Abdel Fattah al- Sisi is the latest military strongman to take over Egypt’s presidency. He has outlined a vision for change, but freelance journalist in Alexandria Vickie Smiles asks: will it change for good?
When new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrived at the Constitutional Court last Sunday morning to take the oath of office, he was wearing his trademark sunglasses, although he removed them as quickly as one Twitter wag lamented “Sisi in Shades”. Sunday’s spectacular inauguration was broadcast live on television and celebrated in squares throughout the country as Sisi joined the ranks of military men ruling Egypt since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1953.
By nightfall Sisi was back in the spotlight at Cairo’s spectacularly beautiful El-Koubbeh Palace, giving a 55-minute speech in front of hundreds of dignitaries from around the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin, the first major leader to congratulate Sisi on his win last week, did not attend, nor did any Western leader, but kings, princes, emirs and leaders from the Middle East and Africa were happy to welcome Egypt’s new President.
Sisi’s speech was more a wish list of everything that needed fixing in Egypt. Security and the economy (industrial and agricultural development) were at the top of the list, but also prominent were the health and education sectors, new roads, airports, ports and free zones and “several new tourist cities and centers”.
He highlighted “giant national projects” for the Suez Canal, nuclear energy and “making use of solar energy to produce a large amount of electricity”; something the country desperately needs to end the daily summer blackouts.
Morals and ethics also got a mention, as did fighting corruption, the women of Egypt and the most critical segment of his electorate, Egyptian youth, with Sisi vowing to do everything in his power for them to get a “fair share in the next Parliament” and various executive positions.
There would also be a “new era based on tolerance and reconciliation with all our people except those who committed crimes or resorted to violence against it”.
And, “god willing” he promised the poor “a better life in the coming four years”.
The following day Sisi asked outgoing interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab to stay on and form a new government. This may signal that Sisi is either happy with the status quo or that he has always been in charge behind the scenes, but regardless the move will inspire confidence in powerful circles.
Mahlab has been PM since February, chosen by Sisi’s predecessor, interim president Adly Mansour, but in line with tradition he and the entire cabinet resigned early yesterday. Mahlab will now keep the cabinet with him in a caretaker role until he forms a new one, although some ministers are likely to remain.
Like Mansour, Mahlab, who was housing minister in a previous administration and was once a member of Hosni Mubarak’s political party, ran a tight ship as the country awaited Sisi’s ascension.
Sisi had hoped for 40 million out of 53 million registered voters to endorse him during the extended three-day run-off against leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, but in the end he received 23.78 million. Nevertheless he thrashed Sabahi and captured 92.9% or 96.8% of the vote, depending on whether you count spoiled ballots.
Mansour and Mahleb heralded the introduction of three important pieces of legislation before Sisi’s confirmation: the rules governing forthcoming parliamentary elections, a tighter monitoring of social media and the criminalisation of sexual harassment.
The new parliamentary rules will favour individuals over parties, and they have come in for criticism. Also controversial is the tighter monitoring of social media, despite arguments from the Interior Ministry’s Mohamed Ibrahim that the crackdown was designed to combat terrorism. Ibrahim had already alienated a large fraction of Egyptian youth with his fierce enforcement of the anti-protest laws introduced late last year.
“We hope to live the day when we can do the show the way we want it, with no pressures. I am tired of being worried about my family and my safety,” he said.
But it’s not all bad. Mansour’s decree last Thursday that sexual harassment would be a crime punishable by up to five years in prison has drawn widespread support. There would also be fines of up to $750. Instances of sexual harassment have increased dramatically in recent years, initially in the early days of the January 25 revolution, when police left their posts and stayed home in fear of their lives.
And last year a joint report by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, Egypt’s Demographic Center and the National Planning Institute found that more than 99% of hundreds of women surveyed in seven of Egypt’s 27 provinces reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, ranging from minor harassment to rape. A 19-year old student was sexually assaulted at Sisi’s inauguration celebrations in Tahrir Square. Seven men between the ages of 15 and 49 were arrested yesterday morning in connection with the crime yesterday morning.
Whatever the former army chief and Field Marshal achieves, we will never learn the ins and outs of the military juggernaut, as their budget, disclosure or transparency was a no-go area under the country’s new constitution.
As Sisi said Sunday night: “Allow me to praise, without bias, the national role of our armed forces. History will honor our armed forces’ great patriotic role in preserving the nation and keeping the people united.”