Egypt’s Sissi Respects the Courts - and That's No Mean Feat

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Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Egypt's Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, March 28, 2015.Credit: AFP

Yassin El-Ayouty, an emeritus law professor at the State University of New York and adjunct faculty member at Cairo University’s law school, has made an interesting observation. In Egypt “the army was a state-creation, unlike in Israel where the army created the state.”

In a long and enlightening article in the June 16 issue of the English language Al-Ahram Weekly, Ayouty focuses less on Israel than on the first two years of the presidency of Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

His comparison between the Egyptian and Israel armies is meant only to explain the “soul of Egypt,” in which the state is superior and only it can create a united Egyptian community that belongs to the people, not to the leadership or the military.

According to Ayouty, Egypt can’t tolerate ideologies, movements or worldviews like that of the Muslim Brotherhood that seek to establish a sharia state as part of a vision for the Islamic nation. The soul of Egypt, Ayouty says, was established thousands of years ago. Egypt is pharaonic, and its “DNA has never carried theocratic chromosomes. Nor has that DNA ever carried in it the germ of civil war.”

It’s here that he reaches his main argument. What happened between June 30 and July 3, 2013, he asserts, was “the fight for the soul of Egypt.” It goes without saying that had Sissi not ousted the regime of President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist, in accordance with the popular will, Egypt might have been caught up in a civil war.

On June 30, 2013, exactly a year after he was elected president, tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to demand Morsi’s removal. Egypt was torn between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, who also demonstrated in their thousands, and activists of the popular uprising two years before, secularists who opposed the Muslim Brotherhood and preferred Gen. Sissi over the religious movement.

Sissi’s takeover and ouster of Morsi weren’t easy. The violent confrontations between the police and supporters of the army on the one hand and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood on the other cost over 1,000 lives. Morsi was arrested and Sissi had to fight for legitimacy at home and abroad.

Washington deliberated at length before finally giving the general its blessing, and that came only after Russia, of all countries, welcomed him with offers of aid. Qatar and Turkey, friends of the Muslim Brotherhood, viewed Sissi’s actions as a military coup. Qatar has since made up with Cairo, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hasn’t; his country’s relations with Egypt are almost nonexistent.

Israel, as opposed to Turkey and Qatar, breathed a sigh of relief. True, Morsi had declared he would honor all agreements signed by Egypt, including those with Israel, and even sent greetings to President Shimon Peres. But he also expanded support for Hamas and made it a strategic ally.

Israel can’t help Sissi at home

Sissi, in comparison, turned out to be a military ally who sees eye to eye with Israel on the need to fight Hamas in order to halt terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. This has become a joint war in which Israel lets Egypt send its air force and armored corps into Sinai, in violation of the 1979 peace treaty. Sissi has closed off the Gaza Strip from Sinai, destroyed Hamas tunnels and almost completely shut down the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Israel couldn’t have hoped for a better ally on its southwest border.

But the good relations between Sissi and Israel can’t help him overcome his enormous difficulties at home. Terrorism is on the rise, and the Islamic State is expanding in Sinai via terror groups that left Al-Qaida. Egypt’s western border with Libya is wide open and weapons smuggling from Libya has grown; meanwhile, terror attacks in Cairo and other cities have become a common occurrence.

The deep hole in the Egyptian budget, which Sissi inherited from his predecessor, is only getting worse. Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have shrunk to a dangerously low $16 billion.

Meanwhile, the list of problems is long. Energy supplies are in a crisis amid blackouts. There is a lack of projects to create new jobs for the millions of unemployed and growing ranks of the poor. And the country’s tourism industry has taken a beating after the explosion that brought down a Russian airliner over Sinai. All this has raised doubts about the Egyptian economy’s ability to survive.

Saudi Arabia has helped out; the new king, Salman, has sent almost $18 billion to Egypt. But this has made the country dependent on Riyadh and obligated it to follow its policy dictates. Three months ago this alliance, which many Egyptians view as a loss of Egypt’s status as the leading Arab nation, went one step too far.

Before King Salman’s visit to Egypt, Sissi decided to transfer or return, it depends who you ask to Saudi Arabia the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran. Egyptians viewed the move with total shock: Since when does Egypt transfer territory to another country?

Political activists saw the move as an attack on the constitution, which forbids the relinquishing of territory. Sissi tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Egyptians that he was merely returning land that did not belong to them; it had been leased so that Egypt could defend itself against Israel.

Israel wasn’t only pleased with Sissi’s move, it was in the know before the decision was made. To Israel, Saudi Arabia’s applying the 1978 Camp David Accords to the islands reflects Saudi recognition of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, another step on the road to Saudi recognition of Israel.

Islands in the scream

This isn’t how the Egyptians saw it. Large demonstrations were held around the country on April 15 and April 25 against giving up the islands. And last week Sissi suffered a ringing slap in the face when an administrative court ruled the transfer of the islands illegal and voided the agreement. As the judge put it, with all due respect to the president, Egypt is a nation of laws and the president isn’t omnipotent.

So Sissi found himself in a vicious dilemma. Should he declare that the court had overstepped its authority and issue a presidential order canceling the decision? Or should he instruct parliament to craft a special law to prevent judicial intervention in presidential decisions? Or maybe he should continue with the legal process and appeal to a higher court?

This isn’t purely a legal question stemming from a conflict between the powers of the legislature and the courts. It’s also an important test for Sissi, the general who rose to power with broad public support and is now forced to pay back the public and respect other government institutions and the rule of law. For now, the question is whether he can risk ties with Saudi Arabia or battle the people.

For now, it seems the Egyptian government has decided to take the constitutional route. It will file an appeal in court and even present documents showing that the islands are owned by the Saudis.

It’s not clear why the government didn’t submit such documents in the first place in the lower court, which played into the hands of the petitioners against the transfer. The judges said this lack of documentation was one factor behind their decision.

One thing is certain as far as respecting principles of government is concerned: Sissi has distinguished himself from his predecessors. Morsi declared that his presidential orders had the status of law, and Hosni Mubarak would replace judges as he saw fit. But Sissi has respected the courts.

In fact, Sissi intends to change a 1996 law and establish a new Supreme Press Council. He might even cancel the section allowing the jailing of journalists for crimes they committed as part of their work. Parliament, where his supporters have a majority, is also considering amending the law that prohibits demonstrations and gives the police the authority to prevent gatherings that could harm the country’s security.

All this may not soften the harsh criticism from international human rights groups and Washington over Cairo’s actions against its political adversaries. But as a communications professor at Cairo University told Haaretz: “In one day we can’t change Sissi and the regime’s spirit characterized by generals. But it seems now there’s someone in the presidential palace who listens and not only hears.”

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