with injustice. Public opinion may also slowly turn in their favour.

Sisi may also be blinded to certain factors of his popularity. He has not put forward a vision to Egyptians of how the country can develop economically or politically. His message has simply been an uber-nationalist “No” to Islamist rule as un-Egyptian and a nostalgic call to order. His rhetorical style, with its home-baked weekend soothers – “I am telling you, don’t worry about Egypt”, “the lion doesn’t eat its cubs” – has gone under the radar of serious analysis because Egypt’s fascistic state propaganda machine has packaged it as sublime and above reproach (while notably reducing coverage of his public pronouncements, adding to the aura of saviour-from-beyond). Yet his tone is reminiscent of a mosque imam at Friday prayers.

Once Sisi dons civilian clothes and has to deal with the daily realities of policy and a restive public, people may well come to tire of him rather quickly. If, as is widely expected, he takes these risks, it will be due to a variety of things: vanity, an honest belief that he has a duty to the country, pressure from inside and abroad (Abu Dhabi, Riyadh), and promises of continued funding from the Gulf to ensure four years that can be deemed a success. It would also be naïve to think that, despite the anti-American sentiment that the media has whipped up, Washington won’t be appraised of his decision in advance, possibly even for its approval. [Continue reading...]

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Egypt’s drift back into authoritarianism

Marc Lynch writes: Citizens of an Arab country recently went to the polls to vote in a highly-touted referendum designed to turn the page on a violent and authoritarian past. The relatively progressive new constitution — which promised multiparty democracy, expanded freedoms, and even provided for unprecedented term limits on the president — was approved overwhelmingly, with 89 percent of people voting in favor and turnout hitting 57 percent. The architects of the initiative hoped that it would restore some legitimacy to a regime that had badly lost internal and foreign approval.

Of course, the Syrian constitutional referendum of February 2012 did no such thing. And who thought that it would? In the context of a bloody civil war and the enduring oppression of a brutal authoritarian single party regime, everyone — even, probably, the most vocal pro-Assad loyalists — understood that the words on paper meant nothing.

It’s unlikely that many people thought of Syria’s farcical vote as they followed the news of Egyptians heading to the polls this week to vote on a new military-backed constitution. The official results showed that a whopping 98.1 percent of voters backed Egypt’s new charter — considerably more than in Syria’s referendum. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt is not Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but the lessons from Damascus should not be lost on those seeking to parse the meaning of this referendum.

Syria’s swiftly forgotten bit of political theater helps to highlight what really matters about any constitutional referendum: Does the new document actually establish consensual and legitimate rules of the political game? That’s why Egypt’s political prisoners suffering for their political affiliation, peaceful protests, or journalism are a more crucial window into the real significance of the referendum than turnout or approval percentages. [Continue reading...]

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