When President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced a three-month nationwide state of emergency last week following attacks on two churches in Tanta and Alexandria, he cited the mandate he requested from Egyptians to tackle terrorism in 2013 as the basis for a number of his government’s subsequent policy decisions.
This “mandate” is vague in terms of what it actually entails — the language used has always been one of granting state bodies the ability to confront “potential dangers” — and it was agreed at a time in which there was an absence of constitutional bounds to governmental actions. Now that there is a parliament, the mandate was in need of renewal in order for Sisi’s government to be able to confront actual and perceived dangers in the manner in which it wills.
Sisi’s basis for governing by mandate contradicts the essence of constitutional rule, taking as its source a moment of exception.
The renewed mandate could not possibly have come from mass demonstrations, given the current climate of economic and security crises, accompanied by a decline in popular support for the government. The solution then seemed somewhat obvious — a return to a state of emergency that would give the July 2013 mandate a renewed legitimacy and a legal basis.
The foundation on which Sisi has based his legitimate governance over the last four years has fluctuated between the mandate given to him through popular demonstrations that emboldened the military to oust former President Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013, and a constitutional legitimacy stemming from his presidential election.
This contradiction became evident after the parliamentary elections, when Egypt’s media returned to a narrow margin of critique, and the government attempted to influence the judiciary, to weave and adjust its own strategic alliances, and to exercise authority with little constraint, censorship or transparency.
Declaring a state of emergency in this moment then is not merely a reactionary measure, nor is it just a legal basis for carrying out exceptional measures. It is a technique that has been used throughout Egyptian history, since 1952, to bestow “legitimate” power on those governing the nation. Sisi referred to this directly in his speech when he spoke of “re-cementing” the sovereignty of the state.
Democratic legitimacy is normally conferred on a state through its record of accomplishments, institutional constitutionality or ideology. For the current government to base its legitimacy in ideology is a controversial and fragile bet, given the ridicule that has been waged against recent nationalist discourse.
There has been some cynicism about the difference a state of emergency will actually make to a nation that is already governed by a state that enacts torture, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances and the closure of public space for opposition, regardless of law or constitution. Yet, what such cynics miss is the deep understanding Sisi’s government has of its own fragility.
Declaring a state of emergency is not just a legal basis for carrying out exceptional measures.
The controversial basis of legitimate rule stemming from July 3 is an issue for Sisi as much as it was for Nasser post 1952, and resulted in three years of push and pull, culminating in Nasser’s monopoly of political power, and a state of emergency that continued, in practice if not in name, until January 2011.
But, regardless of whether emergency laws deepen or lessen the authoritarian nature of the government’s actions and policies, the state of emergency sends a clear message: Egypt’s rulers will have free rein to deal with political opponents however they please.
Translated by Asmaa Naguib