“Create a unified list,” is what General* Sisi asked of the political forces competing in the upcoming parliamentary battle. The general wants a unified list on which the different political forces agree. His command presumes the absence of democracy. More importantly, however, the general — as a military man in battle — is not accepting of conflict and difference. For, in his view, the state faces such dangers that make these ideas unsustainable. And so he has called on political forces, whose role is meant to manage the process of social conflict, to create one unified list.
The role of a modern parliament is to transform social and political conflict into constitutional mechanisms and political debates that aim to remove violence from the conflict, transforming it instead into legislation that represents the interests of different sectors of the masses.
Sisi cancels and banishes not only politics, but also conflict. For, according to this approach, there is no space for any other conflict than that of the state with its enemies, and anything else is treason.
The general sees no real need for politics. Meaning, what do we need politics for in the middle of a heated battle that is heavily militarized by its two opponents: the terrorists and the state?
The root of the problem here lies in the manner in which the military perceives the people or the masses. The political imagination of the Egyptian military perceives the entire population as an opaque deaf bloc that has to be unified and constantly and completely compliant with the state apparatus, which, in turn, monopolizes political representation. Moreover, the military doctrine does not acknowledge diversity; it only acknowledges unity, stereotypes and following orders from a leadership. In that context, there is no space allowed for difference. Any difference is perceived as disintegration.
Additionally, the Egyptian political elite does not deem itself capable of exercising power on a serious scale. Their main ambition is to be affiliated with the political regime, rather than to be one of its fundamental constituents. Moreover, the independence and dominance of security over the state and the Egyptian society created an oligarchy that governs (meaning a small powerful elite inside the regime). So-called public affairs are a matter of extreme privacy not to be discussed except in closed oligarchic halls. Over the years, the political elite started to accept crumbs from the authorities.
As a result, this elite is not capable of seriously representing the people, nor can it manage and go through conflict to fulfill that representation, for it does not represent anyone at the end of the day.
The military is the political party to which the general and his social movement belong. As a result, any achievements or decisiveness will not come from outside these options, they will come from inside the military institution. The general declared on his first day that the military will carry out many missions capable of driving development and big projects. If the military is assigned the role of determining the society’s and state’s compass, then there is no need for political struggle, for it has no role to play in this equation. In fact, if the context had allowed, the general would not have hesitated to cancel parliament and the idea of elections itself, except maybe for the fact that there would be international pressure.
The parliamentary elections will lead to the installation of a political system, specifying its mechanisms and activating the Constitution. According to the Constitution, a semi-presidential system is in place in which the prime minister shares the executive authority, with a great extent of autonomy, with the president. This will also mean the existence of a struggle over the legislative authority between Sisi and the elected parliament, which will demand a great deal of negotiations and persuasion, leading to restrictions on the freedom of his movement as a dominant master on the state apparatus. The general wants as much space and authority as possible in order to maneuver, move and legislate. He wants complete and undivided sovereignty when it comes to decision making.
Since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, Sisi has issued more than 300 laws without parliament and without any representation from the people. Also, many of these laws run counter to the Constitution. According to the law, there will only be a few days available to revise the president’s past legislation. These, naturally, will not be sufficient for proper revision. Adding to this, Sisi has once again held onto the possibility of dissolving parliament in the last legislation he passed, which states that any interested citizen has the right to legally contest the constitutionality of parliament. He also gave back the Constitutional Court the right to respond at the time it sees fit. Needles to say, the Constitutional Court has a long history of dissolving Egyptian parliaments, most recently in 2012, when it dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated parliament.
In light of the broad similarities between the executive and the legislative authorities, the dissolution of parliament will remain as a sword hanging over the necks of its MPs in the event of their disagreement with the president.
Finally, the existence of any political system means the possibility of criticizing the general’s way of governance, the emergence of a possibility of a movement forming against him and a chance for a conflict with authority. The general does not want a barrier between him and the public. It’s him and the state, on the one hand, and the people on the other. He can perceive no third party. The general and the state are one coherent body – nothing else on the scene right now can be satisfying for Sisi.
The other problem with civil forces for Sisi is competition from some of the neoliberal forces on the level of authority and legislation. For example, this would give men like Naguib Sawiris the space to challenge Sisi even on a small scale. Over the last year, the extent of tension between the general and the businessmen has become apparent. The businessmen did not cooperate properly and as expected in the presidential elections; they did not bus their employees and factory workers to the electoral stations as expected. The election boxes appeared completely empty. The skirmishes between Sisi and the businessmen then continued over the Long Live Egypt fund.
What is more dangerous about this situation is the concentration of power in the institution of the military, as it has taken over all of the big projects, subcontracting on the inside as it sees fit. Both the military and the businessmen will be scrambling to dominate the market, as it does not appear that the two parties have reached a satisfactory formula by which to share the market.
Moreover, if domestic matters worsen, and social and political matters become tense, the parliament could theoretically withdraw confidence from the president, crushing his legitimacy. The real obstacle is that the general has not yet allied himself with any clear social force. He is not satisfied, or is unconvinced, or maybe he does not respect the existing political forces. This was a man, after all, who headed an apparatus that penetrated these forces.
And just as Sisi is not in agreement with the business and the neoliberal forces, neither does he want the former Mubarak men or the networks of nepotism and village-like connections. It does not appear that he has formed any agreements or negotiations with the heads of the big families in Upper Egypt or the Delta. The men of Mubarak’s regime would erode his legitimacy, leading to further non-institutionalization and more state disintegration, exposing him to sharp attacks and clashes once again with wide swaths of the public.
The general will not let go of sovereignty over-decision making, not even as a procedural formality, to a comical parliament or a semi-authoritarian regime. Sisi wants to be the master with the whole state completely subject to him. He alone owns the political unity and he alone holds the reins in his own hands. There is no space for any democratic or semi-democratic dreams under his rule and leadership. Nothing will be beyond the sphere of influence of the state and the general.
*President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was promoted to the rank of field marshal in January 2014, but the title of general has been used in the piece to maintain the tone of the original article.