“Aren’t you afraid for your army? Are you not worried about how shocked the junior officers will be when people say their commanders are not good people? Don’t you know the army? The army is a closed institution, it is very, very, very sensitive to any inappropriate conduct, especially in relation to the commanders.” With these words, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi rebuked (in Egyptian spoken Arabic) all those who took part in the rowdy protests last weekend.
The president said his advisors and senior officers had pleaded with him not to respond publicly to the accusations of corruption hurled at them by actor and contractor Mohamed Ali in a series of videos on YouTube and Twitter. “But I told them that the public and I have complete faith in one another… It’s unthinkable that someone could come and tell people, ‘The person you believe in is dishonest’ – This is the most dangerous thing in the world, especially when it is said about the military command,” Sissi said.
The faith Sissi referred to was not broken last Saturday when thousands took to the streets in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities, calling for the president’s ouster. It began to break shortly after the president took power in July 2013 and began implementing a strong-arm policy against his political rivals. His actions were not directed solely against the Muslim Brotherhood, despite his deposing of Mohammed Morsi and labeling the group as a terrorist organization.
Scores of academics, journalists, political activists, human rights organizations, satirists, artists and university students were arrested or subjected to lawsuits, some on the pretext of harming national security, others for harming the president’s honor or sullying Egypt’s reputation.
Many of these people “disappeared” for many days, with their relatives having no idea of their whereabouts or their fate. They were prevented from consulting with a lawyer or contacting their families.
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The public at large is not familiar with most of them, since only a few cases manage to reach the media and attract interest, but each wave of arrests brings its own hero or heroine. A star figure of the latest protests is Mahinour al-Masry, a 33-year-old human rights lawyer who was arrested as she left a Cairo courthouse after advising detainees there.
Masry has a long record of confronting the authorities. She was active against the Mubarak and Morsi regimes, and now Sissi’s. During each one, she was imprisoned for short periods and paid heavy fines, but none of the actions taken against her have stopped her.
She has continued helping detainees, including by paying their bail out of her own pocket, using the inheritance she received after the death of her wealthy father. Her friends say that as a member of the Revolutionary Socialist movement, she felt guilty over her father’s wealth; hence her generosity.
Other people arrested this time included politicians and authors known only in Egypt. They have been mentioned by name, but generally only by human rights organizations, which try to maintain orderly lists. However, their ability to help the detainees is limited.
Following last weekend’s demonstrations, these organizations were unable to say exactly how many people had been arrested. One reported 220 arrests, another 274. And on social media outlets, the number 500 was common.
What’s clear is that such demonstrations have hitherto been rare under Sissi. Consequently, they have already raised speculation about the stability of his regime and his ability to remain in power.
Nevertheless, there’s an important difference between Sissi and Former President Hosni Mubarak. The latter’s relationship with the army had ups and downs, and he had a tense relationship with his defense minister and army chief of staff, Mohamed Tantawi. These tensions reached their peak when the army sided with the demonstrators during the uprising against him in 2011.
Sissi, in contrast, has maintained a close relationship with the army and with his defense minister, Gen. Mohamed Zaki. Zaki commanded the force that arrested Morsi at the presidential palace. He also testified that Morsi was the one who ordered the army to open fire on demonstrators.
But recently, there have been reports of disputes between Sissi and Zaki. This could lead to the latter’s ouster as defense minister, as part of a larger cabinet shake-up Sissi is planning. The videos Mohamed Ali published about the deep corruption in the army may also contribute to a reshuffle of the military command.
Some reports say that intelligence chief Abbas Kamel – who is known in Israel as the person who handles the president’s contacts with Hamas and Islamic Jihad – has been stirring the military and political pot. He is reportedly trying to persuade Sissi to oust Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly due to the latter’s managerial failures, which have caused Sissi’s reform and development plans to fail.
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Egyptian sources told Haaretz that the recent demonstrations put Sissi in a very embarrassing position, both because they pushed for a war on corruption in the army and because they depicted Sissi as not knowing what is going on in the army. Therefore, even though he’s considered the army’s defender and has given the Defense Ministry immunity from parliamentary criticism, he will be forced to make far-reaching changes among the army’s top brass to demonstrate control and assuage public anger.
This wouldn’t be the first time Sissi has shown the army who’s the boss. In June, he fired the former defense minister and army chief, Gen. Sedki Sobhy, who was also a party to Morsi’s ouster. Sobhy was fired because Sissi feared he was accumulating too much power in the army and might work against him – particularly after discovering that Sobhy opposed the president’s plan to amend the constitution so he could remain in office after his two consecutive terms end.
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According to the constitution, the president can’t fire the chief of staff without the approval of the Supreme Military Council. But Sissi easily obtained the council’s consent, and there was no opposition to Sobhy’s ouster.
For now, such steps may well ensure that the army continues to back the president, mainly to protect its own interests. The army has become the main contractor for government projects, which it is awarded through a no-bid process. Moreover, its profits are tax exempt.
Sissi also has no fears on the political front, since most members of parliament either belong to the ruling party or have joined its governing coalition, usually due to either money or pressure. As a rule, this parliament is mute, and it passes all legislation proposed by the president.
This week, following the demonstrations, the chairman of parliament’s Industry Committee, proposed that anyone who harms Egypt, its people or its president be punished with loss of citizenship and life imprisonment. This proposal, which recalls wild ideas bruited about in the Knesset, was also backed by Suzy Nashed, a member of parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
“Anyone who undermines the country or the president’s status cannot be considered a member of this nation,” she said. “These people surely won’t get excited about losing their citizenship” – presumably since they’re disloyal in any case – “but we must not allow them to keep their citizenship.”
Evidently, the slogan “no citizenship without loyalty” is another common denominator between Israel and Egypt. In both, loyalty to the head of the executive branch is seen as loyalty to the country.
This parliamentary stance is intended to define the president’s rivals as enemies of the people who must be defeated by any means.
But faced with these crazy proposals, Sissi’s rivals have responded with a no less astonishing performance. This week, two purportedly authentic documents were circulating on social media. Both listed Sissi’s mother as a Moroccan Jew named Malika Titani. And according to the social media rumor mill, this is the reason for his close ties with Israel.
Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres – who at one time was accused by the right-wing Israeli rumor mill of having an Arab mother – is undoubtedly smiling in his grave. He’s no longer the only leader whose mother embarrasses him by being a member of an enemy nation.
What’s interesting is that the Moroccan government officially disavowed the claim and denied the authenticity of the documents. But it no longer matters; the rumors have become facts.
The entertaining nature of the verbal conflicts that pit the president and his associates against his opponents can’t conceal the existence of a bubble that is liable to reach the boiling point. True, Egypt has gotten high marks from the World Bank and international financial institutions for Sissi’s economic reforms, the reduction in inflation and a sharp cut in government subsidies. Growth forecasts are positive and even unemployment has declined.
Nevertheless, these reforms have come with a heavy cost for ordinary people. According to the Central Bank of Egypt, some 33 percent of Egyptians are under the poverty line, and more than six percent live in extreme poverty. Moreover, a significant portion of the middle class has been pushed down into the lower class.
Tax revenue has risen as a result of the reforms and the imposition of a value-added tax. But more than 80 percent of this revenue is earmarked for debt and interest payments. Foreign investment has plummeted this year compared to last year, and only in the tourism industry can Egypt boast of significant achievements.
The president has only one response to the frustrated citizenry and his political critics: “Be patient. It’s impossible to fix the previous governments’ failures in a day.” But when video clips about corruption among senior army officers are posted by someone who was part of the military corruption system, and when the president is building himself luxury houses and a presidential palace, he is testing the public’s patience in a dangerous fashion.
On Friday, the anti-corruption demonstrations in Cairo were slated to resume. The government prepared by flooding the streets with policemen and reminding people that the law forbids demonstrations. To be doubly certain, it disrupted internet communications and continues to arrest activists.
It seems unlikely that Egypt will witness demonstrations like those of January 2011 anytime soon. But conditions are becoming more and more similar to those that prevailed at the end of Mubarak’s reign.